Bryce Canyon National Park
Fairyland Point, Thor’s Hammer, Peek-a-boo Loop, Queen Victoria, The Alligator & Piracy Point, just to name a few, are whimsically named places to explore throughout Bryce Canyon National Park. Visitors flock to these cleverly named features that pique curiosity and excitement to investigate this small, but astonishing park.
The story of Bryce Canyon is about water, but the first thing you need to know is that Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon, because there is no water flowing through it. It is an amphitheater formed by what is called “frost-wedging”. Frost wedging occurs on cold nights when water freezes in the small cracks of the rocks, and then expands to break apart pieces of the rocks. Cole, from The Switchback Kids, does a great job explaining even more about how Bryce Canyon was formed.
About 20 million years ago, a huge area of Utah, Arizona and Colorado were lifted 7-10K feet to create the Colorado Plateau. The plateau broke in 7 different places and is eroded deeper as you go south, so it creates what is called the Grand Staircase. And Bryce Canyon sits on the higher northern edge with a max elevation of over 9K feet. One factoid I found particularly cool is that the oldest rocks showing at Bryce Canyon are the newest rock at Zion and the oldest rocks at Zion are the newest rocks at Grand Canyon.
Water erodes the rock layers. Most of the erosion occurs when snow falls, it melts during the day and water seeps into rock cracks, it freezes and expands (around 7%) to enlarge the cracks, then heavy rains in the monsoon season of spring and summer come to wash away the loosened rock. Because of Bryce Canyon’s perfect elevation, it gets over 200 freeze-thaw cycles a year. So the rock starts as the plateau edge, is eroded into rock fins that stick out as lines coming out of the plateau, weak rock in the middle of the fins is eroded until it creates “windows” and the windows are enlarged until it separates the rock into rows of individual columns called hoodoos!
Bryce Canyon was settled by pioneers in the the mid 1870’s. Among the first settlers were Mormon pioneers Ebenezer and Mary Bryce and their 10 children. While living in the canyon, Ebenezer worked the land and built a road for hauling timber and soon other settlers began calling the area where he worked “Bryce’s Canyon”. Life was not easy for the Bryce family. The family only lived in the area for about 5 years before heading off to Arizona. Ebenezer’s legacy lives on through the name of the park and his infamous reflection on life in the area when he said Bryce Canyon was “one hell of a place to lose a cow”.
Although Bryce Canyon may be small in size compared to other national parks, there are ample activities to be enjoyed. Hiking Bryce is one of the best ways to really experience all that Bryce has to offer. There are so many options for hiking. Easy, Moderate or Strenuous trails are found throughout the park. Many of these trails intersect one another to form loops of varying distances. If you're looking for some short easy hikes, try Mossy Cave and Queen’s Garden. The Rim Trail is a great paved trail that leads from Sunset to Sunrise Points, and gives you great views of the hoodoos and rock formations below. If you have more time and a little more energy, try the Navajo or Peek-a-boo Loop, and keep in mind what it might be like searching for a lost cow!
Hiking may not be your thing, so there are other options. Drive the 18-mile Scenic Drive and check out the beauty of Bryce from your window and stunning overlooks. Another popular activity in the park is horseback riding. Throughout the Fall, Spring & Summer months you can hop on a horse and enjoy a 2 or 4 hour ride along a dedicated horse trail that leads you through the Bryce Amphitheater.
Bryce Canyon has some of the darkest skies on the planet. Think about this: in most rural areas of the United States, 2,500 stars can be seen on a clear night—but at Bryce Canyon, the night sky is so dark you can see 7,500 stars on a moonless night! The park has some great stargazing programs and opportunities. Plan to spend some time with the park rangers as they guide you through a 90-minute telescope session or, much like Great Basin National Park, join the “Dark Rangers” on a moonlit hike through the park.
Come and find your niche in Bryce Canyon National Park: take a scenic hike or just sit back and enjoy the beautiful show that the night sky has to offer. And for almost anyone, the mystical hoodoos and intriguing rock columns of Bryce Canyon combined with the starry night sky can transport you to a foreign and almost otherworldly place that is sure to inspire you for years to come.