Of all the times I have camped and explored California by car, the thought of having a National Park to myself was beyond question. Yosemite Valley, Sequoia, or Joshua Tree in the spring and summer months are akin to the crowds you find at Disneyland. But, with the right timing, optimal weather, and preparation, a visit in the dead of winter may be your golden ticket.
Last winter, I needed to drive my car from Nashville to San Diego and was planning on going solo. Two weeks out I asked my friend Michael if he would join, and in a spur of a moment decision, he bought a plane ticket and flew to Nashville. As soon as he arrived, we packed up the Jeep, and made our way west, stopping in Kansas the first night. By day two, we were passing through Denver and staying with friends in the Rockies. After a half day of skiing, we packed up the Jeep again and set off for Southern Utah, a first for the both of us.
Canyonlands at Sunset
The next day was by far the most memorable of the trip. It was around 4 PM, and Michael and I had spent the full day exploring southeastern Utah. We finally made it to Moab Desert, but with little time to spare. We drove into Arches National Park, parked the car and began the hike to Delicate Arch. The sun was already beginning to set as we turned the final bend, and as we set eyes on the arch for the first time, we were completely taken aback.
Michael standing in the foreground
The scene was completely empty, and for me, unexpected; the golden shine of the setting sun and the large Delicate Arch stood amid clouds and a pale blue sky. The arch stood alone, with exception to a few people. This was the moment I realized just how perfect our timing was.
I began walking closer to the arch when I crossed paths with Richard – a retired businessman from London. After a few minutes of chatting about his trip, he told me he was a painter and was traveling the U.S. on his own. I asked if I could see his work, and he hesitantly pulled out a painting he had just completed of the arch. Turns out he was shy, and actually lacked the confidence to pursue his talent. He said he always dreamt of being a painter, but never fully took the leap of faith. Sadly, the film negative was somewhat damaged in processing, but the moment still comes across.
As he began to pack up, I made my way to the arch, where I spotted Michael standing in the distance. We started walking back when we ran into a man named Lohan (the only other person at the Arch). Lohan was from Bulgaria and was en route to Argentina from Alaska. Early in the year Lohan set off on his bicycle with the ultimate goal of riding the entire length of North and South America. The three of us instantly hit it off and began the hike back to our car as the sky went dark.
Lohan, The Bike Wanderer
Lohan hitched a ride with us and we made our way into Moab for dinner at a small Chinese restaurant. At dinner Lohan continued sharing stories from the road – from riding on black ice to pitching a tent in freezing weather. Hearing his stories made me even more grateful having a warm car to run back to.
Lohan, Michael, and I in Moab
After dinner, we said our goodbyes. In reflecting back on the day, Michael and I realized it would have been difficult to find Lohan or Richard amid larger crowds. The emptiness allowed for interactions that otherwise would have been more difficult in a busier season, and the openness also made for more beautiful and natural scenery.
Over a year later, Lohan and I are still in touch. He is currently somewhere in Mexico, with Argentina still in his crosshairs. And wherever Richard is now, I hope he is still painting. As a reminder to myself, and a tip to anyone planning a trip to Southern Utah (or anywhere else for that matter), if you carve out time in the middle of winter, you may just get the park to yourself and even make a few friends along the way.
Author Bio: Full time student, photographer, and musician based in Nashville, TN. Raised on surfing and building various things. Check out his adventures traveling around the world @acaliforniacollection
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