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The guidebooks I read while planning my trip to Utah all agreed that Bryce Canyon was overrated, and merited a visit of no more than a few hours. That assessment might well be true in July and August, when the park is a prime family vacation destination. A few hours spent stopping and creeping on a park road jam-packed with tour buses and minivans probably is more than enough.
But I visited in late October, well after the crowds had gone. (I stayed overnight at Bryce Canyon Lodge the day before it shut down for the season.) I regret following the guidebooks’ advice, since what I saw was undeniably worth a lengthier visit.
Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all. Canyons are the work of rivers that relentlessly dig their way through layers of rock. Bryce Canyon, in contrast, is a bowl-shaped “amphitheater” filled with solidified silt from an ancient lake bed.
Once the lake dried up, continuous freezing and thawing of ice, with the help of rain, cracked and sculpted the rock into myriad spires, pillars, and “hoodoos.” Layers of calcium carbonate— it’s the miraculous stuff that makes eggshells, chalk, pearls, Tums, and tufa— in the silt provide structure and hardness, and traces of iron and manganese provide the color. Hoodoos assume fanciful shapes and have equally fanciful names. One of them looks like a poodle.
Scottish-born Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce had a homestead and cattle ranch below the amphitheater. He reputedly described the maze of hoodoos as “a helluva place to lose a cow.” When Bryce built a road that ended at the rim of the amphitheater, other Mormon settlers began calling it “Bryce’s Canyon.” By 1928, when the national park was created, the name had shortened to “Bryce Canyon.”
The “real” way to experience Bryce Canyon is to hike one or more of the trails in the amphitheater. Some of them take a full day. But if you lack the time, stamina, or outdoor skills to manage that, there is plenty to see from the many viewpoints along the paved road that runs the length of the park, along the amphitheater’s rim. Some of the viewpoints have short trails that provide a peek under the rim.
An important caveat is that Bryce Canyon is a high-altitude park, with elevations over 2,700 meters. The oxygen-poor air can make even an easy walk exhausting. Older cars can also get a form of altitude sickness. After I checked out of Bryce Canyon Lodge, I lost precious time in the early-morning light when my car stalled immediately after every attempt to start it. The AAA dispatcher said this was a common problem. He told me to open the air filter compartment and stick a knife in the carburetor’s “throat” to hold the air intake valve open for several minutes. It worked. Modern computerized engines should cope much better with the altitude.
As with so with many places, early morning and late afternoon are the best
times to see the colors of Bryce Canyon. After sunset, twilight suffuses the
canyon with a soft pink glow, as seen here from the Agua Canyon viewpoint.
As an infomercial huckster might put it, “But wait... there’s more!”
Cedar Breaks National Monument is Bryce Canyon’s little sister. It’s 62 kilometers west of Bryce Canyon (as the crow flies), between Cedar City and Panguitch. It’s an amphitheater with a collection of pink hoodoos created by the same geological processes as Bryce Canyon, but on a much smaller scale.
Because it’s a bit out of the way, Cedar Breaks gets only a fraction of Bryce
Canyon’s traffic. If you can only visit Utah during the high season, it might
provide a more tranquil place to contemplate nature’s erosional artistry.
Other parks in southern Utah: