Behold the natural wonders of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park—with vistas so dramatic, you might think you’ve been transported to a world galaxies away. Pink cliffs melt into vermilion, and red rock canyons carve through the desert as pinnacles rise hundreds of feet into the sky. Though the environment appears alien, this place is more like Earth than anywhere else on the planet.
Stretching south for 100 miles like a condor’s wing, a sequence of sedimentary rock known as the “Grand Staircase” unfurls from Bryce through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. Within the layers lies the greatest density of preserved Earth history in existence. Examining the landscape’s geology is comparable to turning the pages of our planet’s past. Each layer represents a chapter in the fossil record. Though sedimentary rock is not unique to the American Southwest, there are few locations globally where the pages have remained this intact, despite hundreds of millions of years of wear and tear.
Colors and Characters
The geologic history of Bryce Canyon was written eons ago, but its human history is so recent the ink has not yet dried. Carved into the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau and resting at a maximum elevation of 9,115 feet above sea level, Bryce was an awe-inspiring phenomenon to scientists and explorers alike. The desert region experiences temperature fluctuations above and below freezing in the same night—more than half of the days of the year (170 to be exact). Its plant and animal inhabitants evolved to thrive in these volatile conditions, but few people can adapt so successfully in an environment so devoid of life-sustaining resources.
A small group of Mormons was up to the challenge, however. In the 1870s, Ebenezer Bryce and his family were among the intrepid travelers on a mission to establish farms, ranches and communities in the vast canyonlands. The region soon after captured the curiosity of geographer John Wesley Powell, who went on to document the geological features that now characterize southern Utah.
The harsh terrain and remoteness of Bryce kept much of the deserts of the Southwest a secret from the American public. But in 1915, Utah Forest Supervisor, J.W. Humphrey vowed to share its natural wonders with the world. His dream became reality in 1923, when President Warren G. Harding established Bryce as a national monument. A few years later it was officially designated a national park by the Forest Service.
In 1927, the year before its designation, an estimated 24,000 people visited Bryce Canyon to marvel at the spectacular rock formations for themselves.
Geology Meets Mythology
The legend of Bryce’s beginnings was conveyed to a park naturalist in 1936 by Indian Dick, a Paiute elder who lived on the Kaibab Reservation:
“Before there were humans, 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 Paiute people who occupied Bryce Canyon as early as 1200 A.D. considered the rock towers to be the petrified remains of ancient beings. It wasn’t until many years later that English settlers branded the formations “hoodoos.”
Bryce Canyon is not a single canyon, but a series of natural amphitheaters or bowls. The most famous of these is Bryce Amphitheater, which is brimming with hoodoos. Hoodoos are most commonly found in the High Plateaus region of Colorado and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains. However, nowhere in the world are they as abundant as in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Bryce Canyon reveals stories of an ancient lake and floodplain system, which first appeared around 50 million years ago. The North American plate and Farallon plate collided, forcing the Farallon underneath through a process called subduction. Eventually, the erosion of this plate gave way to the “Four Corners” of the United States.
The high altitude and extreme temperatures each night were (and continue to be) key factors in the shaping of these monolithic spires. When rainwater or snowmelt seeps into cracks in the rock and then freezes, the ice wedges apart the rocks. Acidic water dissolves the calcium carbonate that holds these rocks together, making them more susceptible to break-down. Walls become windows and windows become pinnacles.
There is immense beauty in the raw forces of nature. Unfortunately, hoodoo allure is only enhanced by the fleeting nature of its existence. The average rate of erosion is calculated at 2-4 feet every 100 years. Walking up to the base of a hoodoo weakens the clay slopes that protect its foundation—dramatically shortening its lifespan. Anthropogenic forces will inevitably erase them from the landscape.
Though Bryce Canyon as we know it will one day cease to exist, we can prevent further erosion and preserve hoodoo longevity by keeping to designated trail systems. Bryce Canyon National Park receives millions of visitors each year, but when you travel with Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund as part of our Grand Canyon, Bryce & Zion adventure, you’re one of only 13 travelers (and just 10 on photo departures). Accompanied by our expert naturalist guides, you can hike on “paths less traveled” and capture unique aerial footage from the path least traveled—the sky—via a 30-minute private helicopter tour.
Nat Hab traveler Sally F. wrote of her experience: “Coming upon Bryce Canyon and then flying by helicopter are two experiences I shall never forget.”
As for accommodations, traveler Susan M. recalls: “The lodges in the park were rustically charming. Their prime advantage was their location, being situated within the parks we were seeing. The Bryce Lodge was a very short walk to the rim of the canyon.”
Bryce Canyon Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of very few places where travelers can stay inside park bounds. Constructed in stone and timber and restored to its original 1920s splendor, it emanates Old West atmosphere right down to replicas of vintage hickory furniture. Set amid ponderosa pines, the lodge offers unrivaled access to trails and stunning views of the Bryce Amphitheater—providing optimal ambience for adventures to come!