At Bryce Canyon, a touch of Zeusian majesty in a world of Seussian whimsy

By Michael J. Bailey GLOBE STAFF DECEMBER 09, 2016

One in a series of occasional stories marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.


BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK — Tall, slender tufted trees squeeze through dark slips of canyons toward the light. Human features turn rocks into surrealistic statues. Boisterous colors abound and surround.

It’s as if Theodor Geisel channeled Greek gods to create this place. In Bryce Canyon, you get a smidge of Zeusian majesty with a world of Seussian whimsy.

This is the kind of place that demands an early wake-up call. Get to the park’s Sunrise Point while the stars still harness the sky. Emerging shafts of sunlight transform the puddle of black below your feet into formations of riotously rendered rocks.

Here, the advent of day doesn’t break. It creates.

After the crowd disperses, linger on the point. Maybe even bring a book (Edward Abbey’s classic “Desert Solitaire’’ is a fine fit) for when the light is constant. But when it shifts, when the sun and the clouds joust, watch the interplay of light on the amphitheater of rocks below. Just brilliant.Viewing the miles of colors and bizarre formations, you can’t help but wonder how this came to be. As much as the mythic realm of your thinking wants to conjure up some magical creation story and your analytical side imagines immense epochal forces at play, the truth is more mundane.

It, essentially, comes down to one constant — water — and one variable — temperature.
Bryce Canyon is actually not a canyon; it was not carved by flowing water. Instead, because it is in the high desert, the rocks contend with great temperature fluctuations. For 200 times a year, the temperature drops below freezing then warms above. Water that seeps into fissures in the rock freeze, expanding up to 10 percent and exerting forces up to 20,000 pounds per square inch. A geothermal jackhammer.

Slices and chunks of the rocks, mainly fragile limestone, crumble away.

Because this area in Utah is an ancient sea bed, packed with layers of differing deposits of minerals that carry their colors through the millennia, the resulting formations are awash in various hues. These totem-pole-like structures carry the kicking name of “hoodoos.’’

The other story of this place, the one passed along a millennia of tribal people, not surprisingly holds more enchantment than that decreed by science.

According to Paiute folklore, before the humans walked the Earth this was the land of the “Legend People:’’ animals of the desert who possessed the power to transform themselves into human shapes.

They also were a mischievous bunch. And after one misdeed too many, the Coyote spirit froze them into statues.

“You can see them in that place now,’’ one Paiute elder told the park service in 1936, “all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks.’’

Hold both creation stories in your head as you leave Sunrise Point. The scale and scope of Bryce are jaw-dropping when seen from above, but the best way to view the hoodoos, fins, pinnacles, minarets, and serrated walls of sedimentary stone is up close, from the canyon floor.

The heights of the hoodoos range from your size to taller than a 10-story building. And the park features several outstanding trails between and around them. An easy one, Queens Garden, starts at Sunrise Point, then descends into the canyon. The grade is moderate, the trail well packed and easy to follow. It is the desert, so pack at least a liter of water.

The path meanders gently down along crayon-colored rocks and through stone passageways before reaching the canyon floor. A formation resembling Queen Victoria, at least at one time, is off a spur trail from a path that connects Queens Garden and the Navajo trails. Continue on the connector path to Navajo’s Wall Street section, so named because the path cuts through towering walls much as the famed street slices through canyons of buildings in Lower Manhattan.

Here, pay attention to the few trees able to clutch life. A solitary pine, anonymous in any forest, cuts a majestic profile in the light against the rocks. Somehow, stout, centuries-old Douglas fir trees slice up through openings, to the sky

Mostly, trees at the canyon’s floor have become gnarled shells, wizened, bleached, and blackened.

The trek up through Wall Street turns steep but easily managed through a series of switchbacks. You emerge from the darkened tunnel of rock into the light with much of the same sensations as stepping out of a chapel into a bright Sunday morning.

A quick, easy jaunt along the rim trail will take you back to Sunrise Point. Keep an eye out for Thor’s Hammer, one of the most photographed formations in the park, from the rim trail near Sunset Point.

The National Park Service calls this combined Queens Garden and Navajo trails the best three-mile hike in the world. You’ll get no argument from the crowds of folks who pack it.

If you are looking for something more solitary and open, consider the Fairyland Loop. It’s much longer, eight miles, and more arduous, ascending about 1,000 feet in the second half of the trail. But such sites as the China Wall and Tower Bridge are worth the extra steps and sweat.

As you clamber around, maybe keep in mind one of those Seussian sayings: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.’’