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. – The Legend of Bryce Canyon as told by a Paiute elder in 1936.
Bryce Canyon is marvelously strange, and the more time you spend in the canyon the stranger it gets. It’s a place that wants you to turn the bizarre into the familiar. Off in the distance the hoodoos look like Roman columns or giant chess pieces, up close they look like carved totem poles, maybe Maori statues, or as one hiker declared, “This one looks like you, Chris! C’m’ere and let me get a picture of you next to this thing.” (Chris did not comply). There’s even a hiking trail called Queen’s Garden Trail that terminates at a rock bearing a striking similarity to the Queen of England.
This is the greatest thing about the National Parks: they encourage you get up close and experience the landscape. There are scenic overlooks, sure, but the hiking trails take you right into the heart of the canyons and forests. Touch the rocks. Look closely at the flowers. Witness the wildlife.
The Landscape: Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all. Canyons are carved by rivers, whereas Bryce was formed by something called “frost wedging,” which I realize sounds like it could be the next panic for a 24-hour news cycle – it’s either lurking in your fridge, or worse, teenagers are doing it. But it is an incredible way that water works to transform a landscape without needing a river.
For most of the year the temperature in Bryce, Utah, bounces above and below freezing every day. Melt water from seasonal snow seeps into tiny cracks in the rock during the day. At night, when the temperature drops, the water freezes, and when it does it expands. This puts a lot of pressure on the rock, which over time will shatter and get pried apart, creating – you guessed it – wedges in the rock. And it happens 200 days out of the year here. There is also something called “frost heaving” where the water actually lifts rocks up from the bottom. Crazy.
The other major factor at play is rainwater. There’s a natural acidity in rain caused by the interaction of the water with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Small amounts of carbon dioxide dissolve to form carbonic acid. This very slightly acidic water slowly dissolves the limestone, rounding off the edges.
Hiking: We tend to take a few shorter, easier hikes on our first day in a place, which gives us time to take in the Visitor’s Center (the films and the displays are informative, as are the folks who work there), and get settled into our campsite.
Be mindful of the elevation change in Bryce. I’ve lived on the California coast my whole life, so hiking at 8,000 feet was not the easiest. My legs could handle it, but my lung capacity was a different story.
- The Queen’s Garden Trail from Sunrise point is a great entry into the canyon. We followed it until it connected to the Navajo Loop trail. It’s a moderately difficult trail, mostly because of the hike back out of the canyon, which is steep. About three miles roundtrip.
- The Rim Trail is a long and mostly flat hike along the rim of the canyon. Great views throughout. If you want to walk the whole thing, though, consider having someone pick you up at the other end. It’s not a loop; 5.5 miles one way.
- The Fairyland Loop trail is a long one and fairly strenuous (not as difficult as Angel’s Landing in Zion, but the elevation will having you breathing hard), but the rewards are great. We had our best view of wildflowers, animals, and the hoodoos on this trail. We estimate we hiked for about 8.5 miles.
Flora and Fauna: We spotted a Stellar’s Jay, a few prairie dogs (which are amazing engineers, by the way), lots of ground squirrels and chipmunks, and one snake. Visitors are expressly forbidden from feeding the animals. Most commonly fed are the squirrels and chipmunks, which are cute, but they carry rabies and the plague (yes, THAT plague)…and they bite. Think of them this way: If you shaved their tails, they’re rats.
The flowers and plants here will surprise you as much as the landscape will. Just when you think the pinks, reds, whites, and greens are all the colors this place has to offer…out of nowhere a lone purple flower will be clinging to the side of a hill like it had no where else to be at that moment.
Lodging: We didn’t have any trouble getting an RV spot for the three nights we were there. Both campgrounds have first come, first served spots available. Get there on the early side (8:00 am) to guarantee yourself a spot. If you’re tent camping, it’s worth knowing that the Sunset Campground allows RVs to run generators from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm – it can get loud. The North Campground does not allow generators. Neither site has plug-ins. The only place with showers is at the General Store (conveniently serviced by the park shuttle). There is a lodge in the park, but I suspect you’d have to secure reservations months in advance. Ruby’s Inn outside the park has a kind of iconic status, but the online reviews of the food are dismal. There’s also a Best Western nearby if you’re in a pinch. Both are within walking distance of a shuttle stop that will take you into the park.