If you have never been to Southern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park will absolutely blow your mind. The first time I was there was the Summer of 2010. Brett and I were making our way across the country with California as our ultimate goal, but we were sidetracked many times, awe-struck and taken aback by such unparalleled beauty. Just when you think you know the country you live in, you come upon a certain unexpected place and realize how naive you have been.
Bryce Canyon is one of those places. It opened up our eyes to a different world that we had no idea existed, a world of orange rock set against a seamless blue sky, hoodoos and spires that take the shape of mysterious figures at dawn and dusk, a world where the passage of time reveals itself not in layers as does the Grand Canyon, but in bizarre and unusual colors.
During our first trip to the Colorado Plateau, we were heading towards Bryce after a stay at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. A few miles after leaving the boundaries of Grand Canyon NP, we began to see what were the beginnings of the Grand Staircase Escalante.
Though the Staircase can seem somewhat vague in nature, you will know it when you see it. The way it rises up from the ground like a colorful petrified stone wave, as you drive through it the scenery changes from one mile to the next.
No matter if you are coming North on 89 from the Grand Canyon, East on 9 or 14 from Zion, or West on American Scenic Byway 12, you are in for the scenic treat of a lifetime. All the roads surrounding Bryce are some of the most versatile in the country, a web of multicolored beauty, with Bryce Canyon National Park acting as a sort of vibrant nucleus.
On May 19th, 2012 we arrived at Bryce Canyon for the second time in our lives, just as captivated as we had been the first time we were there. Although it wasn’t brand new to our eyes, this time around it was exiting in a different way because we knew what was in store for us.
We decided to camp at the same campground we’d found in 2010, which is the KOA just outside Cannonville, Utah, located on Scenic Byway 12. As fate would have it, they put us in the exact same spot we had the first time we were there, a big sandy square of earth nestled into the side of a generous hill and open to the sky with views of the Staircase in the distance. For anyone who wants to camp outside of the National Park to have a little more peace and quiet as well as great amenities, this is the place to do it.
After setting up our tent, we knew that the first thing we wanted to do was return to Tropic Ditch. Tropic Ditch will turn up as the Mossy Cave Trail on your Bryce Canyon map. It is located outside of the official park entrance on Highway 12. There is a good sized pull-out on the East side of the Highway with a sign that would be hard to spot if you were driving fast, but if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll have no problem finding it.
The trail to the Mossy Cave is only about a mile long, and is an easy and rewarding hike. You begin by following the creek which flows with a blueish hue that is offset by the dazzling plethora of orange colors in the rocks. Within minutes you’ve disappeared from sight and sound of the Highway and have stepped into a different realm entirely, the realm of Bryce, of mysterious hoodoos and cavernous rocks.
The colors range from pale yellow to orange, from pink to maroon. Being May, we were treated to even more splendor as the wildflowers were in full bloom.
The Mossy Cave isn’t much more than a dark grotto of stone, the underside of a rocky shelf created by a natural spring. In the warm months it is filled with thick green moss and sits in perpetual shade, a cool retreat from the blistering sun, drops of water falling individually, echoing off the stone in a cadence like a liquid metronome. In the wintertime, the cave is filled with icicles.
What really draws crowds even more than the cave, I believe, is the water and the waterfalls. Though they are small and not naturally made, they are still incredibly charming. Falling in soft cascades as you venture up the creek, their color is a lucid greenish-blue. And there is always that undeniable allure of water in the middle of an arid place.
Brett is climbing up to meet the hoodoos:
The creek, the mini-cascades that rush through it, and the different colors on its bed:
Here is perhaps the third or fourth notable cascade as you venture up the creek:
By now you’re probably wondering why it’s called Tropic Ditch. Over a century ago, Mormon pioneers hacked and toiled away to carve out a pathway to divert water from the Sevier River. It took them three years using the most primitive tools. This “ditch” is over 15 miles long. Without it, the town of Tropic never could have existed, and neither would this orange oasis.
At an endearing point where about 6 feet of water flows diagonally off the sharp edge of a shelf of rock, we stopped and did not continue on any further. I can only wonder what I might have found had we continued on up the creek.
This little waterfall is probably two miles from the very beginning of the hike, and I was quite fond of it:
This section of Bryce is also referred to as Water Canyon, although the term “canyon” is used loosely. A proper canyon by definition is one that is created by flowing water, whereas Bryce was created by ice forming in cracks. This is known as “frost wedging”. It is the process that creates the fascinating, personable shapes of the hoodoos. The circumstances of flowing water at the bottom of the “canyon” and hoodoos spiraling into the sky above your eyes could only ever be brought about by the ingenuity of man. One day, thousands of years from now when the hoodoos and spires erode away and crumble, this will one day become an actual canyon.
Due to the water, many trees and plants flourish here that don’t at any other place in Bryce such as the Mountain Death-camas, a lovely but poisonous member of the lily family.
As the water has been flowing through here for only a century, nature is taking its time catching up. One day the bottom of this canyon will be filled with cottonwoods and willow trees.
The first and most striking waterfall you will see is just downstream from the Mossy Cave. Although it is no more than 20 feet tall, it is still a beautiful sight to behold. Being born and raised in Iowa, I can honestly say that this is the first real waterfall I have ever truly experienced. When I was here back in July 2010 it was such a joy to stand in the waterfall, intensified by the fact that it was my first ever. It was hot that day, probably close to 100 degrees, and to stand in the little pool in the shaded grotto as the water tumbled over the edge was an amazing feeling that I’ll never forget.
This time around in May, the water felt icy cold and wasn’t much suitable for wading in, but was still a nice reprieve from the hot desert sun.
This is me alongside the waterfall that started my love affair with so many more of them for years to come:
The colors of the water intensify as the sun disappears from the sky:
Mossy Cave Waterfall from a distance, the creek meandering towards me:
These are commonly referred to as the “windows”. They will be to your West as you stand next to the waterfall. There is a defined yet steep trail leading up to them and if you have the energy and the spunk, it’s definitely worth it to climb up and see what the view is like peering through a hoodoo-window, viewing the Staircase Escalante in the distance.
Tropic Ditch attracts many different species of wildlife. If you are visiting during some of the quietest hours such as dusk or dawn, you might be lucky enough to get to see some of them. The abundant water source regularly draws Elk, Pronghorn, and Mule Deer. Mountain lions, an array of lizards, and the Peregrine Falcon also roam these lands. As for myself, I didn’t see any of the aforementioned but I felt pretty fortunate that this brave little ground squirrel was willing to come out of his hiding place among the rocks and search for his dinner right in front of me.
Tropic Ditch is the perfect name for this section of Bryce. Tropic seems to evoke the exotic beauty of the general splendor, and Ditch portrays it for what it is in all practicality. Don’t let the strange name or the fact that the entrance lies on the outside of the main portion of Bryce’s most visited roads deter you from stopping by to walk through the water. You won’t regret it.
It’s hard to imagine the lives that the Pioneers led over a century ago. It’s also hard to imagine that this place was once called “The Land that No One Wanted.” What isn’t hard to imagine is how their scenery might have looked. Although they played a dominant role shaping the land that is now Southern Utah, in many fortunate ways, Bryce has been allowed to remain the same, to stay solid in its natural beauty, to remain lovely and untouched for new eyes to explore and fall in love with.