Bryce Canyon is truly one of my favorite National Parks. Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare these extremely contrasting locations that make up our US National Parks but I’m only human; there are certain aspects that each park contains that are able to pull distinctively on my soul, and there is just something about Bryce that is so out-of-this-world lovely and interesting. It’s as though I’ve wandered into some fairy tale. Bryce Canyon is a land of mystery yet also of intense, blatant beauty. If you want to stray off the beaten path a while, check out Tropic Ditch, an offshoot of the park which has some small but lovely waterfalls.
Bryce is not a canyon in the definitional sense because it wasn’t created by flowing water cutting through it. It was made by water freezing in the cracks of the earth, a process known as “frost wedging”. Frost wedging is what makes all of the shapes possible. The hoodoos, the amphitheaters, the fins, and the narrow slot canyons.
140 million years ago Bryce Canyon was an enormous seaway whose waters invaded and retreated time and time again over the following decades, each tide picking up and then dropping off different sediments. By the time it had made its final retreat, what it left behind are the multicolored layers of rock that we see today. 60 million years ago, a different seaway moved through the area stretching all the way up from the Gulf of Mexico, and left behind even more sediment which is the lime that has eventually become the beloved Hoodoos of Bryce.
This is barely scratching the surface of the extensive geology that is Bryce Canyon. As you look across the vast amphitheaters of shapes and shadows you will undoubtedly wonder to yourself how this all came to be. Truth be told, the Colorado Plateau and the Grand Staircase Escalante could (and have, I am sure) fill up a dozen geology textbooks with Bryce Canyon being a whole long chapter in itself.
Bryce is also one of the most friendly parks in the NPS. By this I guess what I mean is, it’s easy. I will ALWAYS recommend getting out to hike and explore off the paved ground of any National Park, but if that isn’t an option for you then this is one park that you can visit and not feel as though you are missing out on too much.
The park is laid out in a simple and easy way to navigate. If you start at the visitor center and drive the 18 miles out to Rainbow Point, you have reached the edge of the “developed” part of the park. From there you can drive back and along the way stop at each of the 13 viewpoints. From each viewpoint there is a fantastic view and I believe most, if not all, are wheelchair accessible. If you’re driving through the area and don’t have much time, if you have young children, or if you’re just not up for much of a hike, I would still highly suggest visiting Bryce Canyon because it is quite possible that you may get your fill from these viewpoints alone.
We were there on May 20th, 2012. As it turns out, this was no regular weekend at Bryce. The 12th Annual Solar Festival was going on, as was the Annular Eclipse of 2012. The park’s campgrounds and lodging was completely full for miles around. It was fortunate that I’d reserved our campsite months in advance, as the park was drawing in crowds from all over the world.
I wrote about this in my previous blog on the Tropic Ditch, but it’s worth repeating: There is a great campground we found right off Scenic 12, a KOA in Cannonville. I would recommend this place for anyone who wants to explore Bryce or the Staircase.
Bryce Canyon receives around 1.5 million visitors every year, and the majority of them are there during the months of May through August. If you’re planning on visiting during the weekend especially, be prepared for massive crowds and it’s best if you reserve your campsites/lodging several weeks in advance.
On these busy days the roads can get quite congested as do the parking areas. If you arrive on a day like that, you might want to consider taking the shuttle, not only is it convenient but it makes the park healthier. Nothing is less fun than driving around and around a parking lot because there is not a single space to be found when all you want to do is get out and enjoy nature! That’s where the shuttle comes in.
Our hike of the day was Navajo Loop. It is considered a Moderate hike and is about 1.5 miles round trip. The trail begins at Sunset Point. It can be combined with Queen’s Garden and be made longer if you so desire. It’s one of the most popular hikes because it takes you down through a slot canyon after a series of long switchbacks.
Here is the view from the first set of switchbacks at the top of the trail. There are probably 20 or so to get to the bottom. Just remember for each one you descend, you will be ascending an equal amount on the other side of the trail. We saw people of all ages doing this hike, but just be prepared to break a sweat. The blobs in this photo are other hikers who appear quite small because it’s a good several dozen meters to the bottom of this trail:
Looking up at the seamless, piercing blue sky:
It’s a blue so intense you wonder if your mind is being tricked somehow. Every time I looked up at the sky it was almost a shock, like jumping into a cold pool. Undoubtedly the air quality here is clearer than most parts of the country but even still, I’ve never seen a sky this blue anywhere else. Perhaps it is the orange rock that makes the sky seem bluer than ever. During the monsoon season in July and August, the sky is equally beautiful and filled with thousands of puffy, contrasting clouds, often dropping storms that are visible from miles away, but in the Spring it’s so clear that if you were one to believe in parallel universes, you might be convinced that one was right on the other side of that blue sky.
