Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)

On the afternoon of our arrival, along the Bryce Canyon scenic drive, the temperature was in the 40s and a stiff wind was stinging our faces and blowing dust and sand into our eyes. Snow was clearly visible on the higher slopes. Sound like vacation in the winter? Only a few hours earlier we were basking in sunshine along the Cottonwood Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante, not more than 30 miles away. What gives?

Bryce Canyon National Park sits almost at the top of the Grand Staircase, part of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, which towers over 8,000 feet above sea level. Consequently, it is much younger (geologically speaking) than the escarpments below it far to the south and east. Only Aquarius Plateau sits higher (another 2,000 ft!). At these high elevations, Bryce stays colder here than almost anywhere in the Southwest. As for the wind, it’s not unusual for canyon country to experience howling winds.

In spite of colder temperatures and high elevations, Bryce Canyon draws a considerable number of tourists. Its main attractions are the limestone pinnacles (known as hoodoos) that are everywhere in the park. They are carved by eons of water erosion. Pinnacles have their start as narrow fins that erode over long periods of time. The Paiutes believe that the hoodoos are the Legend People, a human-animal hybrid who were eternally frozen in stone.

Hoodoos seen from Agua Canyon overlook

Hoodoos seen from Agua Canyon overlook

The scenic drive is what most visitors confine themselves to when experiencing the park. Armies of buses and cars ply the paved road that stretches some 18 miles from the visitor center to Yovimpa Point at the southern end. During peak summer months, shuttles provide a more convenient and less stressful way of getting about. The overlooks reveal the majestic hoodoo formations from above, like a million minarets packed into the hillsides. On a sunny day, they glow brilliantly and never fail to enchant the beholder. But, they are at their spectacular best at sunrise and sunset when the colors assume richer tones and the shadows provide mysterious contrast. Each overlook has its unique display, but if you want to get a good look at much of the vast Grand Staircase on a clear day, go to Yovimpa Point at the southern end of the drive from where it is possible to see all the way down to the treeline on the Kaibab Plateau (the north rim of the Grand Canyon).

Wall Street positively glows at noon on a sunny day

Wall Street positively glows at noon on a sunny day

To experience Bryce intimately, you’ll need to do some hiking below the canyon rim. The hordes of people at the overlooks virtually disappear when you take even the shortest hikes. If you want to limit yourself to one relatively easy hike with a huge payoff, definitely do part of the Navajo Loop, which starts at the Sunset Point overlook, by walking down to Wall Street at around noon. The hike drops in elevation fairly quickly, a series of switchbacks that descend over 500 feet. Shortly, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning walk through a narrow canyon between towering fins that glow a luminous orange when the sun is directly overhead. On reaching the towering Douglas firs at the other end, said to be over 750 years old, you can turn around and go back the way you came. To do a bit more exploring, complete the Navajo Loop trail and continue on to Thor’s Hammer by taking the rest of the trail past the firs. We chose instead to combine the Navajo Loop with the Queen’s Garden Trail. This combination is a longer hike and affords excellent close-up views of the hoodoos. The hike includes two tunnels carved through fins. On the return to the rim, the hike ends up at Sunrise Point, from where you can walk only a level half mile back to Sunset.

A 750-year-old Douglas Fir stands at the end of Wall Street

A 750-year-old Douglas Fir stands at the end of Wall Street

We lodged in the town of Tropic, seven miles from the park, a more affordable alternative to Ruby’s Inn. There’s not much to do here and the food is mediocre.

Ruby’s Inn bears special mention. With the closest town miles away from the park, this resort complex has everything: accommodations (Best Western), restaurant, campground, post office, general store, car wash, gas station, and even budget lodging (Bryce View Lodge). It is conveniently located just north of the park boundary. Many guided tours start here. It is an amazing, if over-the-top, complex, though you pay for the convenience. The only other, more convenient place to stay is the park lodge itself.

Part of the Queen's Garden Trail

Part of the Queen’s Garden Trail

Geology notes: Bryce’s hoodoos are composed of Claron formation limestone and softer sandstone layers beneath. The warm colors come from the iron oxide in the stone. Because of the high elevation, the weather is very cold here for most of the year. The freezing and thawing cycle contributes greatly to rock fracturing. This “mechanical weathering” combined with water erosion shape Bryce’s landscape. If it weren’t for the harder dolomite (Claron) limestone that caps the softer layers underneath, the hoodoos would be reduced to sandy rubble and Bryce would not be the attraction it is today.

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Kodachrome Basin State Park (Cannonville, UT)

Kodachrome Basin State Park is a curious name. What does a popular slide film from Kodak have to do with a state park? It turns out that in 1949, the National Geographic Society did a story and took photographs of the area and named it after the new film that Kodak introduced. Never mind that Kodak did not sanction the use of the name, but the company officially gave its blessing in the early ’60s. Kodachrome would have been an ideal film to record the scenery for it best captures reds and yellows, colors that are most prominent in the Entrada sandstone that dominates throughout the park.

