Bryce Canyon National Park is an American national park you have probably never heard of. It doesn’t have the international recognition of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone and it has never been featured on Yogi Bear cartoons.
The park covers about 145 sq Km and is located in southwestern Utah. It is a reasonable drive from anywhere – about 400Km (4 hours drive) from Las Vegas and about twice that distance from Los Angeles. So you will need accommodation for at least a night when you travel there. There are a number of places offering hotel of caravan park style accommodation near the park and in nearby Bryce township. However, in summer it can get busy. Wikipedia says the park has around 2.6 million visitors every year but, because of its more remote location, it has many less visitors than Zion National Park (about 4 million) or the Grand Canyon which had over 6 million visitors in 2016. The National Parks Service operate a in-park shuttle bus system in summer to help crowds access the park and minimise the car traffic at busy times.
The major feature of the park is Bryce Canyon, is not a canyon despite its name, but rather a number of large natural amphitheaters which stretch for about 30Km north to south. They run along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
These amphitheatres are full of geological structures called hoodoos. Some of these hoodoos stand 60m tall and whilst their shapes are usually like fingers pointing to the sky, there are some fat one, some thin ones and at least one with a rock sitting precariously on the top. These red or orange rocks are spectacular – especially in late winter because there are patches of white snow and green vegetation that stand out amongst them. Geologists tell us these rocks formed by stream erosion and frost weathering in the past. They are largely composed of sedimentary rock but have not formed from the action of the river itself but rather by the head waters of the river below running down the sides of the cliff from various directions to form the river.
At around 2500m above sea level, Bryce Canyon National Park is at a much higher elevation than the Zion national park about 140Km to the south west. Curiously Zion national park has a canyon! Because of the elevation, visiting in winter can be a touch and go situation. Our days in January, were filled with sunshine and when the wind didn’t blow, were comfortably warm. A far cry from the record low January temperature of -32 degrees C or even the average high temperature of 2 degrees C.
Although native Indian tribe seem to have been in this area for over 10,000 years, Europeans did not visit the area till the late 18th century. The Bryce Canyon area was eventually settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s and was named after Ebenezer Bryce, who was sent as a missionary and set up a homestead right below the man amphitheatre – Bryce Amphitheatre. He began grazing cattle in the area and built a road and a canal to irrigate his crops. Eventually the drought, the floods and lack of grazing land caused him to move to Arizona in 1880.