From its oddly-shaped hoodoos to its pumpkin-hued walls. Outpost heads to a Southwest gem just for the spectacular views
The wind did not howl but roar—an unbridled beast ripping through the void beyond the pumpkin-hued cliffs. It clawed and gnawed at our tents as we fought back determinedly, wrangling the flapping nylon into submission and tethering it to the gravely soil. Below us and upon the adjacent plateau, bristly ponderosa pines and charred tree carcasses textured the panorama, while swatches of pristine snow lay like fallen clouds. The escaping sun cast its magnolia-tinted glow as we set up camp on the precipice, battling the untamed wind in its own domain as baleful clouds prowled the horizon.
I hammered down the tent peg with a chunk of sandstone as my dreadlocks writhed like Medusa’s serpents in the ferocious gale, then gazed out at the vista. In the 200 miles that stretched before me, I saw not a building nor a highway, nor any other sign of human activity.
I was suddenly and overwhelmingly minified by my surroundings; a sensation that was humbling, terrifying and electrifying all at the same time. Such is the awesome power of the views of Utah’s Bryce Canyon. In addition to Salt Lake City and the legend of Butch Cassidy, Utah is actually renowned for its national parks. Exquisite photos of Zion, Canyonland and Arches often grace the covers of outdoors magazines, yet frequently and unjustly overlooked is Bryce Canyon, whose surreal landscape resembles something between a foreign planet and a Rorschach test.
Bryce Canyon is composed of 14 horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters cut into the Paunsaugunt Plateau’s eastern wall. Its name is a misnomer: canyons are fashioned through erosion caused by a central stream, whereas Bryce is expanding via a process known as headward erosion. Its rim is receding one-and-a-half feet every 60 years, and it’s theorized that the entire plateau will crumble into oblivion in the next one million years (so be sure to snag those visitor passes now!). Additionally, the exposed rocks are only 100 million years old, making Bryce Canyon a mere babe in arms when compared to the Grand Canyon’s 1.5 billion-year-old outcrops.
The national park’s scenery is predominantly defined by its unusual rock spires called hoodoos, which are formed through a combination of mechanical and chemical weathering. Mechanical weathering occurs as a result of the temperature ascending above and descending below zero degrees on more than 200 days per year. Water trickles into crannies, fractures and rifts, where it then freezes and expands by nine percent, exerting between 2,000 and 20,000 lbs of pressure per square inch.
Known as frost-wedging, this process shatters and separates the rock, creating slender, horizontally elongated shapes dubbed fins. Synchronously, chemical weathering takes place when acid rain slowly erodes the minerals (with softer rock dissolving faster than harder rock), breaking the fins into hoodoo pinnacles and smoothing the skin of the limestone.
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Field guide Delano Lavigne, and teammates Jimmy Martinello, Bowen Mei and I rendezvoused in Las Vegas, then drove for four hours through three states to Bryce Canyon (Nevada, Arizona and Utah). Surprisingly, the shift in altitude hit us harder than we had expected, and during our inaugural hike black spots squirted across my line of vision like octopus ink, and even outdoor gurus Delano and Jimmy felt winded. Luckily, a good night’s sleep and a lot of water wholly remedied our malaise by the following morning.
Team Outpost’s first encounter with the notorious and weirdly-fascinating hoodoos was at the Sunrise Point lookout. We staggered toward the crag of the amphitheater, agog over what looked like hundreds of yearning fingers reaching up from unseen palms—or sand castles dissolving beneath the waxing tide, or chess pieces awaiting the first move, or stone skyscrapers comprising an archaic metropolis—in seashell shades of pink and orange.
The hoodoos immediately sparked a creative debate. Delano interpreted their silhouettes as mosque-like minarets that recalled his time in Turkey; I insisted they were Hindu temples akin to those I visited in India; and Bowen thought they were like the decaying towers of the Angkor region that he fancied to someday explore in Cambodia. Jimmy, meanwhile, saw termite mounds.
We finally all agreed that they looked like people, and as the shadows between them began to slink and stretch, it seemed more and more as though there was indeed a shuffling crowd peering back up at us. The indigenous Paiutes—a largely nomadic people that inhabited the region in the 12th century—had apparently reached the same conclusion.
They believed that Bryce Canyon was once populated by the To-when-an-ung-wa—creatures that visually mimicked humans but were in actuality animals. Legend has it that one day their society disobeyed and enraged the great Coyote spirit. The deity sought vengeance on the creatures by transforming them into the rock steeples that, in a certain light, hauntingly resemble huddled individuals cowering in duress. The flushed pigment of the hoodoos is attributed to the To-when-an-ung-wa donning face paint at the moment of their smiting.
Folklore remains conspicuously vague regarding precisely what misdeed the To-when-an-ung-wa committed, and I couldn’t help but wonder if opportunistic Paiute parents ever manipulated the story as needed when coaxing their wayward offspring into compliance. “The To-when-an-ung-wa didn’t want to go to sleep at bedtime either, and look what happened to them!” Alas, we shall never know.
