Before visiting Bryce Canyon National Park, we’d seen hundreds of photographs of its iconic vistas and read the accounts of numerous friends and bloggers who’d already toured this famous park. We knew it would be an impressive sight, but we had no idea just how intense the experience would be. You know how people like to say a place “took their breath away”? Well, apparently, that’s a real thing. Indeed, it’s what happened to us each and every time we walked up to the canyon rim and looked over the edge.
Just 24 miles long, Bryce is comparatively tiny. And the Bryce Amphitheater – the main canyon you envision when you think of Bryce – is only about 12 miles long. There’s a park road that runs parallel to the amphitheater, however, when you’re on that road, you can’t see the canyon. Bordered on either side by thick groves of pine trees, there’s nothing remarkable about the drive. After parking your car or exiting the shuttle bus at one of the overlook parking lots, you follow a short pedestrian path up a hill to the viewing area.
When you get to the edge of the canyon and look down, that’s when you’re almost guaranteed to lose your breath.
It is so enormous, so colorful, and so otherworldly, it defies accurate description. The only appropriate response is to let your jaw drop and accept that you’ve never seen anything like it.
And we weren’t the only ones who felt this way. Wandering among the tourists standing at the overlooks, we could hear the same sorts of stunned reactions we’d had ourselves. Even more astonishing, over the course of our week at Bryce, our reaction to seeing the canyon never diminished. Every visit was just as mind blowing as the first.
I think there are two reasons for this seemingly limitless wonderment: First, Bryce is impossible to capture in a photograph. Not a single photo I took comes close and when I think about it, none of the photos I’d seen previously came close either. So, however much you may believe you know what the canyon looks like, when you actually see it in person, it just blows you away. Second, I think the approach has a big impact. With a lot of other one-of-a-kind sites, you can sort of see what’s coming before you get there. If you visit Zion National Park, you can see the red rock formations as you drive through the town of Springdale on your way to the park entrance. If you visit Horseshoe Bend, you can see the gaping hole in the earth as you walk toward it from the parking lot. If you visit White Sands National Monument, you’ll drive several miles into the park before you find yourself surrounded by the sands. But with Bryce, one minute you’re standing in a completely mundane parking lot surrounded by pine trees, and the next you’re looking at this:
What IS this place, anyway?
The (really) short explanation is that Bryce is the result of a perfect combination of land and weather. Hundreds of millions of years ago this entire region (Southern Utah and Northern Arizona) was covered in water. Rivers flowed into a sea and deposited sediment. Over millions of years, as a result of seismic activity, the landscape changed entirely causing the sea to dry up, leaving all the sediment behind. The sediment eventually hardened into rock, which, over the next several million years, eroded. But, unlike the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park which are the result of river erosion, Bryce resulted from freeze/thaw cycles.
Bryce is located at over 8,000 feet of elevation and is subject to extreme temperature swings. When we were there in May, it would be in the high 70’s during the day but drop into the 30’s at night. The area also gets a lot of snow – not in the sense of depth, but in the sense of frequency. Because of the wild swings in temperature, the snow melts, the water seeps into the rock, and, overnight, it refreezes, causing the rock to erode. This happens over and over and over again, hundreds of times each year.
The erosion particular to Bryce results in formations known as “hoodoos.” A hoodoo is a tall skinny spire of rock. As it erodes, the different layers of rock, formed hundreds of millions of years ago from all that sediment, are exposed (siltstone, mudstone, limestone, etc.) and because of the different minerals found in those layers, the colors of the hoodoos vary.
Here’s a neat example of the erosion taking place:
You can see where the center of this wall has eroded away and left a “window.” Several years down the line, the top of the window will collapse and two separate chunks will remain.
From the overlooks, you’ll see different collections of these hoodoos…some sections of canyon have more hoodoos than trees whereas in others, trees dominate the landscape:
Once you hike down into the canyon, things get even more impressive as you realize how big these formations are.
Many of the hoodoos are “named” by the park and, as you hike along the trails (these photos are from the Navajo Loop/Queens Garden Trail), you can try to find them. Of course, Kevin wanted to find the hoodoo named “Thor’s Hammer”…
Here. Let let Captain America help….
Oh, the irony….
Other times, you just come up with your own interpretations. It’s basically one giant Rorschach Test….
This one looked like a set of candle flames…
This one was someone raising their fist in the air…
This one was a king’s throne…with Gumby standing in the background:
This one was a vanilla/chocolate ice cream cake (in the back) that was melting all over the table….
This was “ants marching…”
Ok, that’s not really a formation, but looking down on these switchbacks and ALL the people walking back and forth… can’t you kind of hear Dave Matthews singing in the background??
Speaking of which, while we loved Bryce, eventually we wanted to get away from all this….
so we took a day trip over to Kodachrome Basin State Park which is just 25 miles away. We hiked the 6 mile Panorama Trail and just loved it. It’s a beautiful hike, especially if you go out to “Panorama Point” which offers a – you guessed it – panoramic view of the entire park.
Everything about Kodachrome is pretty dramatic, including the entrance….
There are all kinds of interesting rock formations and lots of greenery and wildflowers…
Even though the park is located just a few miles from Bryce, it felt worlds away. Indeed, sometimes it felt like we were on a whole other planet:
Can you see why Utah was inspired to request permission from Kodak to use their trademarked name?
Also, isn’t it weird to think most kids today will have no idea what that term even refers to?
We had some dramatic clouds to complement the dramatic cliffs….
But best of all, there were no other ants marching here. We had the whole place to ourselves.
If you find yourself at Bryce, we thought it was well worth the time to check out Kodachrome. Alternatively, the park has a campground, so it could be a destination in itself or a home base for the whole area. Either way, it’s a lovely, quiet, colorful oasis in the mountains of Utah.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visits to both parks. For sheer impact, Bryce wins hands down. For peace and quiet, Kodachrome edges Bryce. Either way, you really can’t go wrong in this stunningly beautiful section of Utah.
And, with a svelte 1291 words, I am going to stop writing.
(except to say: Next week: Page, Arizona!!)
Where we stayed: Ruby’s Inn and RV Campground