At the end of February, 2018, I went on a trip with a Colorado Mountain Club group led by Joanne Young and Renee Howbert. When I was in Nepal six years ago, I wondered momentarily whether there was anywhere else that was as beautiful, spectacular and magnificent as the Himalayas. I almost immediately had the answer; it would be the desert southwest especially the area from the middle of Utah south to the Grand Canyon. Bryce Canyon is certainly one of the most special places in that southwestern area.
It took us a whole day to ride the bus from Denver to Bryce Canyon. We stopped in Green River, Utah to spend an hour in the John Wesley Powell museum. Powell is famous for his exploration of the Colorado River and particularly his first recorded boat trip through the Grand Canyon. However, he was in fact part of and a leader of the larger effort to create detailed maps of the southwest. Members of the exploration led by George Wheeler provided the first detailed documentation of Bryce Canyon in 1870. Bryce Canyon is named after Ebenezer and Mary Bryce, settlers who grazed cattle and sheep in the canyon and who built a lumber road into the Canyon. Ebenezer's famous comment on the canyon was: “awful hard to find a cow that was lost.”
Our first morning, we left Ruby Lodge at 6:30 am and went to Bryce Point on the rim looking across the canyon to the sunrise. It was overcast but with a narrow gap between the horizon and the clouds so that the sun popped briefly through, brightly illuminating the canyon basin below. Bryce is not actually a two sided canyon but is instead a serious of basins eroded deeply into the eastern side of the high Paunsaugent Plateau which sits atop the Grand Staircase in southern Utah. The sun shone on the vast collection of red hoodoos in the basin below. It was a panorama of light, colors and otherworldly shapes.
After breakfast, we hiked a short distance to Mossy Cave to see the ice formations, including large icicles in the cave and a frozen waterfall. In the afternoon, Renee Howbart led us on a hike on the rim from Fairy Land Point back to Ruby’s Inn. We walked along the rim, looking down into the eroded landscape. We were told by a ranger that the snowfall this year had been fifteen percent of normal but there was still enough snow to contrast with the red and pink hoodoos below us. After walking for a mile and a half, we came to a barbed wire fence and turned west, into the ponderosa forest on top of the plateau, through snow, looking for a gate. We had seen blue diamond ski trail markers on both side of the fence and so hoped there was a connection through the fence. We followed the fence until it turned in front of us at a right angle and decided the whole group had to go through the fence between the top two strands. The Ponderosa forest was beautiful and open. We saw no sign of the mule deer which populate the plateau, nor of the mountain lions who prey on them. It was sunny by the time we arrived at Ruby’s Inn.
After a quick dinner at the lodge, we were out to Sunrise Point for a moonlight hike. We met our ranger guide in the parking lot and went up to a high view point on the rim to watch the sunset. The sunset was behind us so it illuminated the landscape in front of us. Bryce Canyon is known for its “100 mile views” due to its clean air, remote locations, and high altitude. Shortly after sunset, the full moon rose over the distant Table Cliff Plateau and hills beyond the Paria River. The large bright moon lit the snow fields around us so that they glowed as it became dark. In the dark, we could see our prominent moon shadows as we descended down into the dark hoodoos. Our guide talked about the moon, how it was created and how it is essential for life on earth. He told us that Bryce is one of the darkest places on the continent and pointed out the stars and the nebula that comprised the Orion constellation. He talked about the changing geology of the canyon and how the average age of a hoodoo was only 2,000 years. He told us he preferred not to use white lights but instead to allow our eyes to adjust to dark, and we could see almost as well as during the day except in the darker shadows. The moon, almost as bright as a sun, gave the landscape, now colorless, a stark contrast of light and dark. We hiked down into the Queene’s garden and saw the Queen Victoria hoodoo in dark silhouette. He told us to come back when there is no moon shining in order to see the stars and the Milky Way.
The second morning, we went out to Sunrise Point to watch the sunrise. There were no clouds so the red and pink hoodoos glowed above the snow.
After breakfast, we began hiking down into the Canyon around the eight mile Fairyland Trail loop. On the upper part of the descent, we were surrounded by thin walls and fins; below that, we were among the hoodoos of all shapes and sizes. In the bright, morning light, with a scattering of snow, the landscape down in the basin felt so open, so bright and so clean. The formations created varying small microclimates allowing trees of differing types to grow, scattered throughout the canyon. Heavy rains during the summer storms erode the surface especially on the steeper slopes, creating what are technically badlands, flowing down in lines of gullies. The gullies contained snow, creating white stripes on the landscape. The steeper slopes erode too rapidly to allow trees to grow except for a few smaller trees, like the limber pine, struggling to hold on with their prominent roots. As we continued to hike below the rim, it grew warmer in the sun. The trail ran up and down climbing over several ridges. In every, case when we climbed around a bend and summited a ridge, a new inexpressible panorama stopped us in our tracks. We climbed through tunnels and by distinctive hoodoos back to the rim and back to Ruby’s just beyond the northern end of the park.
Late in the afternoon, we rode on the bus to the southern end of the park. The altitude of the park above the canyon rim runs from under 8,000 feet at the northern end to over 9,000 feet at the southern end. So we stopped at the southern end of the road above 9,000 feet to hike the Bristle Cone Loop Trail. We hiked the one mile loop over the snow, under clear blue skies, through a Spruce-Fir forest, with gale force winds. We hiked to high viewpoints were we could see almost 100 miles. Our ranger told us you could see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from one of these locations. We didn’t know enough about what we were seeing to pick out particular places and could only stay a short time on the exposed viewpoints because of the rough, cold wind. We certainly could see for many miles.
Our last day in the National Park, we started again with sunrise at Bryce Point. Since it was a relatively cloudless morning, the light and the hoodoo colors were brighter than on the first morning when it was overcast. However, the colors had been deeper and subtler when it was overcast.
After breakfast, we hiked back into the canyon on the Peek-a-Boo trail loop. There were white, red and pink walls, some enormous in scale, some with windows or tunnels, and then the loop descended into the hoodoos. The hoodoos are formed by the freeze-thaw cycles when ice enters into cracks and freezes and later thaws, often during the course of a day. The hoodoos are composed of various layers of rock of varying composition and hardness. So the layers erode at different rates, creating the unique hoodoo shapes. Often there is a harder capstone on top which keeps the hoodoo standing. Our ranger tells us that they lose a few hoodoos each year to erosion. Currently, there are 200 days a year at Bryce when the temperature goes below freezing. With warming, the number of freezing days may decrease, changing the pattern of erosion.
After lunch, we descended on the Navajo Loop Trail which has the most interesting descent, including a section of short switchbacks through a tight canyon. We descended down into the Queens Garden where we again viewed Queen Victoria in her white stone dress, this time in the sunlight. That evening, we celebrated our adventure with a happy hour and pizza. A few of us snuck into the Ruby’s Inn cafeteria for ice cream.
Bryce Canyon is not permanent. It is eroding rapidly and in a few thousand years might be just another canyon with steep sides. It reminds me of a Tibetan sand painting where monks create elaborate patterns from colored sand. After the art is finished, the monks quickly and easily destroy it demonstrating that existence is ephemeral and temporary. So you need to go see Bryce Canyon, a temporary work of nature’s art, before it is erased by water and weather.