Greatest Snow On Earth: Part 1

On a Tuesday in November, I was at work when Vikram messaged me about a possible Utah trip at the end of the year. Since my ex-roommates from Rochester, NY were coming over for four days and leaving on Christmas, I was not too sure about the trip. But things worked out and we asserted our commitment by purchasing air tickets to Salt Lake City.

I had thought of writing a travelogue right after my ten-day Europe trip in June of last year. Somehow it never happened. In September, I had a chance to visit London and Oxford. This time I was surely going to do it! But moving to, and settling down in a new place made me forget about it. So I was determined to write about the upcoming trip. Moreover, my ex-roommate Vikram (not the one who told me about the trip) wrote an amazing travelogue about his experiences in San Diego. That was enough inspiration to begin writing.


The title-inspiring license plate. Is it really the greatest snow on earth? Could be!

The five-day trip resulted in a sizable travelogue and so I thought it would be best to reduce the wall of text in each post by breaking it down into parts. Also, that would allow me to post ‘new’ content in some time and hopefully have Facebook’s News Feed algorithm put it in front of your eyes! 😛 Feedback and comments will be appreciated at a legendary level! You can also let me know if you don’t like this piece of writing and the intensity of your feelings as well – ‘had to punch the screen’, ‘searching for author’s address’ etc. I might not publish the subsequent parts … Nah I’m kidding, I am going to do it anyways!

Anyways, here we go. All the pictures (except for the Google-searched image above) are taken by Vikram, Saurabh or myself. Panoramas are clicked by my Nexus 5. “When three out of four people are taking their cameras along, why should I bother?” – Madhavi.

Day 1 – 27th December, 2013

San Diego, CA

As the afternoon heat peaked at two o’clock, I was home from work. The bags were ready by the door. A flurry of phone calls and a quick lunch later, I was waiting for my roommate to swing by. He arrived on time, and after collecting Saurabh on the way, we headed to the airport.

Vikram and Madhavi were coming to the airport in another friend’s car. After saying goodbye to my roommate, Saurabh and I sat on a concrete bench near the departure gate and began chatting. Having met him just a couple of times before, we had quite a lot of things to discuss. Half an hour passed and there was no sign of the rest of our party.

As Saurabh was making his third phone call to Madhavi (I had pitched in with a call as well), we saw them arrive. Men’s grooming seemed to be the topic of the moment as both Saurabh and I had last-minute additions to our common check-in bag. My shaving kit and Saurabh’s giant can of shaving cream. Yes, you could certainly shave a gorilla with that amount of shaving cream!

Madhavi making the last-minute additions. Multiple winter jackets had forced us to take a big check-in bag along.

Madhavi making the last-minute additions. Multiple winter jackets had forced us to take a big check-in bag along.

Regaining our composure after a few fits of laughter, we checked the bag in and went inside the terminal. Post security, we were sort of in the mood for some tea or coffee but only Saurabh was successful in overcoming the potent combination of indecisiveness and laziness, and got himself a bagel.

At the gate, I was made to wait as almost everyone else boarded the plane. My seat had been reassigned to accommodate a young couple with a child. The airline official was having trouble printing a new boarding pass. My absence was quickly noticed and I got a call from Vikram; I didn’t answer it as the printer had finally stared singing its monotonous song.

The two hour flight was uneventful. An early sunset had turned the sky blood red on the eastward flight. I went through quite a few pages of Jeffrey Archer’s Only Time Will Tell. Although as we neared Salt Lake City, my head started hurting a little. Something to do with the cabin pressure most likely. Even Madhavi felt something wasn’t quite normal about the flight.

Salt Lake City, UT

Skis, snow boards and oversize baggage everywhere! It was 9:40 PM. Grabbing our bags, we waited for a couple of minutes before heading out towards a rather prompt taxi. Stepping outside, I was immediately nostalgic. Chill winds, and vapor coming out of my mouth as I speak, can take me to Rochester, NY (RIT alum; Go Tigers!) from anywhere in the world.

