The Wonders of Bryce Canyon

Thor’s Hammer at sunrise

What better way to enjoy the summer – or indeed any season – than by taking a trip into nature and exploring the marvels of a national park? Especially one as breathtaking as this! We’ve covered the gentle swirls of Antelope Canyon before on Environmental Graffiti, but today we’re going on a tour of another North American natural wonder that’s equally incredible: Utah’s Bryce Canyon, where the intriguing rock formations known as hoodoos and other amazing geological phenomena are waiting to be experienced.

First things first: Bryce Canyon is not technically in itself a canyon. Canyons are usually formed by a source of flowing water like a river that gradually erodes the landscape between two cliffs. But this didn’t happen at Bryce Canyon. The national park is actually a worn-away escarpment (a long, steep slope or cliff formed by erosion) of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. In the surrounding area there are around a dozen natural amphitheatres – U-shaped formations carved out of rocks – of which Bryce Canyon is the largest and best known.

For geological enthusiasts, the Paunsaugunt Plateau (pronounced “pawn-suh-gant“) was formed roughly 10-20 million years ago by an uplift on the even bigger Colorado Plateau. This movement caused fractures to form along the edge of the plateau. Further erosion then shaped the rock formations into the prominent features for which Bryce Canyon is so famous today: the mysterious looking ‘hoodoos’.

Distinctly tall and thin spires of rock, hoodoos often take on rather bizarre shapes, and nowhere on Earth will you see a greater concentration of these formations than in Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s the erosive forces of wind, water and ice on the rocks of river and lake beds that we have to thank for these here unique geological creations – which, by the way, are also known as tent rocks, earth pyramids or fairy chimneys.

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Hoodoos are carved out of alternating hard and soft sedimentary rock layers, which is what gives them their different and distinctive shapes. And it’s the mineral deposits inside the different types of rock that bestow each delicate pinnacle with a range of hues at different heights. In terms of size, they can be about the height of a person or taller than a 10-story building! Bryce Canyon’s marvellous hoodoos tower as high a 200 feet (61 m) up in the air.

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Contrary to what might seem logical, hoodoos are made up of harder pieces of stone sat atop relatively soft rock lying at the bottom of the structures. It’s amazing that some of the columns don’t topple – even though a few of these images seem to suggest they’re pretty precariously balanced. Apparently, the hardy upper layers are more resistant to erosion and protect the base of each hoodoo from the weather.

Paiute Indians inhabited the area around Bryce Canyon centuries before the first European Americans discovered it in the late 1700s and early 1800s (although archaeological evidence demonstrates that people have lived here for 10,000 years or more). The Native Americans had their own account of the hoodoos’ existence: they took them to be ancient “Legend People” who were turned to stone by the trickster Coyote as retribution for their misdeeds.

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One of the most well known rock formations in Bryce Canyon National Park is ‘Thor’s Hammer’, seen in this truly stunning sunrise photograph with the ‘Three Gossips’ – another hoodoo – in the background. We can easily see why the hoodoos’ shapes inspired such imaginative names, seeing as they truly look like something out of myth and legend!


Image: Mike Jones

Here’s a clearer look at Thor’s Hammer, the Three Gossips and some more of Bryce Canyon’s spectacular rock formations. They’re all actually part of what’s known as the Grand Staircase, a ‘supersequence’ of rock layers that extends from the Grand Canyon, where the oldest rock units can be found, to Bryce Canyon – as much as 300 miles (482 km) away – where the youngest units are located. In between is Zion National Park, a kind of middle step in terms of geological age, which is about 78 miles (125 km) distant from Bryce Canyon.

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Image: Mike Jones

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we get this image of star trails in the heavens above Bryce Canyon. A breathtaking capture! Still, with a location so beautiful, and some skill with a camera, getting a great shot is easy, right? Maybe not. Photographer Mike Jones explains his experience of shooting at night here: “I couldn’t even see anything through the viewfinder, it was pitch black,” he says. “I just kind of aimed the camera in the general direction I wanted to shoot, and hoped for the best.” But, voila, success! That’s Bryce Canyon for you.

