Southwest Road Trip: Part Three - Bryce Canyon
Get lost in a maze of hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Of the three national parks we visited on our trip, Bryce Canyon turned out to be our favorite, though we only stayed for the one night (an oversight in my planning that I now regret). Rising to over 9,000 feet at its highest elevation, Bryce Canyon falls away to the valley below in a spectacular example of natural erosion at work. Water has continually carved into the side of the tableland, forming forests of rock spires known as hoodoos that create an intricate and delicate maze. The park encapsulates the tableland and surrounding amphitheaters, with a 17 mile scenic drive following the ridge to its uppermost elevation at Rainbow Point.
Having arrived in the afternoon with just two days and one night to spend at Bryce, Jenn and I set up camp at one of the campgrounds in the park and then made our way along the road to Rainbow Point for sunset, stopping to check out the vistas along the way. The road winds through several meadows where we caught glimpses of prairie dogs and pronghorns.
As the road ascends the plateau, the forest thins and the edges of the canyon become more visible through the trees. Several vistas and parking areas along the way offer access trails that follow the canyon edge and descend into its depths. From Rainbow Point on the southern end of the park, you can look back along its ragged edge and the surrounding valley stretching off towards the horizon. Due to its elevation, Bryce is much cooler than the surrounding area, making for a pleasant respite from the desert heat we had experienced at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
As the sun set and the temperature dropped, the cliffs blazed bright orange and yellow, their bands of layered rock glowing in the evening light. In the distance, cliffs and canyons cut through the valleys, showing the multitude of environments found in this region of the country.
The visibility here isn't just great during the day. At night, it reveals a whole new reason to visit. The remoteness of the park makes Bryce an exceptional place to stargaze. The park even has one of the longest running astronomy programs in the National Park System. The Milky Way is clearly visible, a silver band of countless stars stretching from horizon to horizon, arching over the plateau. It is without exception the best view of the night sky either of us has ever seen.
In the morning, Jenn and I ventured out eager to see the hoodoos up close. One of the most popular trails into the maze of hoodoos is the 1.3 mile Navajo Loop. After descending steeply down a series of switchbacks, the enormity of the rock spires becomes apparent. The hoodoos tower above our heads, rivaled only by several Douglas firs that grow between the walls of rock. A gorge know as Wall Street opens up into an easy section of trail that winds through strange rocks and twisted Bristlecone pines on its way back around towards the canyon rim. As we climb out of the canyon, we pass by one of the most famous hoodoos, Thor's Hammer.
That afternoon, instead of another hike below the rim, we saved our legs and instead embarked on a horseback tour below the rim. On the backs of sure footed horses, we were able to see more stunning views of the unique geology of the canyon. The tour guides were excellent at pointing out particularly interesting formations among the towering walls and twisting trails between the hoodoos.
After returning to the top of the plateau, we set out for Zion National Park, the last stop on our road trip through the southwest.
...to be continued...