Bryce Canyon is one of the most unique places on earth, as improbable a place as you could think of. In a state full of amazing sights, it effortlessly pushes to the top of the list. Valley of the gods, Arches NP, Canyonlands, Goblin Valley, Capitol Reef, Calf Creek; Bryce Canyon surpasses them all. With the possible exception of the Grand Canyon itself, this may just have been the most incredible thing we’d seen yet. It’s a difficult comparison, because while Bryce doesn’t even come close to the sheer scale and majesty of the Grand Canyon, it is arguably far more beautiful and intricate.
Not really a canyon, Bryce is actually an exposed escarpment at the upper edge of something called the Grand Staircase. At its heart is a natural amphitheatre where the rocks have been delicately eroded away in a timeless ballet of nature. It is a masterpiece that has been eons in the making. When posting a photo of it to Instagram I captioned it with the assertion: “Bryce Canyon, where God’s just showing off,” and I stand by that. I could bore people with the science behind how its inimitable hoodoos formed, but I prefer just to marvel at the vision of He who designed it and set the geologic processes in motion.
In Utah wind, rain, snow, heat, gravity and convulsions of the earth have sculpted a mind-boggling array of shapes and sights, but nowhere else has it achieved the fairytale castle-precision of Bryce Canyon. In this labyrinth of wonders, ranks of weather-worn rock march from rim to floor in silent, inevitable disintegration. First they get separated from the rim in imposing battlements, then they part from one another in isolated towers and bastions; next they are whittled away into ever narrower needles, before finally crumbling into oblivion on the canyon’s floor. Composed of many bands of colours, often crowned with snow and perfectly poised for catching glorious light at either end of the day, these gnarled sentinels are breathtaking at every stage of their life. According to the Paiute Indians, these hoodoos are actually ancient people turned to stone once upon a time, and after seeing Goblin Valley the day before, I’d be lying if I said my imagination wasn’t drawn to this charming legend.
The photos I’m posting here speak for themselves, but in a bid to stop gilding the lily, I’ll add no more to my description of the rimside view, and move on to tell you about our brief but magical encounter with this place. Eager to leave the crowds behind, we plunged down from Sunset Point on the Navajo Loop Trail. Passing Thor’s Hammer – a particularly prominent hoodoo – we soon entered Wall Street, a narrow defile where the path winds down in steep zig-zags to the canyon floor. The depth of this ravine can be gauged from the fact that the sheer rock walls dwarfed Douglas firs standing in the middle, themselves over 200 feet in height. Once on the canyon floor, the rim feels a long way away, like the distant boundary of a mythical world that you have suddenly found yourself in. Gone are the noises of the crowds and vehicles, replaced by deliciously delicate sounds like the beating of a hummingbird’s wings, the flapping of a Steller’s Jay’s wings, the scrape of pine needles blown along by gentle gusts of wind. It was so peaceful.
On the way back up we were treated to even more spectacular sights as the looping trail led us through the knotted architecture of Queen’s Garden, through tunnels and slots no wider than your body, past grottoes and under knobbled ramparts the colour of candyfloss. Surreal in many ways, but always beautiful, and much more so for having been viewed from many angles. The view from below reveals many quirks and refinements not visible from above, which makes the below-the-rim hike all the more worthwhile. After a daring operation, in which we rescued my fallen hat from a steep gully with contraption fashioned from a tripod and hiking pole lashed together, we emerged back at the rim at Sunrise Point. A relatively short distance, but what a journey.