Temperatures plunged to an unseasonal toe-blanching, ear-stinging -7 degrees Celsius during our maiden night of camping. I bundled up in all of my clothing (plus Bowen’s jacket and Jimmy’s mittens) as we returned to Sunrise Point to admire the nocturnal view that lures innumerable stargazers to partake in Bryce Canyon’s famed astronomy program. The fortuitous combination of high altitude and low light pollution means that, on a clear night, up to 7,500 g stars and the ethereal arm of the Milky Way can be glimpsed—but only by those undaunted by the sight of their own breath illuminated in the starlight.
Even though it was after 1 a.m. when we at last squirmed into our mummy bags, we were up again at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise. It was still dark when we arrived at the lookout, and I refused to part with the sleeping bag liner that I draped over my shoulders—namely because it would remind Bowen and Jimmy where their extra garments had sneaked off to, and I was worried that they would demand their stuff back (sorry, guys).
Morning slipped in with an esoteric hush. Initially, we tried to stave off the cold with silly photos and nonsensical jokes. But as the periwinkle light embraced us along with the hoodoos, we fell into an introspective silence as impenetrable as that of the natural structures below.
We embarked that day on the Fairyland Loop trail, which guided us from yet another gob-smacking outlook to the base of the formations. A path of rose-coloured dust meandered around the enormous stones, allowing us to engage with them from a new perspective. Now, they looked less like towers and more like giant, blushing raisins balancing on end.
The temperature see-sawed dramatically due to the elevation, the midday sun roasted our pallid cheeks to a colour not unlike that of our surroundings, and the shadowed passes commanded the hairs on our forearms to stand at attention. Delano had advised us to bring layers and it seemed as though we changed our wardrobes every 10 minutes or so. Time cantered past at a discordant rhythm—hours whisked away from us as we gaped at our surroundings, lost in the absence of thought.
The next morning, we packed our gear into our backpacks and set out on the Under the Rim trail. Like the Fairyland Loop, it began at the rim and languidly unfurled into the valley below. As the view shrunk to whatever could be contained between the vermilion walls, nuanced elements of Bryce Canyon shyly revealed themselves. Sap from the ubiquitous ponderosa pines released a scent not unlike butterscotch when warmed in the sun, while antiquated junipers gradually twisted over upon themselves like strips of plastic melting on a hearth.
Skeletal trees bore piceous burns from either lightning strikes or forest fires; brittle protrusions amid the soft conifers.
Evening came early in the shade of the valley and we banked just enough time to pitch our tents at Yellow Creek before the sun darted out of view. We were the only people at the campsite and, mindful of the still-squishy mountain lion scat we had warily navigated around during our descent, the distance I ventured into the bush to relieve myself bore an invert relationship to how late it was. That night, Jimmy and I were both awakened by the padded footfalls of a lurking mammal investigating our nylon settlement, although we were unable to discern track marks in the morning.
Clambering back up to the rim the following day was a grueling undertaking—so much so that Delano barely prevented Bowen from launching himself off the cliff-side, presumably so that he could be medevac’d the rest of the way up. However, that equated to a jaunt across the lawn when compared to our next excursion: a roundtrip between Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point.
At more than 9,100 feet (2,447 meters), this is the highest area in Bryce Canyon—which we were reminded of by the flurry of tiny snowflakes that swirled around our shoulders like balls of packing Styrofoam caught in a vacuum cleaner. Douglas fir, white fir and blue spruce shaded the wet snow that lingered in the muddy depressions, while tangled manzanita and felled trees grasped at our hiking boots.
On one particularly gravity-mocking, quadriceps-igniting decline, I was ambushed by a thicket of impudent foliage and face-planted into the undergrowth. The path was coyly illusive, and there were moments where we found ourselves bushwhacking through vegetation that occasionally whacked back. Pokey branches prodded at our backpacks like conspicuous pickpockets, while steep planes thieved the breath out of our lungs.
It wasn’t long before I was sweating despite the cool air and shedding my multiple layers like a molting insect. The last ascension was especially arduous, and I uttered a slew of curse words that Outpost editors would not approve of me recanting here as I crawled toward the summit.
When we at last lurched out of the trees, we were rewarded by a view that rendered us even more jelly-kneed than the walk up. This was where the wind was roaring over the reddish-orange-hued cliffs. We stood captivated by everything we saw and heard, until Delano finally reminded us that we didn’t have much daylight left, and that it would be prudent to pitch our tents hastily.
The winds were so violent that the four of us ate our freeze-dried pad Thai inside the tent that Bowen and I shared, the headlamp we affixed to the ceiling reverberating against the shimmying walls. That night, we were all robbed of sleep by the rioting weather that rattled our shelters with such brutality we each privately wondered if we would be hurled over the edge, and inched a little closer to our respective tent mate during the worst of it.
We awoke to a predawn light that delicately enveloped us like grey cashmere. The morning chill nipped and snapped at our cheeks as per usual, but it did not deter us from scrambling out of our tents to take in the spectacular view.
Despite being one of the less famed national parks in the state, Bryce Canyon offers a mystically-infused landscape with hoodoos that tickle the imagination and panoramas that rattle the senses. And while our fingertips did occasionally sting from the unexpected cold front, any discomfort we experienced was nullified with one glance at the exotic beauty that encompassed us. From its sunset-coloured geology to its butterscotch-scented forests, the sweeping views of Bryce Canyon are overwhelmingly worth whatever it takes to experience them.
- This was an opXpedition (Outpost Expedition), and first appeared in Outpost magazine. For more great original travel stories from Outpost Travel Media, click here.