When it comes to capturing incredible scenes on camera, it actually seems to help that Bryce Canyon is, interestingly, one of the darkest national parks in North America. With its 7.4 magnitude night sky, it’s a dream come true for stargazers as it means they can see as many 7,500 stars with the naked eye. It suddenly seems very crowded up there! Contrast that with the few dozen you can see in any large city and it hits home what an amazing experience it must be to witness this spectacle in Bryce Canyon.

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Image: Mike Jones

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If you’re thinking of visiting, hiking around the park is a must for those who want to fully experience its beauty. For the really adventurous (not to mention fit!) there are two trails aimed at overnight hikers – of 9 miles (14 km) and 23 miles (37 km) respectively – and, for the rest of us, there eight trails which can be completed in less than a day. This shot, for example, was taken in Queens Garden, during a relatively short hike to the bottom of Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon is stunning to visit at any time of the year, and its 10 miles (16 km) of skiing trails should be an incentive for winter sports fans to visit in the colder months – to say nothing of the fact that the rock formations look all the more stunning when capped with snow.

Striking arches like the ‘natural bridge’, seen here in winter, were carved out of the sedimentary rock by erosion.

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Image: Mike Jones

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Though this image of gentle, step-like rock formations looks quite serene, don’t miss the gusts of wind and the snow blowing around the hoodoos. As photographer Mike Jones recalls: “The canyon was brutal! There was about a 60 mph wind blowing the snow around… When I left the hotel this morning, their big thermometer said 10 degrees Fahrenheit. In Celsius, that translates to REALLY FREAKIN’ COLD!” It sure does, but for breathtaking captures like these, there’s no doubt the cold was worth it.

Another feature for which Bryce Canyon is famous is its stunning views, which often extend for miles around in all directions. From the fittingly named Farview Point, for example, you can see all the way to Navajo Mountain at the border of Utah and Arizona, about 90 miles (145 km) away. And that’s on an average day. On a good day, you might even glimpse Arizona’s Black Mesas, about 160 miles (258 km) away!

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Apart from what you see, it’s also about what you can’t see in Bryce Canyon, namely dirt in the air in the form of haze or smog. That’s why photographers in particular appreciate the high air quality, which makes their images look so crisp and clear. Couple that with the beautiful morning light, as seen in this image, and you have memories you’ll never forget – as well as photographs to treasure.

Rainbow Point (seen here) can be reached via the Bristlecone Loop hiking trail, about a one-hour hike from Bryce Canyon. It is also at the southern end of the park’s drivable loop and a good starting point, as the whole park stretches out in front of you. From Rainbow Point, visitors can walk to Yovimpa Point – the southern overlook, which provides great vistas and is the park’s highest elevation, at over 9,100 ft (2,774 m).

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Before we go, let’s not forget who the canyon was named after; that’d be Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish immigrant who was sent to the area by the Mormon church, who thought his carpentry skills might come in handy. Together with his wife, Bryce chose to live right below what became the Bryce Canyon amphitheatre. They kept livestock and planted food – in short, tried to get by in a very arid place. Ebenezer must have been somewhat famous for this achievement as fellow settlers soon referred to the area as ‘Bryce’s canyon’, which over time got shortened to Bryce Canyon. (In the end, there really wasn’t enough water to live on, so Bryce and his family left, quite literally, for greener pastures.)

Of course, there is a lot more to see at Bryce Canyon. We haven’t even talked about the amazing flora and fauna you can expect to find there – more than 400 native plant species and 170 different species of birds alone. Among the great variety of animals that inhabit the park, there are also three endangered species: the Utah Prairie Dog, the California Condor, and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Which is all by way of saying: keep your eyes open and your camera at the ready when you go!

To read about two other great North American canyons, Glen Canyon and Zion Canyon, follow the links.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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