When geologist and poet Clarence Dutton first came upon the hoodoos of Bryce Canon, he perceived them as “the work of giant hands, a race of genie once rearing temples of rock.” The view does inspire quiet, stunned astonishment. From northern Arizona with its bewitching slot canyons and other geologic wonders, we rushed to catch the sunset over Bryce. It did not disappoint:
The Visitors’ Center was closed for the evening, and the light evaporated by the moment, so we headed to the closest logical outpost along the park’s 18-mile scenic drive: Sunset Point. A printout of the park newspaper, available online and updated each season, came in handy with its map and advice.
We drove past silent walls of conifers, startled at first by the regular, dark shapes of burn piles–these are assembled by park rangers to help rejuvenate the forest. A dense forest! For some reason, I expected Bryce to be a bright, desolate sandstone desert. It was not.
As the evening approached, small groups of grey mule deer, so named for the shape of their ears, came out to graze. We stopped to watch them for just a minute and had our first moment of zen at Bryce. It was quiet, and very cold (because of its elevation, Bryce sees an average of 236 days below freezing each year); the air was crisp for October. Then, although half of the sky was clear of clouds, it began to snow. Our first snowfall of the year!
But we had to hurry: past Sunrise Point and Bryce Canyon Lodge, illuminated and inviting, to Sunset Point. The two viewpoints, I later learned, are not necessarily the best spots for sunrises and sunsets. They were named back when most visitors came to the park by bus and stayed at the lodge: These two paved areas are within an easy walking distance. Still, huddled there with a small army of photographers, my heart skipped a beat or twenty as we watched distant rays caress the outlines of the Aquarius Plateau.
Chiseled for millennia by rainwater, gravity, and ice, forged in the constant cycle of freezing and thawing, Bryce’s hoodoos boggle the imagination. Sea covered this land millions of years ago, creating the layer-cake of rock, each deposit eroding at a varying speed into grotesque and sinuous spires, arches, and gargoyles: When the Union Pacific Railroad promoted the newly instituted Bryce Canyon National Monument, it conjured it as an escape to “fairy cities in painted stone.” A more scientific mind is similarly stunned by the geologic rhapsody in siltstone, dolomite, limestone, and–where hoodoos are the narrowest–mudstone, marveling at the thought that wild, muddy waters at the bottom of the Grand Canyon carry particles of these very cliffs.
Sunsets, we were told, are not the most dramatic spectacle at the park. Since Bryce faces east, and there is no opposing rim, the hoodoos truly come alive as the sun rises. This, we had to see. With more advance research this time, we picked Bryce Point for the overlook’s expansive views of the most famous rock formations. I am glad we braved the cold and the darkness. The experience was extraordinary.
Perched upon a fin that cuts deep into the canyon, we faced north toward the cascade of circular mazes, Bryce’s entire amphitheater set alight, pinnacle by pinnacle, before our very eyes. Sun played a supporting role in this grand performance. Glowing rocks were the leads, their constantly moving shadows adding drama to each curve and crevice.
Looking at the hoodoos in this light, the Paiute myth of the Legend People and Coyote, the trickster spirit, captivates:
“Before there were any Indians, the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. There were many of them. They were of many kinds – birds, animals, lizards and such things, but they looked like people. They were not people. They had power to make themselves look that way. For some reason the Legend People in that place were bad; they did something that was not good, perhaps a fight, perhaps some stole something….the tale is not clear at this point. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks. The name of that place is Angka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces). This is the story the people tell.” (Recorded from words of a Paiute Elder in 1936.)
When winter winds howl among the hoodoos at night, it is said that it is the Legend People moaning and sobbing inside the rock. These structures do seem sentient, watchful. “When traveling to southern Utah for the first time, it is fair to ask if the redrocks were cut, would they bleed,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams. A fair question, indeed, that.
Against such vivid imagery, it seems unfair that this beautiful place carries the name of a man whose only recorded opinion of it was, “It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.” Ebenezer Bryce came here for timber, miles and miles of it. He moved five years later, leaving behind a road that made his timber and the glorious cliffs around it more accessible.
The reverent silence of the sunrise broken, we headed to the southern tip of the park’s main road, the Yovimpa and Rainbow Points, both at over 9,100 ft elevation, and then traced our way back to Bryce’s entrance, pausing at each of the 14 overlooks.
Within a leisurely morning, we scaled down over 3,000 feet in elevation and three distinct ecosystems, each instantly recognizable by its most dominant plant species: quaking aspens and grizzled spruces and firs at 9,100 to 8,500 ft; ponderosa pines, tall and straight like magic beanstalks, at 8,500 to 7,000 ft; fragrant pinyon pines and junipers at 7,000 to 6,600 ft. Throughout the park, you will see my two favorites: the tortured “wind timber” shape of bristlecone pines–some individuals are over a thousand years old!–and understory waves of hardy greenleaf manzanita, its twisted bark rust-red and leaves deep-green and vertical (so as to avoid both winter snow piles and summer sun rays).
Wildlife was already subdued in below-freezing mid-October. We longed to see the famed Utah Prairie Dogs–Bryce maintains the only protected community of these threatened keystone species–but they were already hibernating for the season until spring, when the bark of prairie dog sentries can be heard in early mornings. Nor did we get to see the California condors, reintroduced south of Bryce Canyon in 1996. Instead, we got our fill with ravens, imposing, intimidating, and surprisingly enchanting as they soared among the hoodoos on that icy, still morning–joyful, it seemed, their obsidian feathers and beaks glistening in the sun.
Our schedule pushing us on to a sunset at the Zion National Park, we resolved to come back, for at least several days. Next time, I would love to explore the gentler hiking trails into the hoodoos–Queen’s Garden at Sunrise Point, Navajo Trail at Sunset, and Bristlecone Loop at Rainbow Point stood out in particular for their access to the more intricate rock formations and plant life. I wonder what it would be like to watch the sun rise or set amid the hoodoos. Some of the overlooks gave us a glimpse:
Riveted by an evening astronomy talk at the Bryce Canyon Lodge (a delicious dinner there certainly added to the mood), I would love to see more of the park’s famed night sky. On a moonless night, 7,500 stars can be seen here, compared to an average of 2,500 in rural United States. Spectacular astronomy events are held at Bryce each year. Or, how about a full-moon hike in the hoodoos? Anyone?
I think, next time we will stay at the comfortable and convenient lodge inside the park, open from late March to early November, but we were satisfied with our [much cheaper] accommodations at the nearby Ruby’s Inn. It turned out that Ruby’s has an interesting history: Ruben “Ruby” Syrrett and his wife Minnie opened the first lodge at Bryce Canyon, a log cabin they named “Tourists’ Rest” (they stumbled upon this idea by chance: during a picnic with friends at Bryce, they were approached by hungry tourists. Opportunity beckoned). The Union Pacific Railroad later bought the cabin to build the present lodge, so the Syrretts opened a larger inn on their ranch outside the park. This became Ruby’s Inn, today part of the Best Western network.
For now, it was time to leave. Ravens saw us out, our parting memory was this couple in a tree, making loud, throaty noises that alarmed us at first. The ravens were cooing.