Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Utah Saga: Bryce Canyon National Park

Sad disclaimer: My camera batteries died just as I pulled into Bryce, therefore I apologize for the noticeable lack of quality images. Before jumping into Bryce, I want to recap my epic Utah saga thus far. I've now been to three of the five national parks (and one bonus state park) in the beehive state. The first two days were spent exploring Arches,  followed by a three-day backpacking trek into Canyonlands' The Needles wilderness, followed by a quick visit to Capitol Reef. Now I was heading to Bryce Canyon. Months before taking this adventure, I heard tales from friends and family who also luckily had the chance to get out to Utah constantly harped about Bryce. Common remarks of "Dude you've gotta get to Bryce," or "The Hoodoos will absolutely blow your mind." More on what the heck a hoodoo is later in this post. After a blissful hike through Gran Staircase-Escalante National Monument's Calf Creek Recreation Area's, I hopped back on Utah State Route 12 towards the towns of Cannonville, Tropic, and then Bryce.

Established in 1928, Bryce has been on my bucket list for quite a while. The biggest difference between Bryce Canyon National Park and its four siblings is the elevation. At its highest point, Bryce sits right at 9,115 ft. Temperatures here in the evening were much chillier than other parks, dropping into the low 40s at nightfall. At a little under 36,000 acres, Bryce deserves at least two days of your time here to really enjoy all its wonders. Some of the best hiking I did in Utah happened at Bryce, and need to return ASAP.

I started my exploration from the parking area north of the General Store, descending almost a thousand feet into the amphitheater that's home to thousands of humbling rock formations, arches, and hoodoos, all complemented by a fleet of junipers. Smelling the heavenly scents from the nearby weathered junipers, I hiked along the upper rim until I got to Sunrise Point, then followed the Queens Garden Trail which eventually connected to the Navajo Loop Trail. In combining these two trails I was able to carve aside plenty of hours of exposure to Bryce's puzzling landscape. I meandered through the striking slot canyon called Wall Street and past landmarks with names like Silent City and Thor's Hammer.

One of my favorite surprises about Bryce was just how forested parts of it were. Giant junipers and bristlecone pines were everywhere. I wanted to hug all of them. This high desert and its pallet of colors seriously intrigued my mind. Okay, so, what's a "hoodoo?" According to the National Park Service, a hoodoo is a tall skinny spire of rock that can rise sometimes up to 150 ft out of the dry, arid basin. Hoodoos are often seen in the scattered across the High Plateau region of the greater Colorado Plateau, and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains (i.e. North and South Dakota, which makes sense given the collection of them at Badlands National Park).

If you get to Bryce on your own grand tour of Utah's five national parks, the best tip I can offer is to get out deep into the amphitheater at sunset. During the day, the aforementioned trails can get almost obnoxiously busy and crowded...but for whatever odd reason, once the sun starts to hide, they're a ghost town. At dusk, I had essentially the entire iconic amphitheater area to myself. Being that Bryce is higher up in elevation, the temperatures, especially in the fall, drop rapidly. I donned a couple of layers, a knit hat, and hit the trails (which were empty). Being alone in the amphitheater under a glowing Utah sunset claimed a special spot in my book for being one of the most beautiful things I have ever truly seen. The hoodoos almost illuminate in bursts of pink, orange, red, crimson, and copper. Please... take your absolute, sweet, merry, and relaxed time. Stay in the amphitheater and bury yourself in the hoodoos until it's dark, and obviously bring a headlamp.

Near the park's entrance is a glimpse of modern civilization and a few major chain hotels. After preparing dinner in the park from the tailgate of the rental Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, I found a spot to park and camp out for the night cozily in the backseat, bundled up in my sleeping bag. The next morning, I reentered Bryce early and paid a few quarters for a hot shower at the park's General Store. It had been a few days since I showered and the cooler, thinner air surrounding Bryce definitely woke me up once I shut the water off.

Before heading onwards to the final destination of the saga, Zion, I took to on the 18-mile Rim Road Scenic Drive which winds its way south towards the highest point in the park, Rainbow Point. At 9,115 ft, I was moved by grand panoramic views I still recall today. I could see for what felt like forever, admiring the rocky and forested terrain that covered the Paunsaugunt Plateau that Bryce sits atop of. Arches and natural bridges are clearly a popular commodity found on Utah's cherished public lands, and Bryce has a unique formation of its own, the 85 ft Natural Bridge. I can't wait to get back here.