Bryce Canyon National Park
Nowhere Else in the World!
Nowhere else in the world can you find rock pinnacles with fantastic shapes like the ones found in Bryce Canyon National Park. Located in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau in Utah, Bryce Canyon’s elevation, erosion, climate and rock type are all elements that, when combined, form fantastical shapes called Hoodoos covering nearly 56 square miles of forever protected wilderness.
On our recent visit we were greeted by an abrupt snow storm at Bryce Canyon. The mosaic of white snow and reddish-orange hoodoos created a sensory marvel in this dazzling place. To say it was cold would have been a gross understatement. It was frigid, so cold that one's breath no longer turned to steam but dropped directly to the ground as ice crystals on each exhale, which made it all the more hauntingly beautiful.
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Below: Snow on Thor's Hammer.
Hoodoos are pinnacles or spires carved by erosion of the Claron limestone, sandstone, and mudstones (more on these formations below). Websters is more direct, calling hoodoos "a natural column of rock often in a fantastic form." Fantastic indeed.
Early Native Americans left little to tell us of their use of the plateaus. We know that people have been in the Colorado Plateau region for about 12,000 years, but only random fragments of worked stone tell of their presence near Bryce Canyon. Artifacts tell a more detailed story of use at lower elevations beyond the park’s boundary.
Both Anasazi and Fremont influences are found near the park. The people of each culture left bits of a puzzle to be pieced together by present and future archaeologists. Paiutes lived in the region when Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. Paiutes provided an alternative explanation for the colorful hoodoos as “Legend People” who were turned to stone after they displeased the spirit Coyote.
The ancient ones must have been very large, as the immensity of the hoodoos dwarves full-grown ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). The Canyon, named after the Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, is located in the easter edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Ebenezer Bryce once called it a "hell of a place to lose a cow."
Water, not Wind Erosion
The chaotic destructive force of water, not wind, is responsible for the fantastic shapes in Bryce Canyon. Bryce Canyon Hoodoos formed over thousands of years by the same processes that form the features of surrounding parks.
Water, ice and gravity are the forces at work in Bryce Canyon National Park. These three forces coupled with the differential erosion of the Claron Formation produces a different morphology than that of any other area in the world.
There are, however, shared rock units between all three, creating a supersequence of formations that geologists call the Grand Staircase. The Grand Staircase Escalante-National Monument encompasses nearly 2,000,000 acres (nearly 3,000 square miles) between Zion, Bryce, Arches and the Grand Canyon making this one of the most protected and spectacular geologic regions in the world.
Together the formations of the Grand Staircase record nearly 2000 million years (2 billion years) of the Earth's history. Bryce Canyon's formations are the youngest known units in the Grand Staircase. Younger rock units, if they ever existed, have been removed by erosion.
10-15 million years ago the Paunsaugunt Plateau was caught and lifted by the Colorado Plateau. Breaks, called joints, formed in the plateau during the uplift. Joints allowed water to flow into the rock and, as water flowed through, erosion widened them into rivulets and gullies. Over time, deep slot canyons formed in the sides of the plateau.
Bryce Canyon receives an average rainfall of 10 inches a year in the valley and approximately 19 inches a year on the plateau. The majority of the precipitation falls in mid to late summer, as monsoons, usually in the afternoon. These thunderstorms can be fierce, dropping an inch or two of rain in under an hour and can often be accompanied by hail.
Because the soil at Bryce Canyon is very dry, only the top inch of soil absorbs rainfall before it starts to run off causing a treacherous flash flood. During a flash flood, rapidly moving water can carry rocks, tree limbs, and other debris which crashes into the canyon walls and congest passageways. Flash floods are a serious risk for the many explorers drawn to Bryce Canyon Country’s scenic slot canyons each year. Fortunately, flash floods can usually be avoided with common sense safety practices and an understanding of the conditions that cause them.
The Paunsaugunt Plateau receives approximately 100 inches of snowfall a year, which means that everyday a small amount of snow melts and runs into the joints and freezes at night. When water freezes it expands to form an ice wedge in the joint, widening the space. The ice wedge grows as more snow melts and freezes until finally, it breaks the rock.
Fragments of rock, from tiny pebbles to boulders as large as Volkswagens, fall from hoodoos and the sides of the Paunsaugunt Plateau by frost wedging and gravity. The smaller pieces are washed away by monsoons and snow melt while Boulders explode into cobble sized pieces on the canyon floor.
Limestone, siltstone, dolomite and mudstone make up the four different rock types that form the Claron Formation. Each rock type erodes at different rates which is what causes the undulating shapes of the hoodoos.