Dense fog greeted us as we moved out of the airport area. While it wasn’t snowing at the time, the slightly muddy snow on the sidewalk suggested it had snowed a few days ago. The SpringHill Suits Marriot was located close to SLC downtown. Close by car, of course. Shivering, we entered the hotel, checked into our room and walked out in our winter jackets. There was an Indian restaurant by the name of Copper Bowl nearby, that was selected (after an intense discussion) for dinner.

As Saurabh had lived in Utah for two years during his Masters, it was a homecoming of sorts for him. And also the reason we were able to plan the finer details of the trip.

Copper Bowl turned out to be a good restaurant save for the overzealous waiter who thought our Indian looks gave them the license to add a copious amount of chili powder to the noodles! Madhavi had tears in her eyes. But not the kind that go with five-star reviews on Yelp.

Day 2 – 28th December, 2013

Salt Lake City, UT

Rising early, we could see the snow outside in the bleak early morning light. Our objective was to reach Arches National Park as early as possible to make the most of the winter daylight. After getting ready and being dropped off at the Budget rental location, we were in for a not-so-pleasant surprise. The empty parking lot was an ominous sign. Our fears were quickly confirmed when we were told that ‘reserved’ meant ‘you’ll get it today’ and not ‘we’re holding it for you’. Since the holiday season was in full swing, cars returned at the airport were being brought to the location and dispatched promptly. We waited for an hour; the wait punctuated by a quick trip to McDonalds on the other side of the road, for coffee.

But the wait turned out to be worth it. We were given a blue Jeep Cherokee SUV. It was the latest model, having all sorts of features. My favorite was the one that prompted the driver to turn on heated seats as soon as they started the car. And the heated steering wheel as well; clearly, we had a great winter car. While signing for it, we were told that only two people could drive the car. As Vikram was renting it and Saurabh was the ‘local boy’, they signed up.

As we started making our way out of SLC to get into the mountains, we got a good feel for our surroundings. While the fog made it difficult to get a clear view, we could see the mountains surrounding us on three sides. I’m certain this geographic arrangement is quite unique, especially for a city of this size. We started on the I-15 freeway south. The same I-15 that runs through San Diego!

A gas station stop on the way to Moab.

A gas station stop on the way to Moab. L-R: Saurabh, Vikram and Madhavi

Vikram’s driving and Saurabh’s navigation put us in good shape at the start. Madhavi and I were in the back seat, taking pictures and looking around, while listening to Saurabh’s commentary on the locale. DJ duties kept switching back and forth between Saurabh and myself. Superb views greeted us as we started on the mountain slopes. Snow covered hills, cleared railway lines and huge wind farm fans. For some reason, the Jeep had tinted back windows, making photos darker than the environment.

Entering the mountains. The tinted windows resulted in dark pictures from the back seat.

Entering the mountains; near the railway line. The tinted windows resulted in dark pictures from the back seat.

Stopping for a quick restroom break at a gas station, we continued the journey through the mountains. After a while, the terrain flattened out and we were on a plateau of sorts. We saw ice capped mountains on the left side and snow fields that stretched for miles on the right. I have seen snow before. Lots, and lots of it. But an arid region covered in snow has its own beauty. Vegetation was sparse. I don’t recall seeing a single bird or animal along the way. The road was quite narrow; passing wasn’t permitted except on dedicated passing lanes, appearing occasionally for each side.

Arches lies in the southern part of Utah, which has distinct geographical differences compared to Salt Lake City and the northern region. As we drove southwards, the rocks changed from gray-black to dark green, and then to red. Short, spiny shrubs could be seen mingling with larger green plants. A sheer wall of dark green rocks to our left side was quite a sight.

We halted at a gas station again and later at a Subway for lunch. Time was not on our side. The plan for the day was to cover as much of Arches as possible. It would be supplemented by a half-day visit the next day. Again, the sights on our way south were incredible. Bright soil, with shades varying from dark brown to red was covered with shiny white snow, making a truly unique sight. As we were nearing Arches, Saurabh pointed out that Canyonlands National Park was on the right side of the road, a few miles in the south-west direction.

Approachin Arches NP. Notice the different shades of rock on either side of the road.

Approaching Arches. Notice the different shades of rock on either side of the road.

