Day 2: Bryce Canyon
*Located less than 90 minutes north of Zion National Park is much less visited Bryce Canyon National Park. Though less epic in scale than Zion, it is photogenically AT LEAST as pleasing and a worthy place to to visit all by itself. If you are visiting Zion anyway and have time, making the drive up to Bryce is a no-brainer.
We had precious few days to spend in southern Utah and I wanted at least one of them to be spent roaming about. I LOVE to drive the wide open spaces of the west. There is nothing that calls to the exploring heart like a big blank spot on a map…even one that is traversed by highways.
The destination that recommends itself most obviously is ‘nearby’ Bryce Canyon. If you can call 72 miles and about as many driving minutes ‘nearby’, that is…which, in the vast reaches of the trans-Rockies, you could.
Bryce canyon sites at a MUCH higher elevation than Zion does (or the Grand canyon, for that matter.) At between eight and nine thousand feet, it teeters upon the zone where hikers have to start taking altitude into consideration. It is colder and more remote than Zion, and thus receives less than half the visitation (though it is still a popular park.)
The experience of Bryce is different in many ways, as we well knew at the time, but we wished to experience this for ourselves. We filled the tank with gas and set out, up and over the great rocky hump of Zion Canyon’s flank, picking up Route 89, the famed National Park highway, to go find out what makes yonder hole in the ground worthy of National Park-hood.
The drive along 89 is is itself very interesting and includes a passage through Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest…its famed road arch adorns many a Rand MacNally Road Atlas. There is a bike path by this road but it was half covered with snow this time of year. (Yes, it snows in the high desert.)
I had been down this road once before during a trip to the Grand Canyon and had seen desert bighorn sheep from the car last time I was here, and so had my eye out for them. But I did not see any.
What I did see was a gigantic Golden Eagle feasting on road kill right in the middle of the highway. Seeing it hopping briskly (but unhurriedly) out of the way, I was for a moment confused by what I was seeing. I thought it was some sort strange feral kangaroo that had been released but into the wild. Only when the car zipped past at 75 MPH and I looked the bird right in the eye…from just six feet away…did I realize what I was looking at. (Sorry, no pictures folks. By the time I realized what it was, it was already a mile behind.)
When we arrived at the Bryce Visitors Center it was snowing. Again, situated at higher elevation than Zion, Bryce gets a very copious amount of snow in the winter despite its desert location. When we drove to the highest road-reachable point in the park later in the day, there were two foot drifts by the roadside.
In Zion, one enters into a gigantic crack in the Earth. Bryce is more like gazing down into a massive bowl filled with rock hoodoos. These formations are legion and some are incredibly grotesque in their shapes, resembling animals, birds, even human beings. There is one named after Queen Victoria. The place looks like a massive stadium full of rock spectators, who have simply frozen in place for a eternity or so but might, at any time, get up and begin to walk again.
In point of fact, Bryce is not really a canyon at all. It is technically a series of rock amphitheaters carved by erosion resulting from natural precipitation runoff, not a river. Nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument is another example of this Phenomenon.
After a brief stop at the visitor center (where I bought a hat which you may see appear in many other pictures of our trips), we set off to explore the canyon. We chose a hybrid of the Navajo/Queens Garden loop, a hike that would take us down into the canyon and back up in just a few hours.
It was quite cold when we started and so we were fully layered up. The trail passes VERY close to some interesting hoodoos. You should NOT touch these things, folks…the formations are very delicate, in fact they practically crumble at the touch. Bryce Canyon is a place in transition…landscape in slow but inexorable motion from one place to another. A place that will somebody (many lifetimes hence) be gone. Let us not hasten its departure…save some cool stuff for the generations to come.
Hoodoo ya love!
The rock strata known as the Claron formation, part of the Grand Staircase, gives the rock its peculiar red hue and a consistency perfect for hoodoo-making.
One of the formations right off the trail is perhaps the most famous in Bryce…Thor’s Hammer.
The trails twists, winds and loops down around a number of turns and bends and soon becomes lost amongst the slot canyons. This picture gives you a pretty good impression of these weird interior sections…which are the real attraction of the Southwest, in my opinion. A lot of places have panoramic views, but very few of places reveal such a multitude of amazing details upon closer examination like the Southwest. Unexpected things just keep revealing themselves, and you don’t get that anywhere else I know. Bryce is a strange and spooky, yet oddly intimate place. There are many, many like it in the Southwest.
Alas, while the picture is cool, the group of idiots visible in the background kept whistling out show tunes as they descended, as if the place needed a soundtrack. First the seven dwarves “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” bit and then, astonishingly, the Colonel Bogey March…magical. And then Sylvia wonders why I try to avoid people.
After numerous twists and turns, we reached the canyon bottom. There was a dry creek bed here but no river. The day had cleared and we had shed a good bit of elevation so we began to warm up, and shed most of our layers, too.
The fascinating Queen’s Garden Trail takes you right up close and straight on through) some of the most fascinating red rock country I have seen. The only trail anywhere I can compare it to (which maybe even surpasses it) is the Fiery Furnace in Arches NP. Or perhaps Antelope Canyon.
On the way back up the sun broke out from the clouds and provided some fantastic shots of the red rock partly covered in snow. That’s the ‘ice on fire’ effect that every photographer dreams of. I saw this elusive splendor but once before in a remarkable drive across Utah during a snowstorm. Without warning, here it was again!
While huffing and puffing our way up and out we also spied yet another bird I had been keen to see…a Clark’s Nuthatch.
Once back on the rim we snapped some more pictures of the now much less cloud-obscured vista (there was no sign of the earlier flurries) and walked the easy mile or so back to our car. It had been a trip very much worth it just for this hike alone.
But we weren’t through! We took a drive down (or more correctly, up) the park road to several more and higher viewpoints. Including this one…
There are trails down into these bowls too and we could see people moving about down there, tiny as ants. And this odd natural bridge, one of the few large complete arches in the park…
There was a lot of snow up in the high country.
On the way back we stopped for a meal at Historic, popular Ruby’s Inn near the park entrance. It’s somewhat of a tourist trap, but gosh, I had a GREAT beef stew here. I mean, fantastic. Maybe it was all the walking that made me hungry, but I’d definitely recommend it.
…It was a great day, and an even more fitting end to a great day would have been to see some desert bighorn sheep by the road on the way back. Alas, we didn’t see any…
But Bryce Canyon is definitely a place worthy of visiting. We would strongly recommend making the hour and a half drive up from Zion at any time of year (check the park website for seasonal closures, though. And always be aware of the weather forecast. Remember, Bryce gets a LOT worse weather than Zion.)
It’s certainly not just another hole in the ground. In fact it’s a bowl full of wonders.
Next…Observation (exclamation) Point