Bryce Canyon National Park
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Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is a spectacle of color and erosion

Bryce Canyon National Park does not contain one main canyon, but rather a dozen smaller ravines eroded into the east side of a ridge at the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southwest Utah. This erosion has resulted in thousands of bizarre and fragile rock formations in many subtle shades of pink, white, yellow and red. The Park is named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon farmer who was the first modern-day settler in the region. The park is located about 270 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada and about 270 miles south of Salt Lake City. It is 85 miles northeast of Zion National Park.

Trees and rock formations in Bryce Canyon National Park Utah © John Crossely
Apart from admiring the formations, it is worth walking the short Bristlecone Loop Trail, at the south end of the park, to see the 4000-year-old bristlecone pines.

The main ridge forms part of the Pink Cliffs, which are the highest and most geologically recent of a series of escarpments known as the Grand Staircase stretching across south Utah, formed by erosion and uplift of differently coloured sandstone rock layers. The cliffs are named according to the dominant rock colour: (running northwards, from the Grand Canyon) - Chocolate, Vermilion (visible most spectacularly around Lees Ferry, AZ), White (which surround Zion Canyon), Gray and Pink. Most of the Grand Staircase is now contained within the new Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument.

Water was initially responsible for creating the rock shapes in Bryce Canyon. Rain and melting snow flowing down the Pink Cliffs towards the Paria River formed ridges, or fins, which subsequently eroded into the spires, pinnacles and other shapes (collectively known as 'Hoodoos') which are left standing. In time these too will erode, and the whole process will move westwards as more of the cliff is gradually worn away.

Appreciate the scenery from 14 viewpoints along the road

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park Utah © J Paul Meurant
Rain and melting snow flowing down the Pink Cliffs towards the Paria River formed ridges, or fins, which subsequently eroded into the spires, pinnacles and other shapes (collectively known as 'Hoodoos').

Bryce Canyon is reached by the scenic highway UT12 which crosses the northeast corner of the park. The entrance road branches southwards, follows the ridge for 18 miles, and has 14 viewpoints of which Bryce Point is the most famous and gives the best perspective of the extent and variety of the rock formations. The first overlook is Fairyland Point, a pretty side valley with a small-scale version of the main canyon. This is reached before the park entrance station, and so can be appreciated without payment. From the viewpoints it is often possible to see 100 miles south and east towards Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon.

Increased visitation over the last few years has led to the introduction of access restrictions during the summer. Vehicles over 25 feet long are not allowed beyond Bryce Point, a shuttlebus service is provided instead. As with most National Parks, the best way to appreciate Bryce Canyon is to explore away from the main roads. There are various trails along the rim and down through the formations. The Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8 mile, little-used route which descends 900 feet from the ridge road and winds through many of the fins and spires is one of the most spectacular.

Sunrise is a magical time at Bryce Canyon

Many of the formations have received official names, such as Tower Bridge due to its resemblance to one of the Thames bridges in London. The park is especially beautiful at sunrise, when the rapidly changing light and shadows make the landscape even more magical. Sunsets are not so good, as the main ridge shields the park from the west.

Temperatures in Bryce are always less than other parks in Utah due to the high elevation (7900 feet at the visitor centre, rising to 9100 feet at Rainbow Point); hence even summer hiking is usually comfortable. However, the altitude does mean that the air is thin, and even modest hiking can become exhausting. Apart from admiring the formations, it is worth walking the short Bristlecone Loop Trail, at the south end of the park, to see the 4000-year-old bristlecone pines. These are the longest-lived species of trees in the world. Snow may be present for six months during the winter, although the park remains open all year.

Accommodations are limited in the Park but plentiful nearby

The National Park Service operates a motel, the Bryce Canyon Lodge, and two campgrounds in the park. Accommodations at the lodge can be reserved through Xanterra, the park concessionaire at: www.Xanterra.com. The lodge also offers a restaurant, snack bar, grocery store, camping supply and souvenir shop. Additional accommodations are available nearby at Bryce, Hatch, Canonville and Panguitch.

Written by: John Crossley
Top Photo Credit: © Alexandre Roussez
Photo Description: Bryce Canyon