Arches National Park, UT

We reached Arches at three in the afternoon. After a quick visit to the visitors centre, we realized we could manage a couple of major sights before sunset, while stopping along the way from time to time. We started on the winding road that leads into arches from the peripheral red hills. It was a cloudy day. The diffused light, always a photographer’s friend, made the red rocks and soil shine in a beautiful hue. While it was not particularly windy, the chill in the air didn’t allow for open windows.

The first spot we stopped at was at the end of the winding entrance road. There were no more hills to block the view. We were looking at Arches in its full glory for the first time. Of course, not all of its gems were visible. We were immediately in awe of this wonderful landscape, crafted so eloquently by nature over a timespan that stretched beyond comprehension. The park was a red field studded with white snow spots and green grassy spots; tall rocks and arches abruptly ending the monotony at places. We saw an organ-like structure (which is actually called The Organ, if I remember) about half way across our line of sight. To our left was a tall rock, jutting out of the ground in all its red glory without a speck of snow on it.

We took a few pictures. My frozen hands told me that I should either give up on them completely or learn to handle the camera with snow gloves on. As we continued along the park road, we came across The Three Gossips. The sandstone tower had three ‘heads’ at its summit, that were ‘looking’ in the same direction. They appeared to gossip amongst themselves. It was a great sight. We also came upon stubs of great arches that would have existed thousands of years ago.

The Three Gossips

The Three Gossips

Arches is a geologist’s heaven. Saurabh mentioned that one of his roommates at Utah State was a geology major and could go on and on about almost everything in the national park. I could imagine that. Every type of rock formation and arch we were passing by had its own story, hidden but to those who have dedicated their lives in pursuit of that knowledge.

Our next stop was a planned one: Balanced Rock. This magnificent natural wonder was visible for a while, as we approached it. It looked straight out of a Road Runner cartoon; I could visualize Coyote having a rope around it to pull the rock on top of the fastest running bird on television. The forty meter tall, red rock stands vertical on a pedestal-like base rock. A companion rock structure stood behind it. We parked near the trail and walked towards the rock. Pictures were taken. A lot of them. We managed to disturb a photographer, who was deeply engrossed in setting up his telephoto lens on a tripod. He wasn’t too bad with a mobile phone! As we walked around the rock, its appearance changed quite a bit. Becoming more fist-like than an elegant, natural sculpture. Looking south-east, we could see the majestic, snow-capped mountains; providing a gray-white backdrop for the hundreds (if not thousands) of tall, red sandstone rocks.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock. With humans nearby for scale.

Next: Windows arch. Actually, it is a section of the park that has a lot of large, window-like arches. I believe the name comes from the fact that the view through the arches, like the arches themselves, is quite impressive. While the trail to Balanced Rock was a short one, this time we had to walk uphill. The trail was covered in hardened ice sheets, making everyone walk along its edges. As we got closer, it appeared to take the shape of a giant, empty eye socket. Saurabh and Madhavi reached the arch first. I noticed Vikram’s absence and turned around to find him obliging to a group-photo request by three lovely ladies. He joined us below the arch in a ‘short’ while (the pictures had to be perfect!).

The arch was huge!  We sat beneath it for some time. It was just an incredible feeling. The wind, over millions of years, had gone from creating a tiny hole in a wall of sandstone to this magnificent structure. A gust of chilly breeze reminded me that the arches were still being shaped. We had seen quite a few cave-like sandstone structures throughout the park. All of them were arches in their embryonic form. After gazing out the ‘window’ for a while, we moved on to another, smaller arch nearby. The bleak daylight was beginning to fail at a rapid rate. And we still had another milestone to hit before dark.

An arch before the (window) arch.

An arch before the (window) arch.

Double Arch was the next milestone. It is worth mentioning how well-maintained the internal roads, that took us from sight to sight, were. The quarter mile trail to reach this arch was a simple, straight one from the parking lot. The sight is truly magnificent. Two huge arches can be seen connected to each other at one of their base points. From where we were standing, they appeared almost perpendicular to each other, adding to the beauty of the form. The already tall arches were elevated, requiring an explorer to climb to get underneath them. Saurabh and Madhavi started climbing as Vikram and I started taking photos; trying to capture both the arches at the best angles, in the fading light. I was thrilled to take a well-formed, 360-degree panorama picture on my phone that didn’t appear ’stitched’ at any point. Although, it is certainly not the best panorama picture that I clicked on the trip. Check it out below.

