10 days, 10 states: Hiking the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

“It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow” -Ebenezer Bryce, early settler

Amidst a gaggle of peace-sign obsessed Japanese tourists assembled for the sunrise on Bryce Point, an elderly man with a cane somehow managed to glacially sneak up on me.

“That,” he breathlessly stammered as we watched the rising sun dance upon the red rocks of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater, “is exactly what I came here for.”

Still alarmed by his stealthy presence, I smiled as he slid a shaky hand into his jacket pocket and eventually emerged with a yellow, disposable Kodak camera. A well placed eye in the viewfinder, a solitary click, a lingering moment of reflection, and the man turned back towards the parking lot with the air of having said goodbye.

Though the moment was fleeting, a profound point had been made: Bryce Canyon, Utah is the type of place you see before you die.

Staring out into the abyssal “how-on-Earth-did-it-get-like-that” geology of the amphitheater walls, it’s a surreal feeling to be standing in one of the last places in the contiguous 48 states to be explored by modern man.

Once the dwelling of the Fremont and Paiute tribes, it was Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce who first forayed into the mysterious canyon in the 1870′s in search of suitable ranching and grazing lands. Settling in a primitive one room cabin at the base of a landscape completely foreign to westward expansionists, it was Bryce who is rumored to have made the astute statement regarding the lost cow.

At an air-sucking and frigid elevation that ranges from 8000-9000 feet, all cows aside, I feel that Bryce Canyon would be a hell of a place to try and live in a one room cabin in the middle of nowhere. Although set out in the middle of the desert, the weather forecast is calling for snow.

%Gallery-138990%While snow in the desert is always a counterintuitive concept, it’s this combination of cold temperatures and desert snow that gives birth to the unearthly rock formations that dominate the canyon. Melting snow or rainwater will slowly seep its way into fine cracks in the sedimentary rock, and as the temperature drops and the water freezes, the expanding ice will wedge the rock apart until it erodes to the valley floor below.

The result of this liquid assault is rock spires called hoodoos that can tower up to 200 feet over the red canyon floor. According to Paiute mythology, the hoodoos are the frozen remains of the Legend People who were turned to stone by that old southwestern trickster, the coyote.
Descending below the canyon rim on the short but steep Navajo Loop trail, it’s a theory that doesn’t require stretching your imagination.

Ambling down “Wall Street”, the narrow section of trail where the vertical walls of the canyon reduce the trail to a shoulder-width red sliver, I almost expect to see some “Occupy Bryce Canyon” protesters squatting in the canyon recesses. Instead, I round the bend and find two towering spruce trees well over a hundred feet tall leading a lonely existence in an environment otherwise devoid of green life. Though only 7:30am, it’s not the first time today I find myself scratching my head asking “how?”

Though intriguing, I didn’t walk this trail to ponder over spruce trees. I came for something bigger. Something manlier. Something that would make me feel like a conqueror.

I came here to stand beneath Thor’s Hammer.

Ridiculous, I know. It’s just a rock. But it’s the rock with the best name of any natural formation that I’ve seen yet since setting out to explore “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”. Simply standing beneath Thor’s Hammer makes me want to sail ships and eat meat. It makes me want to pillage.

There would be no pillaging in this canyon, however. At least not today. I came to Bryce Canyon to catch the sunrise, and to gaze at one of darkest skies in the country while nestled in a cold but star-kissed tent.

I came to Bryce Canyon to hike amongst the hoodoos and reflect on isolation.

I came to Bryce Canyon to see it before I die.

Follow Kyle on the rest of his journey as he explores “10 days, 10 states, 10 great American sights”