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Bryce Canyon National Park is breathtaking.

There are many places that enchant us, such as Yellowstone National Park where large herds of elk and bison roam and trumpeter swans spread their wings. One of my favorite experiences was sliding belly-flat across a frozen floor of ice enjoying the twinkling ice crystals in a cave at Lava Beds National Monument, in Tulelake, Calif.

But Bryce Canyon National Park, in southwest Utah, takes my breath away.

Recently, I spent hours hiking the park's trails, taking off just before dawn to capture the sun's first rays. At night, a billion stars winked above my campsite.

Sometimes I sat on top of the rim and stared at the scenery below me. Most days, I could see more than 90 miles, and I've heard that on really clear days it's possible to see more than 200 miles.

Bryce Canyon encompasses more than 37,000 acres, comprised of areas with orange and pink rock spires or pinnacles, called hoodoos. The hoodoos encompass every color of the spectrum.

Formation

The canyon is a string of amphitheaters etched into the edge of a lofty plateau. According to geologists, it formed about 60 million years ago, when rivers and streams left mud and sand behind in a shallow lake system. The size of the lakes varied dramatically over the years, because there were long periods of rain and equally long periods of drought. Most experts believe little plant life existed.

Eventually the lakes filled and dried, and a type of mineral cement--formed when calcium carbonate mixed with the sediment--served to hold the layers of rock together. The layers became a hard sedimentary rock up to 2,000 feet deep. Geologists call it the Claron Formation.

About 10 million years ago natural forces thrust the land upward nearly a vertical mile to form the 130,000-square-mile Colorado Plateau over the area that would become the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The plateau eventually divided into a series of smaller plateaus, including what we know today as the Aquarius and Paunsaugunt plateaus. As time passed, the Paria River and a number of tributaries carved out the great canyons or amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon, between the two plateaus.

Sculpted Rocks

Erosion continues today, with heavy summer thunderstorms carving gullies and sculpting the hoodoos. Manganese and iron in the rocks oxidize, giving the hoodoos a variety of colors, including orange, pink, red, yellow and purple.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular forms of sculpting comes from the rainwater that seeps into cracks in the rock. It dissolves the calcium carbonate cement, freezes, then wields such tremendous force that the rocks break off in large chunks. The south-facing slopes of the canyon experience more than 200 such freeze-thaw cycles each year, which are responsible for many of the rock shapes in the canyon.

Canyon Flora

In Bryce Canyon, visitors stand anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level, in three different life zones. At the lower elevations, the air is warm and dry, home to the pinon-juniper woodland plants. Comprised of short pinon pine and Utah juniper trees, this pygmy forest thrives along with sagebrush and rabbitbrush, which blooms in the fall.

The ponderosa pine forest dominates the scene from 7,500 feet to 8,500 feet. Along the Fairyland Trail there are a number of ponderosa pines, all with distinctive red-orange bark. Greenleaf manzanita covers some of the forest floor.

Moving up in elevation, a hiker enters the fir-spruce-aspen forest, a plant community harboring stands of white fir, blue spruce and Douglas fir. White-barked aspens blanket the open areas where sunshine beams through.

Bristlecone pines are found on the southernmost tip of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Exposed to harsh conditions, the hardy trees live for hundreds, even thousands, of years. The oldest bristlecone pine is in California's White Mountains--it's 4,767 years old--making the oldest in Bryce Canyon just a youngster, at 1,600 years old.

Beginnings

Bryce Canyon received national park status in 1928. The canyon was named for Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who settled near the canyon in 1875 and aided in the settlement of southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. His neighbors named the canyon after him, because it was located behind his home. He once said that the canyon was the worst place to lose a cow.

Long Hike

I thought I'd see if Bryce had been exaggerating so I hiked the 8-mile Fairyland Loop Trail. To tell the truth, I forgot all. about cows, emerging from behind one hoodoo after another, convinced that it was just like turning the pages of a book of fairy tales. There was always something new to see.

Strolling past one hoodoo "castle" after another, I encountered a herd of deer, several noisy Clark's nutcrackers--a powder-blue mountain bluebird--and I heard a peregrine falcon scream. Later I found out that the trail is used by cross-country skiers who follow the blue and orange diamonds that mark the trail. Although skiing is permitted throughout the park, the staff says it's extremely dangerous.

For, more information on Bryce Canyon, call 1 (435) 834-5322, or check the Web site at. www.bryce.canyon.national-park.com.
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Author:Ikenberry, Donna
Publication:Grit
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Feb 16, 2003
Words:859
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