Bryce, Utah — There's a subtle but unforgettable reward for those who get up early at Bryce Canyon, a national park with decidedly unsubtle terrain.
A half-dozen intrepid travelers had gathered at the overlook at Bryce Point in subfreezing temperatures, equipped with cameras and Styrofoam cups of coffee. Under the moonlight and the gray predawn glow, we could barely make out the tall, ghostly rock formations jutting up from the canyon almost like the spires of a giant sandcastle.
At 6:53 a.m., the sun peaked over the eastern horizon. A ray of light slowly spilled over the canyon, illuminating this bizarre and breathtakingly beautiful freak of erosion, revealing a delicious pastel display of salmon, peach, lemon and cream.
Visiting canyons and the wealth of other stark, gorgeous products of erosion in the U.S. Southwest is a little like visiting art museums in Paris. There are dozens to choose from, and the Grand Canyon, like the Louvre, overshadows the rest with its off-the-board magnitude, depth and fame.
That doesn't mean there aren't others worth stopping by and seeing while you're there. And Bryce is one smaller-scaled wonder that provides a glimpse of something unlike anywhere else.
Besides the dazzling display of colors, erosion has left an army of stone pillars known as "hoodoos" within the canyon, which is technically shaped more like a natural amphitheater. The Paiute Indians who hunted in the region for generations summed up Bryce with their name Unkatimpe-wa-Wince-Pockich, "red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped recess."
Often part of a southwestern tour flying into Las Vegas and including the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park Bryce Canyon receives 1.7 million visitors a year, about half of whom are from abroad. But unlike the Grand Canyon and Zion, Bryce is relatively compact and the best of it can be experienced in half a day.
At an elevation of up to 9,000 feet, Bryce Canyon is the highest in a series of plateaus stacked tier upon tier that stretch down to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, aptly named the Grand Staircase by pioneer explorer John Wesley Powell.
"We're the icing on top of the cake, and when you look out you can see forever," says park ranger James Wolsey. In fact, on a clear day, you can see more than 100 miles to the Grand Canyon.
Plum for erosion
To get a crash course on how this geological oddity came to be, take in the films, displays and literature at the visitor's center at the park entrance, located on a grassy plain frequented by grazing mule deer.
Bryce's climate and elevation make it plum for rapid erosion, although the region receives but 18 inches of precipitation a year. The little moisture it gets makes a big difference, with ice forming and thawing in the morning more than 200 times a year.
When snow and ice melt during the day, water seeps into the cracks in the rock and expands as it freezes again the next night, pushing the cracks wider and prying the weak rock apart.
Meanwhile, naturally acidic rain is slowly dissolving away the limestone, rounding off the edges of the fractured rocks and washing away the debris. As the cliffs recede, spurs emerge that eventually thin to slender fins that further whittle away into freestanding columns of stone. When the rock at the top of the column is harder, the softer part below erodes faster, sometimes leaving a boulder perched atop a tall, narrow pillar known as a hoodoo.
The optimal example is Thor's Hammer, which can be best seen from Sunset Point, one of a series of overlooks along the park's rim road. It's worth noting that Sunset Point faces east, so you won't actually see the sunset from it, and Bryce Point provides a better vista to observe the full blast of dawn than Sunrise Point. But each successive amphitheater along the road holds hundreds of hoodoos so the view at any one of these points is astonishing.
"The typical approach is for people to go to the overlooks, but the best way to see the park is to take a hike down into the hoodoos," Wolsey says.
There are 50 miles of hiking trails at Bryce, and visitors also can ride horses or, in the winter, cross-country ski.