Why pay for an 8 hour flight to a foreign country when you could drive 8 hours to a foreign world?
At least that’s been my justification over the past few years to discover more of the American West on good, old-fashioned road trips. This spring, we took our own advice and hit the road for Utah and Nevada with a plan to hit up a pair of national parks and Las Vegas. Of the trip, the most surreal vista would be found at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Our drive began with a sunrise sprint across the Mojave desert. We made it to Las Vegas for a bit of mid-morning rush hour and then continued across the arid, southern tip of Nevada. The Interstate then dips into northern Arizona for about 30 minutes, winding its way up steep canyon walls created by the Virgin River—an absolute delight after 6 hours of straight-shot, cruise control-ing through the desert. Finally, we arrived at my first new state in two years, Utah.
Entering Utah, you could immediately see the geographic diversity the state is known for. In one field of view, the high desert gives way to prairie and beyond that, red-rock cliffs protrude at the base of even higher snow-and-forest covered peaks. We could already tell that it was a stunning, layered landscape, and we were hardly one mile in!
We remained on the Interstate for another hour before turning east, stopping only for some Jack in the Box in Cedar City (p.s. the fast food service in Utah is a cut above; not that you were wondering!). After 50 miles of winding through mountain passes, charming meadows, and cute, little towns, we entered the Red Rock Canyon area and spotted our first hoodoo.
A “hoodoo” is a “tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland” (thanks Wikipedia). They are the geologic features that define Bryce Canyon and encountering them was a sign of our proximity to the park. We were both familiar with the shape and hue of these hoodoos from the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction at Disneyland (which was inspired by this area). Excited by the scenery, we chose to get out of the car for our first photos.
Looking forward to more hoodoos, we returned to the car and set off east for another 20 minutes before turning south and arriving at our intended destination: Bryce Canyon National Park.
Established as a National Park in 1928, Bryce Canyon National Park is a stunning wilderness area hardly reminiscent of a true canyon. Instead, it’s better classified as a 20-mile long geologic amphitheater eroded into the side of the Colorado Plateau (a much more complicated description, hence, ’canyon’).
We parked at the first plainly marked parking area. Getting out of the car, we stretched away the 8 hour drive and then strolled to the canyon’s edge. The view was spectacular.
Thousands of hoodoo structures weaved across the landscape for miles to the north and the south. The width of the hoodoos led to a great many shadows along the canyon floor in which pockets of snow had been protected from the sunlight. Any gaze north would look sunny and dry whereas any look to the protected southern ridges were still full of snow and positively wintry. The geologic structures framed a vista which stretched to the horizon with patches of forest, desert, and mountains.
We took our pictures and studied the landscape. After a short “well…now what!” moment, we decided there was no harm in jumping into an immediate hike! After lacing-up back at the car, we returned to the rim and embarked on the Navajo Loop, one of the more popular, touristy-trails. The trail starts with switchbacks winding down into the amphitheater and includes views of one of the more prominent and famous of the hoodoos, pictured below: Thor’s Hammer.
(On a side note, and I feel only a little bad pointing it out, but you can totally see a guy falling in the photo of Cindy, also pictured below!)
We then descended into a small canyon, the trail’s switchbacks etched into the sloping ridge between two massive hoodoos. The trail surface, cold and compressed by the boots of thousands of tourists, was covered in slippery sheets of ice. Where ice did not exist, a wet, sloppy mud did. Not two minutes into our hike and our pants were already covered in orange, muddy stains.
As we reached more level terrain in the amphitheater's basin, train conditions improved. The area’s natural greenery began to emerge and with it, its wildlife. I’m not one for birdwatching, but it was pretty exciting to find a blue jay. At the risk of an Angry Birds reference, it looked fairly pissed off.
Just 15 minutes into our hike and we had already reached the lowest elevation of our journey. Opting for more, we decided to forgo the rest of the shorter Navajo Loop and instead take the longer Queen’s Garden trail to the top. Let the ascent begin—but first, let me take a selfie!
The climb to the top wasn’t nearly as bad as we were expecting; the Grand Canyon’s South Khaibab Trail was far worse. This trail’s incline was better spread out and the twisting and turning through the hoodoos made the trek feel more like exploration, rather than punishment. Every turn was the next “best view” we saw and there were plenty of stops for photos.
Eventually, we made it back to the top. We took the time to rest and soaked up plenty of the fresh air. We also had time for glamour-shots and yoga.
After a 10 minute walk back to the car, we debated how to proceed. We were tremendously hungry but losing sunlight on our one day in the park. Inspired to see as much as we could, we decided to suck it up and snack on more of the junk food we had so that we could press onwards. We took off south down the main road through the park, winding through the trees and meadows that straddled the top of the mountain. It felt like we were driving on top of the world.
The first stop of the drive was Natural Bridge, a large rock-arch off the main road. The bridge was formed through the erosion of a massive hoodoo and was pretty impressive to see. We snapped some pictures of the arch but were incredibly distracted by a sassy crow that watched us, seemingly baffled.
Soon back on the road, we kept driving. There were numerous turnouts and lookouts on each side, but with diminishing sunlight, we simply wanted to reach the final lookout of the canyon: Rainbow Point. We made it just in time.
It was from here that you could see the plateau in all of its splendor, stretched out for miles to the north. The hoodoos were constrained to the top shelf and the basin was much greener than at the park’s entrance. By not having any one point of interest to distract your view, you were able to see everything. It was quite a view.
We returned to Cindy’s Fit and started the winding journey back to the park’s entrance. 75 minutes away from dinner, our stomachs were gurgling but our spirits were beaming. Bryce Canyon National Park was an amazing destination; an alien world here on planet Earth.
Our visit was short, but thank you for reading! For more photos of our trek among the hoodoos, please check out the gallery below!