Here Be Hoodoos – Bryce Canyon National Park

Sometimes nature is so overwhelmingly beautiful you are rendered speechless, such as when the wildflowers in the American Basin are in full bloom. Other times nature can be horrifyingly destructive and you are left hopeless, such as when a hurricane floods your town. But sometimes nature fills you with wonder and awe because of its vastness, strangeness, or as in the case of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, bewilderment that such a thing exists at all.

Bryce Canyon National Park, the last of The Mighty Five of Utah I had to visit, is the second smallest in the National Park System only to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, but it delivers in the category of natural wonder in a powerful way.

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We arrived mid-day from our visit of Zion National Park and proceeded to do a quick survey of Bryce. During our scouting, we made a quick visit to one of the lookouts of the Bryce Amphitheatre, the park’s main attraction.

Sometimes when seeing a well-worn image in person, such as a famous statue or landmark, it’s a bit of a letdown; as if all the years of seeing the image, time after time, had somehow eroded all wonder associated.  This was not the case with the Bryce Amphitheatre. Spread out all around us and below were hundreds of hoodoos (tall, narrow spires of rock, worn by weather elements, protruding from the bottom of the basin) in enough varying sizes and shapes to keep us looking for hours.

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It’s hard to describe how unique these geological structures are. There are hoodoos all over the world in various places, but I had never seen any so big nor so many in one place as I did in Bryce.

After our quick peek at the park, we checked into the hotel at the nearby town of Tropic. We had an early dinner and then it was back to Bryce for sunset. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, if you are ever out west, the best environment to view the rocks at their most vibrant is in morning and evening light, and in this, Bryce did not disappoint.

Again positioning ourselves at one of the lookouts (Sunset Point, naturally) we watched the color of the hoodoos come alive in the late light of the day, noticing formations in ways we had not earlier under the harsh summer sun.

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Looking north from Sunset Point
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Thor’s Hammer

My camera in some ways made the experience all the more valuable. There are so many formations, so many fins and windows, that without the frame a camera provides, it all gets lost in a massive wholeness, which of course is one wonderful way to experience the amphitheater. But through the camera lens, and especially with a zoom, you see more easily the individual hoodoos, their color and shape. Once you think you have photographed enough, you pull your eye back from the viewfinder and see a number of formations have shifted in color, or new ones you simply didn’t notice before, and then it’s back to the camera.

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More than just a small park with a few nice overlooks, there are a number of hiking trails that take you down into the hoodoos, an ideal way to experience the park. We made a quick run down into Queen’s Garden, walking among the formations. I spent so much time slack-jawed at the rising formations above me, it was difficult to remember to watch my footing on the trail.

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After the sunset, we rested back at the cabin preparing for a long night. The park was going to host a skywatching party that evening and we would be up late. Bryce Canyon NP is one of the better parks for this because of 1) its 8,000-foot elevation and 2) its remoteness. The park rangers had two telescopes set up and we were able to see Vega, Saturn, and Jupiter including the Galilean Moons.

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I tried a few test shots and then realized I was not equipped to take quality night photos. I hadn’t even brought a tripod.

What an opportunity this was! The last time I looked deeply into space was college. At the university observatory, which had a powerful telescope, I remember looking at the star Rigel and thinking it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. And now these 23 years later, I once again was given the opportunity to look into the heavens and see with my eyes the wonder of the universe, this one star and two planets, the brightest, most pure white light I have ever seen.

As we headed back to the hotel, we could just begin to see the emergence of the Milky Way. What a tremendous tragedy that we are so removed from this aspect of our existence, the night sky. We’ve washed it out with artificial light and separated ourselves from the marvel that hangs above our heads each night, and we are poorer for it.  

I could not help but think of the quote by the great Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson,

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

As it was a late night, the next day we slept in a bit, and then returned to the park to drive the only road that runs along the ridge of the canyon, aptly titled Park Road. Along it were numerous pullouts and overlooks, each with their own personality, to where it finally came to an end at Rainbow Point. We looked around, took pictures, felt the wind whip through our hair, and then returned along the same road.

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For the remainder of the day, we piddled around the area. Though Bryce Canyon is a small park, there is plenty to do around in the area. BCNP is near the end (or beginning) of scenic Highway 12 which I highly recommend driving. You’re also practically surrounded by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an area of endless outdoor activities.

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Erosion at its finest – this pine on the edge of the amphitheater attempts to hang on as its roots have been exposed over the years.

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That evening we went back to the amphitheater to watch the sunset transform the hoodoos once again and say goodbye. I made a quick hike of the Apache Trail that, like Queen’s Garden, travels down into the hoodoos. I was taken by the sheer size and variety of the formations, and that vegetation grew within it as well.

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Looking up from the bottom of Wall Street on the Apache Trail.

And then that was it, the end of our third national park of the trip and the astonishing beauty of Bryce Canyon.

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With such grand vistas, let’s end with something very small.

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