We stopped here en route to Bryce. about a mile off the Cottonwood Canyon Road, an unpaved thoroughfare that we spent the day driving on that cuts through the heart of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The state park features over 60 sand pipes or rock chimneys, some as high as 170ft tall, that are believed to be the remnants of sandy slurries that were extruded by extreme pressure through “pipes” in softer overlying sedimentary layers and subsequently hardened. The softer layers surrounding these pipes have long since eroded away and left behind these monoliths. This process took place over millions of years.

The pipes superficially look like hoodoos which are quite common in nearby Bryce Canyon National Park. We spent an hour on the Panorama Trail, one of several in the park where you can get a closer look at these sand pipes.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (UT)

At 1.9 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is the largest park in the Southwest, but one of the least visited. This is one big mother of a park, complete with all the geologic wonders that make the Southwest so visually stunning—hoodoos, slot canyons, buttes, mesas, towering cliffs, all in brilliant colors of vermillion, burnt orange, golds, pinks, purples—and man-made ones (ruins and petroglyphs). Its sprawling size and points-of-interest that are widely spaced apart, not to mention the largely undeveloped roads, make it unlikely to become a tourist magnet anytime soon. Most of the secondary roads become impassable in heavy rain or snow. Its national monument status was conferred by President Clinton only in 1996. As its name suggests, the park is part of the enormous and geologically unique formation, spread over two states, called the Grand Staircase. Think of it literally as a stairway that, at its lowest point, starts at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stepping in ever higher elevations through the North Rim, Chocolate Cliffs, Escalante, Zion National Park, Bryce, and ending up the Aquarius Plateau at a dizzying 11,000 feet in elevation.

Image from wikipedia (click to enlarge)

To get to Bryce from Page, we had to backtrack westward on Highway 89 along the southern edge of GSENM, then cut through the national monument along the unimproved Cottonwood Canyon Road, which parallels a geologic formation known as the Cockscomb Monocline. This is not really just a way to get to Bryce but another spectacular Southwest scenic area.

Specializing in paleontology, the Big Water Visitor Center on the southern end of Highway 89 is a fascinating place to visit. Inside, there are a 30-foot mural that depicts the Cretaceous period and a complete dinosaur fossil. The enthusiastic ranger there told us that a complete dinosaur fossil is found on average once a month in the park.

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Here we picked up a handout that identified the points-of-interest along 47-mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road, including a 90-million-year-old oyster bed, some slot canyons, Grosvenor Arch and Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old

Most of these were very hard to find; in fact, the handout relies on using your car’s odometer to locate them. Signs along the road were also not very explicit. A couple of the hikes were fruitless because they weren’t well marked. We wandered around without finding anything that resembled a trail. At least, attempting to find the trail to Lower Hackberry canyon, there was an sandstone upthrust that was immense.

Uplift along Cottonwood

Our car is dwarfed by this uplift

Another trail led to a boulder-littered slot canyon, definitely not conducive to an easy hike.

Boulder-strewn slot canyon

Boulder-strewn slot canyon

We finally salvaged something out of the day when we found Grosvenor Arch, the first arch (a double arch, in fact) we saw on our trip.

Grosvenor Arch

The double arches of Grosvenor Arch

The Cockscomb, more formally known as the East Kaibab Monocline, is so named for the alternating layers of white and red rock, like a rooster’s cockscomb, that lie almost vertically along the Cottonwood Canyon Road, as if these layers were tilted from folding over.

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

You can easily spend a week to explore the many geological wonders here. If you’re willing to do considerable off-roading, hiking and canyoneering, there are many splendors to experience that many visitors to the park will never see.

Antelope Canyon (Page, AZ)

No trip to the Southwest would be complete without a visit to perhaps the most beautiful (and over-hyped) slot canyon in the world: Antelope Canyon. The breathtaking photographs are everywhere, in travel magazines, on the internet, and virtually anywhere you come across the subject of Southwest travel: narrow sandstone slots flanked by radiant walls of orange, gold and pink, and illuminated from above by brilliant shafts of sunlight.

This attraction is located just outside Page, Arizona. Because it’s located on Navajo land, you must purchase a tour from one of many Navajo-owned companies, all located along Lake Powell Boulevard in Page. The one we picked had a tour tailored specifically for photographers. Some internet bulletin board users have complained that the photography-centered tour is too structured: tourists shuttled from one place to the next, told where to take your shots, and never given much time to wander on one’s own. Still, you are taken to the prime spots. Guides know from experience what photographers want. I heard no complaints from anyone on our tour. In essence, you have to decide what you want with limited time (and money). Still, I am disappointed that you can’t experience the canyon without running into hordes of people.

