Hell of a place to lose a cow: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

As you near the rim for the first time, the view is dramatic and overwhelming. Numerous pines veil the grandeur of the amphitheater until you reach the edge. Then, abruptly, the land falls away and looking down you see hundreds of delicately carved spires and hoodoos come alive in pastel colors.

Bryce Canyon's limestone has eroded into rock fins and spectacularly-shaped spires called hoodoos. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just when you think you’ve seen as much color and sculptured rock for­mations Mother Nature can create, you enter Bryce Canyon for yet anoth­er brilliant and stunning display.

Bryce Canyon National Park isn’t really a canyon. Rather it is a “break” or series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters carved from the eastern slope of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah.

Erosion has shaped colorful Claron limestones, sandstones, and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles, and mazes. Collectively called “hoodoos”, these unique formations are whimsically arranged and tinted with colors too numerous and subtle to name.

The native Paiutes provided the best description of Bryce, calling it “Unka timpe-wa-wince-pock-ich”, or red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shape canyon.

Years later when pioneer Ebenezer Bryce built a ranch at the bottom of the canyon, he described the area as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”.

Fir trees grow amid towering rock walls at Bryce. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon is named after Ebenezer Bryce, an immigrant from Scotland, who established a homestead in the Paria Valley in 1875. Bryce was sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because his skill as a carpenter would be useful in settling the area. Locals started calling the canyon with the strange rock formations near his home “Bryce’s Canyon.”

The rim of the canyon is between 8,000 to 9,100 feet above sea level. In summer, daytime temperatures are in the 80s but fall to the 40s by night.

Bryce is a compact park—just 56 square miles—which makes it easier to explore than many national parks in the West.

Drive the park’s 18-mile rim road near sunrise or sunset when the light is most dramatic and the hoodoos, stained by minerals, glow fiery red, burnt orange and delicate pink in the slanting rays of sun. Fourteen viewpoints along the rim road look down hundreds of feet into the natural amphitheaters where the hoodoos cluster.

Bryce Canyon National Park is 24 miles southeast of Panguitch on Highway 63; east of the junction of Highways 12 and 89.

Hiking

A hike into the hoodoos puts one in another world. The park has over 50 miles of hiking trails with a range of distances and elevation change. Most trails descend into the canyon and wind around the oddly shaped formations.

In just a few of hours on the trail, you can experience Bryce Canyon’s spectacular scenery.

But a word of caution: Many trails that descend to the bottom are moderate to steep, making the return part of the hike—which is uphill—the most strenuous. Bryce’s high elevation requires extra exertion, so assess your ability and know your limits. Wear hiking boots with good tread and ankle support and carry plenty of water.

Photo tips

Towering sandstone spires turned fiery by late afternoon sunlight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Light affects the saturation and intensity of color. Lighting conditions vary during the day and are also affected by weather and the seasons.

In general, morning and late afternoon are the best times for photographing the canyon from the viewpoints along the rim. In the morning, the hoodoos glow orange with the rising sun; the light is rich and warm, and shadows bring out texture and form. Details become flatter as the sun rises and light becomes harsher. The late afternoon sun penetrates the narrow gorges, making scenery along the trails come alive. As sunset approaches, colors become muted.

To darken the sky and saturate colors use a polarizing filter.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Details

Elevation: 8,000-9,100 feet

Operating hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day; temporary road closures during and shortly after winter snow storms may occur until plowing is completed and conditions are safe for visitor traffic

Location: 4.5 miles south of the intersection of Highways 12 and 63

Admission: $25/vehicle (good for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping: $15/night

North Campground: 13 RV (no electricity) campsites available by reservation during certain times of the year, and 86 other tent or RV campsites that are available on a first come-first serve basis; for reservation, click here

Sunset Campground: 100 sites in 3 loops; 20 Tent Sites are available for reservation during certain times of the year in Loop B; for reservation, click here

Pets: Not allowed on any hiking trails or viewpoints

Contact: (435) 834-5322

Address: PO Box 640201, Bryce Canyon UT 84764-0201

Worth Pondering…
For all of us have our loved places; all of us have laid claim to parts of the earth; and all of us, whether we know it or not, are in some measure the products of our sense of place.

—Alan Gussow

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