From a distance, Bryce Canyon resembles the ruins of an ancient city, like Ephesus or Palmyra, after a pink and orange paint job. Welcome to geology gone psychedelic – free-form nature at its playful, ebullient best.
It’s the kaleidoscope of colour that floored me on arrival, where rock formations span hues of crimson, orange, yellow, pink, grey, chocolate and white. Think of it as poetry in stone.
Enter this part of the world and surrender to a head-spinning array of geological structures, from mesas and buttes to fins and hoodoos. The latter is Bryce Canyon’s biggest calling-card: billowing, bulbous spires of multi-coloured stone, left standing by the combined forces of weathering and erosion.
Thousands upon thousands of these delicate, eroding spires fan across the canyon bowl, in vast galleries of wondrously shaped statuary. These fanciful hoodoos, many shaped like totem poles, are also steeped in Paiute Indian folklore, which considers them as ancient Legend People, who were turned to stone as punishment for bad deeds. You have been warned.
One of the smaller of Utah’s National Parks, Bryce Canyon is a breeze to navigate, but given its insatiable popularity, try and dodge the crowd crush of the peak summer season. I ventured into Bryce in mid-April, a late sprinkling of snow on the higher alpine slopes ensuring a freshly chilled start to the day.
And you’ll want to start at the crack of dawn to relish the sunrise spectacle over Bryce Amphitheatre. Just past the park entrance, stand on the canyon rim trail at Sunrise Point as the first rays of day gild the pink cliffs and fantastical rock formations. The amphitheatre pops with colour.
Similarly, the shadows of the early morning vividly define the intricacy of the formations, some like lace and filigree work. Poetry in stone, indeed.
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Rim Trail Hike
Strung above the amphitheatre’s cliff edge, the Rim Trail runs for eight kilometres, with a multitude of panoramic vantage points serving up distinctive perspectives. Alongside Sunrise Point, my favourite overlooks would be Inspiration and Bryce Points.
Find your own pocket of unpeopled quiet, to take it all in. To get a jump on the gathering crowds, I ventured to the farthest outpost, Rainbow Point.
At an elevation of more than 2,700 metres, I suddenly noticed my lungs working harder in the thinner air. Rainbow Point not only treated me to the silent splendour of pink cliffs speckled in fresh, glistening snow, but from this vantage point, the view sprawls 320 kilometres over southern Utah and northern Arizona.
From Rainbow Point, hike the effortless 1.6-kilometre Bristlecone Loop track, which is a very woodsy affair. Jaunt through forests of fir, spruce and the ancient guardians of the canyon, the 1,600-year-old bristlecone pines. These gnarly specimens are among the world’s oldest living trees.
Another essential stop is at Natural Bridge, a sublime stone arch, sculpted from some of the reddest sedimentary rock the canyon throws up. Peering through the arch, the intense green of the Ponderosa pine forest on the canyon floor produces a vivid contrast.
Back at Bryce Amphitheatre, plunge deep into the canyon to walk among the hoodoos. The Fairyland Loop is a four-hour lung-buster through wonderland, with a taxing elevation change of 518 metres. Bear in mind for every step down, you’ll have to make the return step back up, so you’ll need a mountain-goat warrant of fitness.
Too arduous? Opt for The Najavo Trail for a far less strenuous elevation change of 170 metres. But a close encounter with the vast ranks of hoodoos, standing on guard like an ancient army, is utterly beguiling. It’s an intimate spectacle with nature at its uninhibited best.