Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

The rocky wonder of Bryce Canyon National Park

December 21, 2009, 8:15 am

In November, with Seattle drowning in downpours and darkness, I escaped to the red rock and blue skies of the Southwest.

I drove empty country roads and hiked in three of the country's natural treasures — Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, both in Utah.

Each was stunning in scenery and geology. But it was at Bryce, the more remote and less visited of the three parks, that I found the best cure for my rain-sodden mind and body in its peaceful sun-drenched gardens of stone and star-spangled nights.

Geology has run riot in Bryce, creating one of the world's unique landscapes in the southern Utah wilderness. Soft, colorful limestone has eroded into a maze of rock fins; a handful of slot canyons just a few yards wide; and hundreds of fantastically shaped rock spires called hoodoos.

"Hell of a place to lose a cow," said 19th-century Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, after whom the park (established in 1928) is named. But I was happy to lose myself on easygoing hiking trails that twist among hundreds of hoodoos.

Some hoodoos tower 150 feet tall, slender totem-like spires that thrust into the sky. Shorter hoodoos, some just the height of a person, bulge and curve. Some are named after the images they evoke, from Queen Victoria to the Chessmen and Thor's Hammer.

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, like armies of stone.

If you're able, take a hike and get close to the hoodoos. Go slowly for the scenery and your breath: the park's rim sits at 8,000 to 9,000 feet and trails drop 500 feet or more from it.

If you can hike only one trail, make it the three-mile route that combines the Navajo and Queens Garden trails. It twists through a slot canyon whose sheer rock walls glow in the sun and among hundreds of hoodoos in otherworldly gardens of stone.

Off-season pleasures

From late spring to early fall, Bryce and other national parks in the Southwest are packed with visitors from all over the world. Germans seem to have a particular love affair with the American West, renting RVs and roaming from park to park. And Americans, pinched by the economic recession, rediscovered the low-cost glories of their national parks this past summer.

But in the off-season, as in my November visit, the parks are often blissfully empty. At Bryce, trails had only a few hikers, cheerfully greeting each other. Viewpoints along the rim road were empty. The 164-room Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel — a rather grand name for a Best Western, although it's shiny new and very comfortable — had just a handful of guests. Thanks to off-season discounts, I paid just $75 a night at the hotel for a spacious room with a flat screen TV, high-quality bed linens and free hot breakfast.

I was glad to be staying at a hotel instead of camping since temperatures at night tumbled to well below freezing.

No matter how cold it got, I wasn't going to miss Bryce's star show. The park is renowned for stargazing, thanks to its natural darkness in a remote area hundreds of miles from a big city. It's one of the least light-polluted areas in the continental United States.

Wearing all the clothes I'd packed, I drove out to a park viewpoint, turned off the engine and stepped out into inky darkness and utter silence. The sky teemed with stars and the Milky Way shimmered, a magical carpet of delicate light.

On clear and moonless nights, about 7,500 stars can be seen from Bryce, say park officials — more than three times what can be seen in many U.S. rural areas. The park's "dark rangers" take visitors stargazing in the evenings, with astronomy talks and telescopes.

The rangers had finished their outdoor star talks for the season. But Bryce, with its hoodoos by day and starry nights, is a gift for all seasons.

Source: Seattle Times