Limestone, siltstone and dolomite are very hard and form the protective caprock on most of the spires. These harder rocks are eroded predominantly by frost.
Mudstone is the softest rock in a hoodoo and is easily identified by the way it forms the narrowest portion of the pinnacles. As mudstone moistens it erodes easily and runs down the sides of the rock forming mud stucco as a protective coating. Every time it rains the layer of mud stucco is renewed. If wind does not erode the stucco layer fast enough it will renew before wind erosion affects the rock. For this reason, wind has little to no effect on hoodoo formation or destruction.
The Cretaceous Period began some 144 million years ago and lasted until about 63 million years ago. The rock formations you see exposed at Bryce Canyon began to develop during this time. For 60 million years a great seaway extended northwestward into this area, depositing sediments of varying thickness and composition as it repeatedly invaded, retreated, and then re-invaded the region. Retreating to the southeast, it left sediments thousands of feet thick. Their remnants form the oldest, lowest, gray-brown rocks at Bryce Canyon.
In the Tertiary Period, between 66 and 40 million years ago, highlands to the west eroded into shallow, broad basins. Iron-rich, limy sediments were deposited in the beds of a series of lakes and streams. These became the red rocks of the Claron Formation from which the hoodoos are carved and for which the Pink Cliffs are named.
Though the name tends to be misleading, Natural Bridge is one of several natural arches in Bryce Canyon and creates a beautiful scene at this viewpoint. This arch, sculpted from some of the reddest rock of the Claron Formation (rich in iron oxide minerals), poses a stark contrast to the dark green of the Ponderosa forest that peeks through the arch from the canyon below.
Geology of Natural Bridges and Arches
Bridges form through the erosion of rock by streams or rivers. This window or arch formed from a combination of processes. Frost wedging, the expanding of cracks in rock as water turns to ice, weakened the rock. Dissolution, the chemical dissolving of rock by rainwater, chewed away at the top and sides of this wall of rock. Finally gravity pulled loose the weakened pockets of rock at the center creating the hole you see. Thus, Bryce Canyon's 'bridges', including Natural Bridge, are spectacular examples of arches that, like the hoodoos, are constantly at risk of destruction as the forces of erosion continue to wear the rock away.
Winter Ice Hiking
After a big snowfall most of the Bryce Canyon's day-hiking trails require snowshoes. However, after a few days of melt, and with continued use, the trails become so well packed and icy that snowshoes are often more of a liability.
For much of the winter the most popular trails are so icy that steep sections cannot be safely traversed without some sort of additional traction device for your hiking shoes or boots. While mountaineering crampons work fine, they are heavier and much more expensive than nylon and metal traction devices that clamp onto any shoe. The Bryce Canyon Natural History Association's bookstore at the Visitor Center sells such devices for the discounted price of $25.
While we stayed mostly to the main road there was plenty of slipping and sliding on ice. It was very cold, but I took my hands out their gloves long enough to play with a little snowman.
Its all about perspective. In the image above he doesn't look so small. But below you can see it was a momentary impulse. My freezing ears, nose and fingers convinced me the photo op wasn't really worth it.
For the most part we had Bryce Canyon all to ourselves though there was the occasional tourist who would stop and stare, along with us. Over the course of a couple of days we few tourists all got to know one another and became fast "park friends" or at least "neighbors."
The sunset at Bryce Canyon, even on a snowy afternoon, was gorgeous, but I imagined that the sunrise was going to instigate a more dramatic effect, as the morning light would enter the canyon from its open end.
On our way out we took the time to stop and check the view at Inspiration Point one more time. The view at Inspiration Point consists of three levels that provide varied spectacular perspectives of the main amphitheater. From here, one looks toward the Silent City (near Sunset Point) with its many rows of seemingly frozen hoodoos set against the backdrop of Boat Mesa. All who look out from this point are bound to be inspired.
What was great about visiting in winter was that it was mostly quiet. All one heard was the sound of the wind, the snow, the rustling of the ponderosa pines, and occasionally the call of one of the parks many ravens (see Bryce Canyon Ravens)
I love this solar array that powers the bookstore and gift shop. You'd never see something like this in Florida, we are "The Sunshine State," but our leaders are head-in-the-ground, climate-change denying Republicans (at the moment). I could so see this array in my backyard powering all my electric needs.
Above: The view from our "room." It was a king suite that was as big as a house. Absolutely more than I ever expected. And that view! Spectacular.
Below: You won't see any bison in Bryce Canyon National Park but there are plenty to be seen on farms along the road between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park.
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