Winter Snow On Desert Landscapes

March 7th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Angular Boulders, Snow Covered Mesa, San Rafael Swell, Utah, 2009 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

A road trip across the Western United States can take many courses. Often when driving from the Denver area to Northern California people travel north on Interstate 25 into Wyoming, then take Interstate 80 west into Utah and Nevada. This route is the fastest by a little over an hour, but it is more developed and goes through flatter, less interesting country than other alternatives. The route I like is direct and nearly as fast, but much more scenic and remote. I take Interstate 70 west from Denver over the Rocky Mountains, down into the Colorado River canyon, through Grand Junction and into Utah’s Canyon Country, past the turnoffs for Moab and Canyonlands National Park, Arches, The Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion National Parks, over the San Rafael Swell, until Interstate 70 meets Interstate 15. To read more about one special trip to some of these destinations see the blog post, “Earth Day Celebration Of Ardis And Philip Hyde And Canyonlands.” I then go south on Interstate 15 a short way to Beaver, Utah, turn west on Utah State Highway 21, go through Milford and into Nevada, onto US Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway in America,” past Great Basin National Park and Wheeler Peak, through Ely, Eureka, Austin, Reno and into California.

Wheeler Peak With Snow Streamer, Great Basin National Park, Nevada, 2010 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

This itinerary takes me on a traverse of one of the world’s most majestic mountain ranges, the Rocky Mountains, climbing to over 11,000 feet at the top of Loveland Pass. It winds through the enchanting headwaters and upper canyons of the Colorado River and the verdant foothill farmland of the Rocky Mountains’ West Slope. From the great heights of the Rockies, Interstate 70 drops all the way to 4,075 feet when it crosses the Green River in Utah. It then rises again to cross the plateaus, canyons, hoodoos, monuments, bluffs, arches and other spectacular formations of the Colorado Plateau of Southern Utah. With all of this breath-taking scenery left behind, many people consider Nevada plain, but Nevada has an elusive beauty of its own with the roller coaster traverse of Basin and Range, mountains and valleys. Nevada is one of the places where the West lives up to its reputation for wide open spaces. With up to 80-mile straightaways, Highway 50 crosses huge dried up prehistoric glacial Pleistocene lake beds, sometimes still in the form of mud flats, sometimes sprinkled with sage, sometimes lush with grasslands and ranches. Then the “Loneliest Highway In America” roller coaster ride makes a few turns and rises over mountain ranges between the giant valleys. Each mountain range sequesters its own secret old mines, ghost towns, rugged canyons, forests, mountain meadows, rushing streams, snow-capped peaks, small settlements, ranches and mineral deposits. US Highway 50 is a road tripper’s dream, but its beauty is somewhat hidden and subtle, it does not blare at the traveler, but whispers like the ghosts lurking on its dusty side roads.

Juniper Tree Skeleton Along US Highway 50, Nevada, 2010 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

In the winter any route from Colorado to Northern California is susceptible to sudden storms, icy roads, blizzards, bitter below zero daytime high temperatures, heavy snows and snow drifts. Driving is risky with few guard rails on the steep, winding, approaches to the passes over the many mountain ranges that run north-south and all but block passage to the unprepared traveler. Any venture through this near wilderness, must not be taken lightly in the winter season and must be planned around the weather. Such adventures must be well-timed to avoid heavy winter storms that pass from West to East across the open expanses and often leave unwary motorists stranded for days in their vehicles waiting for assistance that may never come, or at the least may come too late.

So far I have been fortunate most of the time to have good traveling days even in the winter, with only minor snow or rain showers while on the road. One time I drove in horizontal snow with up to five inches on the pavement, not able to see far beyond the front of the hood, just trying to limp to the next town with a motel. In mid November 2010, a low pressure system hit the Western states. This storm system produced heavy snows and temperatures as low as -15 degrees Fahrenheit in mountain towns in Northern California and in Boulder, Colorado, as well as -25 degree weather on the Colorado Plateau in Utah. The roads were treacherous enough to question making any kind of journey at all, but according to the Doppler radar a window of opportunity opened up where it looked as though I could leave Boulder, Colorado and make it over Loveland Pass, out of the Rocky Mountains and down into lower terrain in Utah before the next major rack of clouds and snow hit. Sure enough I made it over the Rockies and into Utah by evening sailing clear. I imagined that I would drive as far as I could before the storm hit, find a good place to stop and wait out the system’s passing over night.