When you reach the bottom of the trail, the last switchback fades away into a narrow trail into this slot canyon:
I’ve always wanted to explore what they call “slot canyons” in the Southwest. Although this one isn’t particularly narrow or winding, it’s still an incredible experience, especially given the trees at the end of it.
This Douglas-fir is one of the coolest trees I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I really have a thing for trees, especially ones that grow in solitary or unusual places. The way that it thrives at the bottom of this slot canyon, how it’s stretched up over a hundred feet to get to the sun is beyond me. I love this tree.
At the bottom of the trail, after you have left the slot canyon behind, you will walk through a forest of Ponderosa Pine and Utah Junipers, a completely different climate than the one you started at when you began your hike at the top of the canyon. You will be walking among trees that are hundreds of years old.
At this point if you want to hook up with the Queen’s Garden Loop and extend your hike, this is where you would do so.
This baby pine tree caught my eye as it stood alone and illuminated against a shaded cliffside:
You will go up the same amount of switchbacks that you went down, only on the other side of the loop. The view looking behind you looks something like this:
A formation that gets a lot of attention is Thor’s Hammer. Hoodoo literally means, “To cast a spell”, which makes sense considering it looks as though it would take some kind of magic to keep these rocks held up like this over hundreds of thousands of years:
Here are some eyes in a huge fin that protrudes out over the amphitheater:
A view through Bryce Canyon’s eyes:
As you are walking along the Navajo Loop, you will be inside of the Amphitheater which is a unique and exhilarating experience. Though it’s great fun to view all of this splendor from the top of the trails, it’s so much more intimate standing inside of it:
We spent the better part of our day scoping out the perfect spot to watch the Annular Eclipse. Along the way we stopped at all the famous viewpoints. One of my favorites is the Natural Bridge:
The eclipse was to happen just before sunset that evening, and as the time neared the park began to quiet down as people staked out spots with their lawn chairs, blankets, and cameras. As we drove along the park’s 18 mile corridor, at each significant pull out there were at least two dozen people with 1800mm or larger cameras set up on tripods, tilted towards the sun.
Since we wanted to experience as much of the park that day as possible, we had cut our time a little short and were rushing to see if our perfect spot was still going to be available. As we rounded a corner sure enough, it was open. We parked next to the Rainbow Point lookout and headed off the grid up the side of a steep drop-off to a gravelly embankment.
Here I am at the very top of it:
This is the view from where I stood:
The view of the impending eclipse from where we sat:
Brett just chilling in our setup:
More views of the amphitheater to our North and in the foreground, the sun starting to set:
My first solar eclipse was an amazing experience. I wish I’d gotten some better photographs of the ring of fire, but with my 300mm being stolen in Kingman, that left me with only my 55mm. I’m pretty sure it’s possible to get great wide-angle shots of an annular eclipse, but whatever it takes to capture those shots I fell incredibly short. The next eclipse that I find my way across, I will be ready.
Here is the eclipse at it’s happening, although you can’t much tell from my photos. The only thing that gives it away is the strange quality of light:
One thing that was a pleasant surprise for me as it was completely unintentional, was my camera’s ability to record the eclipse perfectly as a refraction:
Here is a close up of it; I cropped into the refraction and sure enough there it is, just as it looked through my solar glasses- a perfect “ring of fire”, as it’s called.
Even though I did not manage to capture my perfect intended shot, it was still the experience of a lifetime lying back on a cliffside at Bryce Canyon and watching the moon line up perfectly between the earth and the sun.
What was almost as thrilling as the Ring of Fire through my solar glasses, was the eerie light that flooded over the earth for those few minutes of totality. It’s a sort of light that I have never seen before in my life and cannot quite be compared to a sunset because it lacked all warmth; it cannot be compared to the light after a storm because it lacked all other elements such as rain in the air or clouds sweeping overhead. There was a profound stillness. A subtle greenish light that was clear and ethereal, casting strange shadows. I suppose I could call it beautiful but at the same time it seemed unnatural to me. Everything got quiet for those few moments.
I can only imagine the atmosphere of a total eclipse. The next full Solar Eclipse visible from North America will be in August of 2017. It’s 5 years away but I’m already looking forward to it. Maybe a return to Bryce Canyon NP will be in store.