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The Magnificent Bryce Canyon

By: Megan Cunningham

In October 2022, I traveled to Utah with my parents and my Aunt Marcie and Uncle Jeff P. Although this was mainly for my cousin John’s wedding near Salt Lake City. But in the meantime, my Aunt Marcie and Uncle Jeff P. decided to take us on some sightseeing trips to three national parks like Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Arches. Anyway, Utah’s landscape is such a far cry from my home region of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Not only does it sit at a much higher elevation, it’s significantly drier, less grassy, and much more desolate.

Although I live in the countryside, you don’t need to drive far to the nearest town or commercial center. But in Utah, the nearest points of civilization could be hours away through vast stretches of nothing. In PA, you often wake up to hazy sunny mornings from the morning dew on the grass. In Utah, that morning haze is dust. And although both places have state stores, at least you go into a PA restaurant without getting carded if they include a bar. And you’ll only be asked for ID if you order a drink. While in Utah, you’ll have to show ID in order to get inside a bar and grill before they let you in.

Despite the name, Bryce Canyon National Park isn’t really a canyon, but a collection of natural amphitheaters along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Although much smaller, less popular, and less well-known than nearby Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon’s notable for its distinct geological features called hoodoos which are colorful but delicate rock pinnacles that could be up to 200 ft tall. Formed from frost weathering along with stream erosion of river and lake bed sedimentary rocks, these hoodoos’ red, orange, and white colors provide spectacular views for visitors. The most famous of these is Thor’s Hammer, even though it doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Mjolnir in the MCU. Although Bryce Canyon isn’t the only place where you can find these hoodoos, it has one of the highest concentrations of them on earth. Other structures include arches, natural bridges, walls, and windows.

During my trip, my mom, aunt, uncle, and I went through the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trails which is the most popular route and one most recommended for first time visitors (my dad stayed behind since he’s afraid of heights). Although they recommended descending on the Queen’s Garden at Sunrise Point and ascending at the Navajo Loop at Sunset Point, the four of us did it the other way around. After rejoining my dad shortly after our ascent and a lunch at the picnic table, we drove to Rainbow Point, which doesn’t contain the more familiar scenery like the Bryce amphitheater does. But the view was just as breathtaking from the rim.

For at least 10,000 years, people have known about this site. At times, it was home to the Basketmaker Anasazi, the Pueblo-period Anasazi, and the Fremont culture, of whom little is known through their artifacts. But the best known of Bryce Canyon’s native residents are the Paiutes, a primarily hunter-gatherer tribe who came into the area around the same time as the other cultures. They created a mythology surrounding the hoodoos, believing them as Legend People whom the trickster Coyote turned to stone.

It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries when white Americans began to explore the remote and hard-to-reach areas of this place. After the 1872 Powell expedition, small groups of Mormon pioneers attempted to settle east of the Paria River. Two of these were Scottish immigrant Ebenezer Bryce and his wife Mary who established a cattle ranch right below the Bryce Amphitheater near the park’s main hoodoo collection. The Bryces’ neighbors would soon call the unusual place, “Bryce’s Canyon,” which is where the park gets its name. Unfortunately, a combination of overgrazing, flooding, and drought drove the remaining Paiutes out and prompted the settlers to build a water diversion channel from the Sevier River drainage. Once that failed, many of the settlers, including the Bryces, fled the area. Bryce Canyon would later be established as a national park on February 25, 1928.

Alongside the colorful rock formations are the extensive forests with three life zones based on elevation. Dominating the park’s lowest areas are the dwarf forests consisting of pinyon pine and juniper with manzanita, serviceberry, and antelope bitterbrush in between. Along the streams grow aspen, cottonwood, water birch, and willow. Covering mid-elevations are Ponderosa pine forests with blue spruce and Douglas fir in water-rich areas. With bitterbush and manzanita acting as underbush. While the Paunsaugunt Plateau forests consist of Douglas fir, white fir, aspen, and Engelmann spruce. With the harshest areas consisting of limber pine and ancient Great Basin bristlecone pine, some still holding on after more than 1,600 years.

Although I only saw a spattering of wildlife during my visit to Bryce Canyon, animals frequenting the park include chipmunks, foxes, badgers, porcupines, elk, skunks, bobcats, pronghorn, mule deer, cougars, marmots, and coyotes. Endangered species you might find consist of the California condor, the southwestern willow flycatcher, and the Utah prairie dog. The last of these was reintroduced to the park. Today the largest protected population of these critters is found within the park’s boundaries. Bryce Canyon also sees about 170 species of birds visit or reside in the park each year.

Although most species usually migrate south for the winter, woodpeckers, jays, ravens, nuthatches, eagles, and owls stay. In addition to these animals are eleven species of reptiles like the Great Basin rattlesnake, short-horned lizard, side blotched lizard, and striped rattlesnake. Along with four amphibian species like the tiger salamander. And lastly in the park are the black, lumpy, and slow-growing colonies of cryptobiotic soil, a mix of lichens, fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria. All of which slow down erosion, add nitrogen to the soil, and help it retain moisture.

Those who prefer the nightlife will be pleased to know that Bryce Canyon has a 7.4 magnitude night sky, one of the darkest in North America. While light pollution only allows most people to see less than 2,000 stars with the naked eye and only a few dozen within large cities, you can see over 7,500 stars in Bryce Canyon with no telescope required. If you have to leave before sundown, the visitor center is happy to provide a stimulation on what the place’s night skies look like.

Rangers also host stargazing events and evening programs on astronomy, nocturnal animals, and night sky protection. Every June, thousands of visitors gather at the park for the Night Sky Astronomy Festival and there's even an asteroid named after the park for this reason.


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