We knew it would be a change of landscapes—yes, even a dramatic change. In one short drive we were leaving the snow-dusted peaks of the Tetons for the Red Rock Country of Utah. Trading aspen-cloaked slopes for unique rock formations and water-carved canyons. Ah, but who doesn’t like a little diversity in their lives? The landscape of the traveler can be full of variety. Never boring . . . always fascinating. That’s the way we see it. And that’s the way this trip is unfolding. The stone tunnel we were driving through presented a passage into this new scenario. As October commenced, so did our canyon lands experience. And Bryce Canyon would be the beginning.
There is no place like Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos can be found on every continent, but here is the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. Descriptions fail. A cave without a roof? A forest of stone? Photographs do not do it justice. Looking down on them from the plateau is like gazing at China’s terra-cotta warriors. Close-up images of hoodoos don’t convey the size of the canyon, panoramas make hoodoos appear small and insignificant. It’s just something you need to witness in person—it’s the only way you’ll experience the grandeur of this unique place.
Your experience at Bryce starts with a BANG! There’s no preparation for the sight you’re about to encounter. Initially, you’re walking up a pathway through a light forest of pines. You’re approaching the void up ahead. You know you’ll soon be standing on the rim of a huge canyon, looking down at a vast formation of rock pillars. Still, you aren’t prepared. No way can you mentally grasp what is lying there below the precipice. You walk up, look down and WHAM! You are visually assaulted. Like nothing you have ever seen. Unbelievable? Probably. Incomprehensible? Undoubtedly. Overwhelming? Most definitely. Hello, Bryce Canyon!
The native Paiutes believed the pillars were their human ancestors turned to stone. Ebenezer Bryce, a homesteader to the area and for whom the canyon is named, once remarked that it was “a helluva of a place to lose a cow.” In fact, the domes and pillars, collectively called “hoodoos”, were formed over millions of years by snow, frost, and rainwater that weathered the weak limestone formation. And, despite how it’s known, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all; rather it’s a series of 14 limestone amphitheaters cut into the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. Bryce Amphitheater is the largest, being 12 miles long, 3 miles wide and 800 feet deep—a depth we would tackle each of the three days we were there.
While standing on the rim looking down is one awesome experience, you’ll soon learn that it won’t be enough. Don’t try to fight it—the urge is too irresistible. Soon enough you’ll be enticed to take on one of the trails—find yourself needing to be among these incredible formations. A firsthand, close-up perspective is what you want. Surely it will give more reality to the scene. With no thought to the effort required for the hike back up, you’re soon winding your way down the trail. And down some more. All the while turning. And twisting. Making that seemingly unending steep descent.
Soon you will be looking UP at those rocky hoodoos.
At once, it is an equally impressive view, whether beholding from the heights on the rim or from the depths of the canyon floor.
It was not until the late 18th and the early 19th century that the first European Americans explored the remote and hard-to-reach area. Mormon scouts visited the area in the 1850s to gauge its potential for agricultural development, use for grazing, and settlement.
The first major scientific expedition to the area was led by U.S. Army Major John Wesley Powell in 1872. Powell, along with a team of mapmakers and geologists, surveyed the Sevier and Virgin River area as part of a larger survey of the Colorado Plateaus. His mapmakers kept many of the Paiute place names.
The Mormon Church sent Scottish immigrant Ebenezer Bryce and his wife Mary to settle land in the Paria River Valley because they thought his carpentry skills would be useful in the area. The Bryce family chose to live right below Bryce Canyon Amphitheater. Ebenezer built a road to the plateau to retrieve firewood and timber, and a canal to irrigate his crops and water his animals. Other settlers soon started to call the unusual place “Bryce’s canyon”, which was later shortened to simply Bryce Canyon.
A combination of drought, overgrazing and flooding eventually drove the remaining Paiutes from the area and prompted the settlers to attempt construction of a water diversion channel from the Sevier River drainage. When that effort failed, most of the settlers, including the Bryce family, left the area.
These scenic areas were first described for the public in magazine articles published by Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads in 1916. People like Forest Supervisor J. W. Humphrey promoted the scenic wonders of Bryce Canyon’s amphitheaters, and by 1918 nationally distributed articles also helped to spark interest. However, poor access to the remote area and the lack of accommodations kept visitation to a bare minimum.
A small group of local boys got together and built modest lodging, then set up “touring services”. Then the visitors began arriving, in small groups. By the early 1920s the Union Pacific Railroad became interested in expanding rail service to the area in order to accommodate more tourists. That caught the attention of conservationists along with the damage being created by overgrazing, logging and the unregulated visitation that was anticipated. With the support of NPS director, Stephen Mather, Bryce was declared a national monument by President Warren Harding in 1923.
It’s not all that easy to photograph Bryce Canyon. More than once I overheard the comment “It’s just impossible to capture what I’m seeing!”
Some people try to show the whole scene in one all-encompassing picture. Can’t be done. Most are just coming out around high noon to take the photo. Watch out for the harsh contrast of light and shadow. To really get the most out of a Bryce photo, you need to spend time familiarizing yourself with the layout of the canyon as well as the light.
Low-angle light hitting those hoodoos can oftentimes reflect onto the adjacent rock pillars. Then you get the bounce light that creates the inner glow that these red rocks can absorb. Watch and wait for the right conditions, and then zero in to get your shot.
Color is the other outstanding aspect of the canyon scene. Again, the camera just can’t do it justice. While red is the predominant color, Bryce’s palette is composed of more than 60 distinct hues. You’ll hope that the camera “sees” what your eyes do, but that is rarely the way it comes out.
Soon after Bryce became a national monument, a road was built on the plateau to provide easy access to outlooks over the amphitheaters. The Bryce Canyon Lodge was constructed from 1924-25, from local timber and stone. Nestled close to the rim, the dormered Lodge sets the mold for classic National Park Service architecture—rubble stone walls and fireplaces, rustic log framing, and wave-like shingling on the gabled roof complement its natural setting. Over the years more adjacent land was acquired by the government and on February 25, 1928 Congress established Bryce Canyon National Park.
Despite its’ name, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon – it is more like a series of large amphitheaters stretched for 24 miles along the eastern edge of a large plateau which was uplifted on the larger Colorado Plateau. That uplifting caused joints to form along the side of the plateau, which were in turn impacted by erosive forces, resulting in the creation of strange rock formations called hoodoos. Those formations are the hallmark of the park. Bryce Canyon has a number of lookouts conveniently located along the road that follows the edge of the plateau through the park. Each lookout provides it own unique views over the valley below the plateau.
On our last full day at Bryce, my intrepid husband geared himself up and headed out for one of the park’s most exceptional trails. The Peekaboo Loop Trail has 1,500 feet of elevation gain in about 6 miles overall. Once more starting from the rim, this steep trail leads through the heart of the Bryce Amphitheater as it travels through canyons, tunnels and narrow passes along the way. He came back with some terrific photos.
Because Bryce’s Amphitheater faces to the east, the light is best in early morning. If you are looking for that special glow on the pillars and hoodoos without the hassle of visitors fresh off their tour buses filing down the trails, then sunrise is the time you should be standing on the rim. With camera in hand, the early bird truly gets his shot.
And the iconic, postcard image of Thor’s Hammer seems to be illuminated from within.
Our stay at Bryce was short, but we did make every minute count. With the canyon compact and easily accessible, staying at Sunset Campground close to the rim had the park’s highlights close by. We tallied more than a few miles on foot in this park, and came away with a good assortment of photos. Our tour of Utah’s national parks is off to a promising start,
I’d venture to say.
Melinda & Chris