Hovenweep Castle may have been an ancient observatory with markers for both summer and winter solstice, as well as the spring and fall equinox. [Courtesy National Park Service]

Even though the tourists may be few, national parks are still open 24 hours a day.

This time of year may be the one chance for Moab residents to have a solitary hike to familiar features.

Or, with a few days off from school and work, one can travel a little farther to enjoy Hovenweep or Natural Bridges national monuments to the south.

While the parks are open all day, every day, a visit should take a little more planning, as park staffing may be limited during the winter season.

“Winter visitors to the park need to be well equipped with all necessities,” said Mary Wilson, chief of visitor services at both Canyonlands and Arches national parks.

All visitor centers will be closed on Christmas and New Years Day and the winter hours are reduced. The Canyonlands Needles District visitor center will be closed from Dec. 2 to Feb. 17.

“Visitors wishing to stay overnight in the Needles backcountry this winter may obtain their backcountry permits from the park’s Central Reservation Office,” Wilson said. The Central Reservation Office is at park headquarters at 2282 S. West Resource Blvd., which is open from 8 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, except federal holidays.

“Those visitors unable to obtain their permits from the Central Reservation Office are asked to self-register for their backcountry trip on the front porch of the Needles Visitor Center.”

Park and monument visitors should be aware of weather conditions. Though large snowfalls are uncommon, even small amounts of snow or ice can make commonly used trails impassable. Wearing shoes with a strong tread is advised.

The recent snow and upcoming storm may make backcountry travel difficult. There are road advisories in Canyonlands now in effect. Lavender and Salt Creek in the Needles District and Shafer Trail in the Island in the Sky District are now considered impassable. During winter months adverse weather can close the trail in a moment’s notice.

Drivers doing any backcountry travel in Canyonlands are advised to carry at least one full-size spare tire, a shovel, a high-lift jack, plus extra gas and water. Between October and April backcountry drivers are also advised to have chains for all four tires in case of sudden wet and icy weather.

Flint Trail in the Maze District received four to five inches of snow last week. While the trail is still open, chains are highly recommended.

Natural Bridges National Monument is a two and a half hour drive south of Moab and features three distinct natural bridges. A nine-mile scenic drive has overviews of each of the bridges.

An 8.6 mile loop hike passes all three bridges: Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo. Shorter trails are available to view the bridges individually.

Sipapu Bridge is the second largest natural bridge in the world and has a 225-foot span. The only natural bridge that is larger is Rainbow Natural Bridge to the south, near Lake Powell, which has a 234-foot span. “Sipapu” refers to the Hopi portal that souls pass through to the spirit world. The trail to the bridge is steep and has a staircase and three wooden ladders.

Hovenweep is a two and a half hour drive south of Moab to a collection of ruins on the Utah/ Colorado border. The area was once housed over 2500 people and includes six prehistoric villages.

Hovenweep Castle probably functioned as an observatory, and according to archaeologists at the national monument, it contains the essential elements of a complete yearly calendar device.

All four major solar events are commemorated in the one room – winter and summer solstice, as well as spring and fall equinox.

“On and near the winter solstice, the winter solstice port worked exactly like the summer solstice one. As the sun set, a beam of light entered the port and fell on the east corner of the doorway, leading into the D Tower,” wrote Ray Williamson in his book “Living the Sky”.

Williamson noted another marker at the Unit-Type House, where a winter solstice sunbeam falls in the north corner of the interior western wall of the room, next to a small, low wall jutting out from it.

Unfortunately, visitors are restricted from being inside Hovenweep Castle and Unit-Type House, which would prevent them from seeing the solstice or equinox light.

Todd Overbye, lead interpreter at Hovenweep National Monument, said that there are interpretive programs during summer solstice Holly Unit Panel, where a long ray of light falls across a sun symbol on the right, as another ray of light falls across two spirals on the left, about an hour after sunrise. It is a seven-minute light show that begins with the rays of light touching the petroglyphs until both rays of light touch each other.

Hovenweep National Monument

Visitor’s Center Winter Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day

Two and a half-hour drive from Moab south on Hwy 191 then left on Hwy 491

Natural Bridges National Monument

Visitors Center Winter Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day

Two and a half-hour drive from Moab south on Hwy 191, then right on State Route 95 and another right on State Route 275.

Arches National Park

Visitors Center Winter Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day

Fives mile drive north on Hwy 191

Canyonlands National Park

Island in the Sky District

Visitors Center Winter Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day

One-hour drive from Moab. Drive north 10 miles on Hwy 191, turn left at State Route 313 and drive an additional 22 miles.

Needles District

Visitors Center Closed Dec. 1 to Feb. 17

Two-hour drive from Moab. Drive south 40 miles on Hwy 191, turn right on State Route 211 and drive an additional 35 miles.