Dried Desert Flowers In The Snow, Along US Highway 50, Nevada, 2010 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

As I breezed through Green River, Utah the sky was still completely clear and full of bright stars and moonlight. From Green River it is about 104 wide open empty miles to the next town of any kind, Salina, Utah. About half-way to Salina the wind started to blow much harder and clouds began to dot the sky. Within another 10 miles tiny flakes of snow mixed in with the high winds. I was still about 40 miles from Salina. As I drove directly into the storm, the snow fell heavier and heavier. Soon it was piling up on the pavement. Fortunately, I was in my truck, which is four-wheel-drive and good at negotiating snow, unless the roads are also icy due to cold temperatures as was the case that night. By this time I was about 30 miles from civilization in Salina, the snow had become very heavy and the road was obliterated beyond recognition, even though Interstate 70 is a four lane freeway in that area. I thought about stopping, but decided I would press on because I didn’t want to get buried in snow on the side of the road. Needless to say, the last 25 miles were very slow and half the time I was merely hoping I was mostly on the road. Apparently the locals and other travelers had turned off for the night and retreated from the storm. I was nearly alone on the Interstate. Then far ahead I spotted a lone big rig truck plowing its way through the mess. I drove up behind and used the big truck’s taillights as a guide, hoping that his sense of the road would prove accurate. This went on for what seemed like hours and then we came up on a snow plow. The truck and I had been going about 10 miles an hour, but the snow plow was going about five miles an hour. The last 12 miles took 2 1/2 hours. I have never been more happy to see a freeway off ramp than that night in Salina. As I slowed even more to nose down the off ramp, my truck began to slide to one side. Fortunately I was able to correct and stay on what was left of the off ramp. I fish-tailed to the right, across and up what looked like the driveway to a local motel. The cheesy, low-budget room with internet access, color TV, half-broken wooden veneer furniture and musty bedding seemed like the coziest room I had ever slept in.

Rabbit Tracks And Shadows Along US Highway 50, Nevada, 2010 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

Morning came quickly as I had arrived late and hit the hay around 2:00 am. I dragged myself to the 1970s era window curtain, pulled it open and beheld a new world. There was about six inches of new snow, but the skies were blue. I waited until around 9:30 am to get rolling, hoping that by then the snow plows would have made a few passes. Once I made it onto the freeway, both lanes were clear and the slow lane was even half dry. I didn’t loose any time as I drove off down the Interstate at near normal travel speed. Driving late into the night was now taking its toll on my body, but my persistence paid off as I had smooth sailing nearly all day except some snow patches on the road on the high passes and some slow-going around Ely, Nevada where there was still a lot of snow on US Highway 50. The real payoff came in the form of the gorgeous scenery freshly covered with new snow. I was on a deadline and couldn’t stop too often, but I did allow myself to stop for as many photographs as I possibly could dare. I made it to my meeting late, but it was quite a day photographing along the “Loneliest Highway in America,” well worth driving one evening in a blizzard and risking getting stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the high desert in the snow.



  1. I enjoyed reading this, David. I’ve never made a trip like that in heavy snow but I have in heavy rain northwest of Ft. Worth. I couldn’t stop – I didn’t want someone who thought I was on the road to hit me and and I could see only a few feet in front of me.

    You got some nice photographs of fresh snow. I really like the last with the rabbit tracks and the grass/brush shadows. Very well done, David.

    I mostly shoot in landscape orientation and occasionally will shoot a vertically oriented shot. Other photographers I see are just the opposite. It was interesting for me to look at this set of yours and consider your point of view.


  2. Hi Sharon, I appreciate your feedback. A compliment coming from you has meaning to me. Now I’m glad I included the Rabbit Tracks photograph. It almost didn’t make this blog post. Believe it or not, I too mainly photograph in landscape orientation. I didn’t realize until after I added the photographs to this blog post that they were all verticals.

  3. pj says:

    Sounds like it was quite a trip. I’ve been caught in a few of those winter howlers in eastern Montana and the Dakotas. They’re not easily forgotten, and I enjoyed reading your account of this one.

    Love the photos too David. Very good work.

  4. I appreciate your participation, PJ. Indeed, that sort of winter storm is good for us humans. It reminds us how powerless we are in the face of nature.

  5. Derrick says:

    Angular boulders is quite good if you ask me…. I like it a lot!

    And I’m happy to see you breaking at least one of the “rules” of photography by shooting into the sun rather than setting it at your back on the two in the middle – and you did it quite nicely as well!

    All around good stuff, so glad to see some of your own work here from time to time.

  6. Thanks, Derrick. Some of Dad’s best photographs are great because they are backlit. Backlighting is one of the keys to quality landscape photography. Whoever said photographing with the sun behind the camera is a rule of photography shows you just how misguided people are who make up, write down and teach by rules, guidelines, pointers or lists of any kind. Learning to see has nothing to do with all of that rot.

  7. Greg Russell says:

    I too really like these images, David. The first one, from the San Rafael Swell really brings me into the scene, and I can imagine trying to find a dry place to sit as I soak up the afternoon sun. The rabbits tracks make a great abstract image.

    Having lived in the Rocky Mountain West, and now in southern California, I realize how much the lives of people in the west are governed by the weather. Living down here now, I don’t think a thing about planning a trip, often completely disregarding the weather. However, when I lived in Wyoming, the story was different. A sleeping bag had a permanent place in my Subaru station wagon, because honestly I never knew if I’d get stuck in an unexpected snow storm. I always wondered why my grandmother, who spent her whole life in Wyoming and North Dakota, focused on the weather, but its because it has always had such an integral role in her life. In the winter, it ruled travel plans, and in the summer it could make or break a crop.

    What a tenuous line to walk.

    This is a really great post…thanks for sharing the images and the virtual tour.

