By DAN WHOBREY
As a self-inflicted birthday gift, I traveled to the photo-friendly environs of Moab, Utah, during the last week of January. As the town's promotional website aptly puts it, "Moab will surround you with the warmth and hospitality of a small resort town at the center of some of the most stunning red rock landscapes on Earth."
Just a red stone's throw north of Moab is Arches National Park, which is said to contain the largest concentration of significant sandstone arches in the world. A scenic 40-minute drive west of Moab will take you to Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park.
If you don't mind temperatures in the mid- to upper 30s, late January is a good time to go. The town and the parks are practically empty, and everything is dirt cheap. I flew from Chicago to Denver (a five- or six-hour drive from Moab) for a round-trip price of $124. The rental car for the week was $107. A warm and hospitable Archway Inn, on the northern edge of Moab, costs $39 a night. Staying at this hotel will cost $169 and up between March and October.
A park ranger at Arches told me that about 100 people a day stop at the visitor center this time of year; during the summer and peak times, it's up to 10,000 visitors daily.
So from a photographic point of view, this was an ideal time of year, with lower sun angles for dramatic light, a little snow on the ground for contrast amid all that sandstone and few tourists in my viewfinder.
But in all fairness, people do add scale and perspective to all that grand scenery. And as every traveler knows, the journey is enriched by the cast of characters you meet along the way. With so few people in the parks, you tend to see and chat with the same people on trails and pullouts.
Arches features an 18-mile scenic drive. Many of the major landmarks are within an easy walk of parking spots on this road. The most iconic arch in the park is the one on Utah's license plates: Delicate Arch.
The 1.5-mile hike to Delicate is along a well-defined trail and an expanse of cairn-marked slickrock. But the last 200 yards, often along a steep drop-off, was snow-packed, slippery and single-file narrow. Being at Delicate Arch at sunset is a pilgrimage that is worth the slight risk you take getting there.
The second-most-photographed arch in Utah is Mesa Arch in the vast Canyonlands Park. You may have seen this one — at sunrise the light reflects off the underside of the arch, which frames a view of the canyon below. Canyonlands has 20 miles of paved roads as well, but it is known as more of a backpacker's park.
Nearby is the oddly named Dead Horse Point State Park. It offers impressive Grand Canyon-like views of sculpted pinnacles and buttes.
When I arrived back in Chicago at the end of the week, temperatures had dipped into the teens. The sunny days among the sandstone didn't seem chilly at all.
Dan Whobrey is a Savoy resident.