Upper Lake Mary—on a cold winter’s day

 

Cold temperatures and a lack of snow brings a sheet of polished—and fissured—ice to the lake
Cold temperatures and a lack of snow brings a sheet of polished—and fissured—ice to the lake

With a series of Pacific storms forecast to move across the area this week, this scene will soon be buried under several feet of snow.

Winter has arrived in West Fork Oak Creek Canyon

After a pair of back-to-back snow storms followed by sub-zero (°F) overnight temperatures we decided it was time to visit West Fork Oak Creek Canyon and see how the ice was developing.

As anyone who has hiked in this canyon knows, the trail crosses the creek more than a dozen times before the end of the maintained trail. In the summer it’s a simple matter of either stepping on the stones or just walking in the water. Getting wet is not an option in the winter leaving the stepping stones or walking on the ice if it is safe.

Most of the crossings we encountered had a mixture of stones and thick ice and we had no trouble crossing the stream. For additional traction we were using our Kahtoola microspikes.

Icy walk along West Fork Oak Creek.
Icy walk along West Fork Oak Creek.

The very cold temperatures and patches of open water resulted in surface hoar (i.e., fern-like ice crystals directly deposited on snow, ice or already frozen surfaces) developing and creating some interesting textures.

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Twilight lightning over the Grand Canyon

I never tire of traveling to Grand Canyon in hopes of capturing some amazing photographs of rainbows, thunderstorms, or lightning. Here are a few recent images showing how inspiring the weather can be at Grand Canyon.

Twilight lightning near Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning near Grand Canyon.

Storms had quickly weakened and dissipated during the late afternoon and I was about to pack my gear and head home when a small thunderstorm began to develop north of Grand Canyon. As the sun dropped below the horizon leaving only the upper portions of the storm bathed in soft light this lightning bolt sparked from the anvil region and moved through clear air before striking the Vermillion cliffs in the distance.

Another day brought numerous showers moving across the canyon…

Rain showers sweeping across Grand Canyon.
Rain showers sweeping across Grand Canyon.

…with a few lightning strikes in the canyon.

Lightning strikes in Grand Canyon.
Lightning strikes in Grand Canyon.

Then, to finish the day, there was this partial rainbow with supernumeraries.

Partial rainbow with supernumerary.
Partial rainbow with supernumerary.

Understandably, some visitors may be unhappy with the less-than-perfect weather during their visit to Grand Canyon but I couldn’t be happier.

Walking Through Zion Narrows

Zion Narrows: It’s a trip we have thought about for several years. So when a friend indicated she wanted to do the Narrows this spring, we agreed to join her and plan a trip.

There are two different ways to hike Zion Narrows. The easiest and the one done by probably 99%+ of visitors to Zion National Park is to walk upstream from the Temple of Sinawava—the last stop on the summer shuttle bus. The other is much harder and is a full-day commitment. It requires a long drive to the upper end of the canyon followed by a 16-mile hike down through the canyon. Wading through water is required most of the way—and a few swims are also possible.

The full-day trip requires a permit. We decided that early June would be the best time because water levels have diminished from the high water of spring, water temperatures have slowly increased, days are long and hot, and the summer thunderstorm season has not started. This last point is an important one because this is not a good place to be if it begins to rain hard. Flash floods are possible and there are sections of the walk where no high ground is possible.

So we obtained a reservation for our permit—to be picked up the day before the hike.

But something strange happened to the weather this spring. Instead of the normally hot and dry months of May and June, we had rain and cool temperatures. And then there were the unseasonably strong and early hurricanes in the eastern Pacific this year. Hurricane Blanca, in particular, caused problems because it sent a substantial surge of tropical moisture northward. So what should have been a warm and dry June became a cool and wet June.
A Flash Flood Watch was issued for several days across southwestern Utah because conditions suggested that floods were possible. We declined the permit. Instead, we went hiking and did the Observation Point Trail.

The many switchbacks of Observation Point Trail.
The many switchbacks of Observation Point Trail.
Looking down on Angels Landing from Observation Point.
Looking down on Angels Landing from Observation Point.
Near the top of Observation Point.
Near the top of Observation Point.
Slot canyon along the Observation Point Trail.
Slot canyon along the Observation Point Trail.