As the sun finally managed to escape the clouds over our heads and started shining golden on the horizon, we made our way back to the parking lot. We stopped for a while to look at a fascinating view of the park at sunset.

If only I had a full-frame DSLR with me to capture this wonderful scene. The double arch structure can be seen on the right.

If only I had a full-frame DSLR to capture this wonderful scene. The double arch structure can be seen on the right.

Dusk took over as we started on Arches Scenic drive, back to the park entrance. Saurabh had taken over the driving duty. There was never a better setting to listen to Coldplay’s Fix You. And so we did. Since the night was cloudy, we couldn’t see anything apart from the faint silhouettes of the arches and other rock formations around us. The red park had turned black in a matter of minutes. The drive was a quiet one as everyone was quite tired. Soon, we passed the visitors center headed for the park exit.

Moab, UT

When Saurabh mentioned this town for the first time in San Diego, I thought, for some weird reason, that it was either an acronym or I wasn’t hearing him right. Nevertheless, this quaint little town was going to be our base for a couple of nights. We were also quite eager to see the condo we had booked. Everyone was famished. The discussion to finalize our dinner destination took us all the way from Arches till our condo, and continued.

Moab used to be a mining town. The rich Uranium deposits around it made it prosper in the fifties and sixties. Now, it is a base for tourists like us: visiting Arches and Canyonlands national parks and for other adventure sports enthusiasts, especially mountain bikers and SUV off-roaders. Navigating through its quiet, empty and (often) dark streets, we reached our condo. The street was dark and deserted; there were no street lights nearby. In fact, it was so dark, that unless we were able to get the Jeep’s headlights pointed towards the condos, we couldn’t even read their numbers! Our condo was one amongst a long row of similar ones, which did not help. Finally we were able to locate ours; although Vikram had to get out, walk to it and confirm the number. The temperature that night was minus eight degrees (celsius, of course. Apologies to my American friends). We were pleasantly surprised to see that we had a large garage attached to the condo.

What a place it was! Upon entering we saw a cavernous living room with an attached kitchen and dining room. A large TV was on a mantlepiece in front of an L-shaped couch. In a corner, the top shelf of a cupboard contained Monopoly, Scrabble and other board games; books occupied the lower shelf. The dining table had fancy plates, bowls and cutlery laid out on it. The condo contained a master bedroom and two smaller rooms; two bathrooms, quite large; and a separate laundry room near the entrance. But we were hungry and unfortunately, there was no food in the luxury home. Check out the condo here! Seriously, please do.

After an hour of discussion, we decided on a pizza place nearby called Pasta Jay’s. The pizza was served on a raised platform and was delicious! Although we couldn’t have been the best critics at that time; we devoured it so fast the greasy cheese barely had time to settle. The pasta and the garlic bread did not disappoint either. An hour later, we were on the Main street in Moab, heading towards Walmart. Why would we do that? For milk and cereals, of course! Stopping for breakfast was typically not an option in our sunrise-centric plans. On our way back to the condo, we saw beautiful holiday decorations along the Main street as well as on some of the houses.

Our plan for the next day involved getting up early to catch the sunrise in Canyonlands National Park, and head back to Arches again to see its most well-known landmark. As we were chilling out on the couch, someone pointed out that the next day’s weather forecast was ‘cloudy’. That could be a big blow to our sunrise plans. Multiple weather services were consulted; some of them showed a ‘clear’ day ahead and some of them did not. After a spirited discussion for half an hour, we decided to go ahead with the plan anyways and called it a day.

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed it so far. Part 2 is coming soon here! Again, please feel free to let me know your thoughts 🙂

– Omkar


13 thoughts on “Greatest Snow On Earth: Part 1

  1. Classy introduction. Engrossing writing, especially the punch lines. Photos are amazing by the way. Just felt like being actually there.

  2. Loved the writing Omkar, I could form a picture (while reading) similar to the actual pictures posted which means you’ve done a great job ! 🙂

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