A photographers' tour is geared to camera hounds

A photographers’ tour is geared to camera hounds

One of the benefits provided by Chief Tsosie (and possibly other guides who lead similar tours) is that he takes you to the photogenic spots and clears the areas of people so that your shots are not “spoiled” by human subjects, a practice that likely irks people on other tours. Another bonus for taking a photographers’ tour is that you can take along a tripod, which is prohibited on other tour types.

We arrived at the canyon around noon, after riding for about a half hour in an open-air Jeep over a rough, dry wash. Immediately upon entering, we were overwhelmed by the brilliant orange and pink colors for which Antelope is famous. With the sun directly overhead, the glow and reflections were otherworldly. It’s as if the entire walls were bathed in orange light. There were several places where a single shaft of sunlight beamed through a hole overhead, like a powerful floodlight was shining from above (top photo).

Although I brought along a tripod on this vacation, unfortunately I had the mounting bracket from another unit, rendering my tripod useless. I have to live with several blurry shots that fortunately are augmented by much better ones.

You can appreciate that Antelope Canyon is one of nature’s grand displays, one that will likely never be experienced anywhere else.

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Glen Canyon Dam (Page, AZ)

Fraught with controversy from the beginning, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was undertaken to provide a cheap source of hydroelectric power and to regulate the flow of water to downstream areas of the Southwest that needed a more consistent supply during drought years. Even to this day, there are environmental impact studies to gauge the effect of the dam on riparian environments downstream and the accumulation of vast amounts of sediment behind the dam that may be rendered eventually inoperable if dredging is not undertaken in the near future.

We took the Glen Canyon Dam tour where we found out more about the dam’s engineering and economic benefits and the role it played in the creation of Page as a workers’ town. We learned, for example, that the creation of Lake Powell, the vast reservoir created by the dam, has transformed the economy of the area and introduced recreational opportunities, mainly house boating and water skiing, where none existed before, good or bad. It took an astounding 18 years to fill the reservoir after the dam was completed.

Glen Canyon Bridge

Glen Canyon Bridge

Wire Pass (Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs)

The Southwest is famous for its slot canyons, narrow passageways carved out of sandstone by the erosive power of fast, flowing water. These canyons typically have very high, vertical walls, making them shadowy and dark for most of the day. They become illuminated to the floor only when the sun is directly overhead. Some passages can be very tight; claustrophobes will probably feel pretty uncomfortable. The most famous slot canyon in the Southwest is the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, which we visited later.

Our first experience with a slot canyon was Wire Pass in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument south of Zion. We had a hard time locating the access road. Luckily, we came across the Paria BLM office beyond the turnoff and were given directions. The unimproved dirt access road, washboarded and rutted its entire length of over 8 miles, led to the trailhead. The first mile of the trail was pretty unimpressive (boring) over dry scrubland. Eventually, the canyon entrance came into view. Entering the slot is like going into another world. Suddenly, you’re enclosed by high rock walls; the effect is like nothing you’ve experienced before.

Early in the hike, we nearly turned back because the path dropped steeply over a high boulder that didn’t seem to have a way of climbing back up when we peered over the edge. But, as luck would have it, a hiker was making her way back and climbed the rock using smaller rocks that were tucked under the rim.

Since we got there in mid-afternoon, the canyon walls were displayed in somber, purplish tones. Where the sun struck the walls higher up or in wider clearances, the beautiful orange and red tints glowed brilliantly.

Petroglyphs at Wire Pass

Petroglyphs at Wire Pass

Wire Pass eventually opened up to a large, open wash that connected to Buckskin Gulch a half mile further ahead. We turned back at the junction, since we needed to get to Page (Arizona) later in the afternoon. On the cliff faces at the junction, we saw our first Indian petroglyphs.

Many hikers who want to hike Buckskin Gulch take the Wire Pass hike to forgo the beginning, relatively uninteresting portion of Buckskin, the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest. At the junction, one is free to continue southeast to the Paria River.

Crossroads at Buckskin Gulch

Crossroads at Buckskin Gulch

The Wire Pass trailhead is also the starting point for the permit-required hike into the spectacular sandstone area called The Wave, which we didn’t have time to do. The effect of parallel score lines over smooth, orange rolling rock has to be spectacular. This really should be on our to-do list for the next time.

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Checkerboard Mesa, Zion National Park (UT)

Just east of the Mt. Carmel Tunnel lies Checkerboard Mesa, a remarkable example of crossbedding in Navajo sandstone, a mesa which you can’t help but notice along the highway. Over eons in what used to be a great desert, shifting sands deposited one layer after another, their orientations determined by winds, all eventually cemented over time. The vertical cracks along the mesa were formed by a process called jointing wherein stresses on the rock causes it to split. Weather and cycles of freezing and thawing also contribute to their pronounced expression.

Here, too, you can see the bleaching phenomenon that characterizes thick deposition of Navajo sandstone. Over vast spans of time (we’re talking millions of years), the iron oxide which gives the reddish appearance to the rocks drifts downward, or percolates, leaving the upper portions whitish in color.