The next day, we decided to do the out-and-back version of Zion Narrows since this required far less time and commitment and provided some safety escape routes. At the beginning of the trail the Park Service had posted a sign indicating that a Flash Flood Watch was in effect and that flooding was possible. This didn’t seem to deter the folks intent on hiking up the river. I wonder how many of these visitors actually understood the situation? I certainly did. We would minimize the risk by starting and ending early before thunderstorms developed and we would minimize how far upstream we would travel so that we could stay in the wider and—hopefully—safer stretches of the canyon.

The beginning of the Zion river walk.
The beginning of the Zion river walk.
The walls close in on the river...
The walls close in on the river…
...and a small rock and sand beach appears alongside the river.
…and a small rock and sand beach appears alongside the river.
Deeper into the canyon...
Deeper into the canyon…

And so we set off under mostly sunny skies and warm temperatures. The water was cool but we had brought along neoprene socks and these did a fine job keeping our feet warm. After a few miles, we reached Orderville Canyon, a fine side canyon to explore. The water was shallower here with far less current making for easier travel. Until, that is, we reached some of the deep pools that required some swimming. So—we swam. Not too much farther upstream we were blocked from easy travel. We might have been able to bypass the rocks and logs at this point but with the weather situation looming we were content to let this be our turn-around point.

The beginning stretch of Orderville Canyon.
The beginning stretch of Orderville Canyon.
Around this bend was our first deep water and swim.
Around this bend was our first deep water and swim.
The return trip down Orderville Canyon.
The return trip down Orderville Canyon.

And, sure enough, on the way back, it began to rain. Not much, not long, but enough to be glad we were heading back downstream.

Flood gage for the Paria River.
Flood gage for the Paria River.

Oh, one more thing. While no flash floods occurred in Zion National Park that day, a large flash flood did occur not too far away along the Paria River, another popular canyon hike. Water levels rose from 8 cubic feet per second (cfs) to over 1000 cfs in less than an hour.

The Big Fog

Widespread, dense fog covered portions of northern Arizona for more than a week in early December. The fog appeared at Winslow, Arizona (KINW), during the evening of December 3 and finally dissipated on the afternoon of December 12. Similar conditions were experienced in Flagstaff, Arizona (KFLG), with fog appearing on the afternoon of December 4 and finally dissipating in the evening of December 10. For some locations, including Flagstaff, the fog was episodic with periods of dense fog interspersed with clear conditions. Farther to the northeast, including places such as Winslow and the Chinle Valley, the fog was more persistent.

A sea of fog across northern Arizona at sunrise.
A sea of fog across northern Arizona at sunrise.

The fog was the result of a heavy rainfall event across northern Arizona December 2–4. Many locations received between 1 and 2 inches of rain. Following the rain, high pressure developed across the southwest and a strong thermal inversion developed. The inversion was finally removed when a trough moved across the region bringing strong southwest winds and steeper lapse rates.

Visible satellite image showing extensive areas of fog across northern Arizona.
Visible satellite image showing extensive areas of fog across northern Arizona.

It should be noted that thermal inversions are not rare. Quite the contrary. An inversion commonly occurs at night and during the winter when the angle of the sun is very low in the sky. After last years fog event in the Grand Canyon, some in the media declared that thermal inversions are rare and that the inversion was the cause of the fog. Not really. Both then and now the moisture evaporated out of the soils but was trapped near the ground by the inversion. And, slowly but surely, the moisture content of the lowest few hundred meters of the atmosphere became saturated and fog developed.

Well—enough of the meteorological explanation. What did it look like (video)?

When these shallow fog events occur it is possible to find hills and mountains that are above the inversion so that an observer can look down on the fog. This often results in some amazing photographic opportunities. Anticipating that the fog would occur, I was ready to travel to the Grand Canyon to capture images of the fog filling the canyon. Well, it didn’t quite fill the canyon—at least, not like last year. But there were still photographic opportunities.

I also found myself on the lower slopes of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff and was able to capture images and video of the fog streaming across the pass between the San Francisco Peaks and O’Leary Peak as well as the sea of fog across the Little Colorado River Valley.