  8. Hi Greg, thank you for your stories about weather. People often make fun of talking about it. I sometimes say that I take pride in not being influenced by the weather, but I still am more often than I like to admit. Being aware of and working with the weather can be a matter of life and death, especially in the winter in some places including the high desert and many of the mountainous Western states, as you eloquently point out.

  9. Dear David,
    exquisite views of an amazing landscape! Your father, I think, would like these photographs. Best wishes from the other side of the earth, Peter-Cornell

  10. Hi David, here I am again. First I only looked at the charming photographs of a desert dressed in a beautiful white robe. Now, having enjoyed your text I must thank you for guiding me with your words through that wonderful country I have never seen, but I hope to visit someday.
    Thank you,

  11. Hi Peter-Cornell, very glad to hear from you on this forum. I have missed you and am glad you are back. Please look me up when you do get a chance to visit the Western U.S. Did you notice? I hope you don’t mind, I put a link to your site under “Fine Photographers” under my “Blogroll” on Landscape Photography Blogger’s sidebar.

  12. N Presser says:

    Hi David, I appreciate the time you took to write & post your photos of your travels. I especially enjoyed your simile at the end of the 2nd paragraph. The last 3 photos really helped me feel the desolate beauty of the fresh fallen snow. I’ve always appreciated the beauty of the desert. Some see it as barren, I’ve always relished the colors, and shapes of its landscape. Although most of my car travels are not in the dead of winter, I can definitely relate your story to many of the adventures on the open water crossing the 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island in all types of weather conditions. Ask me about the hurricane crossing one time.

  13. Another well written post and images. It sure did stir up memories of past trips for me and stirs up the desire to venture off on more. Since I live in Fort Collins, I have also driven west up through the Poudre Canyon and into Vernal, Utah. I enjoyed that route also.

  14. Nancy, I appreciate you commenting here as there probably aren’t too many Yoga or Tai Chi students reading my blog that might visit your website. Nonetheless, my readers may find your work interesting. I look forward to hearing your stories about crossings to the Catalina Islands. I grew up sailing and know how adventurous and often downright dangerous it can be even just on lakes, let alone on the Pacific Ocean. Lake Almanor can often get three to four foot waves on the East Shore, which can swamp and sink a small boat like a Sabot or an International 14 in no time.

    Monte, you’ve said you are a regular reader here, but as you don’t comment as often, I especially appreciate this one. In reading your blog posts, I understood you had moved to Colorado, but I must have missed the blog post in which you said you had moved to Fort Collins. WELCOME! I’m in California right now, but we’ll have to get together when I get back to Colorado. I don’t know if you like to photograph with others, but we ought to go photographing in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Rocky Mountain National Park or wherever. I know some good places for street photography and for landscape photography. I am also eager to find new ones. When you drove to Vernal, Utah, did you travel on into Dinosaur National Monument?

  15. Thank you so much, dear David, it is really an honor to be allowed to find myself sitting between these excellent photographers!
    Best wishes to you all,

  16. Hi Peter-Cornell, it is an honor and interest for us and them to be joined by a landscape photographer like yourself from another part of the world with a different perspective of nature and photography.

  17. No, I did not get a chance to go up there but it’s on the list.

  18. Dinosaur National Monument is one of those places that is challenging to photograph, at least from the main roads. The best scenery is only accessible by 4X4 vehicle, well off the beaten path. Echo Park is accessible by regular car, but it is a fairly long drive on dirt roads. Echo Park is also a tricky place to escape from when it rains and the road turns into the West’s famous desert axle grease. The best landscape photographs of Dinosaur I have seen from recent times were photographed from boats on the Yampa River or Green River. River rafting is the best way to see the most interesting and dramatic scenery of the river canyons. Nonetheless, even what you can see from pavement has a powerful, haunting quality that is unlike any other land on Earth. Dinosaur is an empty, lonely windswept national monument. It is well worth seeing even if you only have an extra day or two.

  19. Mark says:

    I would have to say that desert images with snow, and desert images with wildflowers are both more memorable to me because they challenge our preconceptions of deserts being lifeless and barren. I sympathize with anyone having to travel through some of the storms you describe.

    I particuarly like the long, reaching shadows of your Juniper tree shot here.

  20. Thank you, Mark. My team and I nearly chose Dad’s landscape photograph in Joshua Tree National Monument of snow on Joshua Trees for this year’s new release for that very reason. It seems almost counter-intuitive to see snow on Joshua Trees, or any other desert plants or land formations. It also seems much smarter to be swimming around in the tropics making underwater photographs as you do once in a while during the winter, rather than plunging through snow drifts using my poor truck as a submarine as I have. I suppose I will make a different choice some snowy winter. In the meantime either adventure makes a good story later.

  21. Juniper Tree photo is my favorite as well -= the long shadows really create a sense of depth, as well as conveying the idea that these trees have seen much more than we have and belong in this environment. Great story which reminds me of many a late night drive in a snow storm just hoping to get to my exit, and safety asap. Thanks for sharing David.

  22. Thank you, Robert. I am grateful for your feedback.

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