From the Top of the Staircase

Updated: Jul 7

The sun sank low behind us and the psychedelic landscape grew shrouded in shadows. Looking out at the many hoodoos, fins, and spires, I began to see faces taking shape in the limestone. Were they faces of the Legend People, that ancient race that was turned to stone by Coyote when they hunted all the animals from the forests and drank all the water from the streams? The Southern Paiute people who lived here from 1200 AD recounted this story as an explanation for the bizarre rock formations found throughout the area.

The view of Bryce Amphitheater from Sunset Point

Of course, science tells a different story. In fact, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. It is an amphitheater of eroded rocks formed at the edge of the Paungsaugunt Plateau. As we descended the Queen’s Garden Trail into Bryce’s main amphitheater, I thought about the three-step recipe that created this unworldly landscape.

I initially noticed that the rock of the hoodoos was crumbly and multi-colored. I touched a steep wall at the side of the trail with my hand and the rock turned to sand. This was sedimentary rock– all kinds of different sediment, from siltstone to limestone to dolostone and mudstone. These rocks formed at the bottom of an inland lake around 50 million years ago. Lake Claron sat to the east of a higher, more mountainous region, and received many sediments through runoff. The slow deposition of sediments was the first step of the recipe.

The second step of the recipe involved uplift from tectonic plate movement. As we descended the trail down into the wonderland of the hoodoos, I noticed that many of the people hiking up the trail were struggling to catch their breath. The park’s elevation ranges between approximately 8,000 and 9,000 feet, and many lowlanders are surprised by the relatively thin air here. This is because the region was uplifted when the Farallon plate subducted the North American Plate around 20 million years ago, causing the rising of the Colorado Plateau. At these altitudes, the sedimentary rocks of the Claron Formation are subject to massive forces of erosion.

Weathering is the third step of the recipe. We passed a strange looking hoodoo on our right. The map said it was named ET. It did have that look to it: a square head and a skinny body.

Not far from ET, there was a rock with two holes in it, like windows. I tried to imagine what erosive forces worked on the rock to create these unique structures.

Later in the day, when the temperature plummeted from nearly 80 degrees to 35 degrees, I read that this area experiences 40 degree+ temperature swings over 200 days a year. This results in the freezing and thawing of water, which seeps down into the rocks, freezes, expands, and breaks the rock apart. This process, known as frost heaving or ice wedging, is the primary sculpting agent of the hoodoos and is the most likely explanation for the windows I gazed upon.

The likely explanation for the rock resembling ET is rain. The rocks throughout Bryce Canyon contain varying amounts of Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3). As rain falls (relatively acidic to the calcium carbonate) it erodes the rock differentially, resulting in some rock that juts outward (ET’s head) and some that is eroded inward (ET’s neck and body).

Our hike through the Queen’s Garden brought us to the Navajo Loop Trail, where we ascended the famous slot canyons of Wall Street. This area is prone to rockfall, and it periodically closes due to hazardous conditions. I was particularly impressed by the giant Douglas Firs (Psuedopsuga menziesii) growing towards the sunlight at the top of the slot canyon. Some say these trees are close to 700 years old!

Wall Street is one of the most famous sections of the Bryce Amphitheater. The towering walls make one feel like you are walking between skyscrapers on the street of a major city

These Douglas Firs (Psuedotsuga menziesii) grow high towards the sun from the depths of lower Wall Street

On our way down the other side of the Navajo Loop Trail, we passed the park’s most famous hoodoo, Thor’s Hammer. Named for the Norse God of Thunder, this hoodoo is also the icon used for the Utah Geological Survey’s logo.

We returned to Sunrise Point via an uncrowded horse trail, discussing the wonder and mystery of the land around us. Angie spotted two black-headed grosbeaks (Pheucticus melanocephalus), a Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) flew overhead, and a flurry of yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) erupted in the Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) alongside us.

The ecosystem in the Bryce Amphitheater warrants attention, as each and every plant and animal must carve out a niche in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. At ground level, patches of cryptobiotic soil help to stabilize sediments and nutrients in wind-torn, exposed areas.

I noticed a mat penstemon () blooming amidst the chunky, cryptobiotic clumps and appreciated the purple splash of color on the earthen hillside.

The most common shrub of the Ponderosa woodlands at this middle-elevation is the Greenleaf Manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula). This shrub of the Heather family is very distinctive and easy to recognize with its thick, leathery, oval leaves and smooth reddish-brown bark. It has urn-shaped flowers that turn into delicious edible berries in the fall. The Paiute people would use this as a tobacco.

I noticed Rocky Mountain Juniper () bushes and the occasional Douglas Fir (), but the real showstoppers were the limber pines (Pinus flexilis) and Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva). Limber Pines and Bristlecone Pines are some of the oldest trees in the world and occupy the most rugged and uninhabitable spaces on Earth. Bristlecone pines develop gnarled and twisted branches and the oldest specimen in the world is estimated to be 4600 years old!

Slightly difficult to differentiate upon first inspection, limber and bristlecone pine can be separated by the length and growth habit of their needles. Both have fascicles (leaf bundles) of five, but bristlecone pine needs are about an inch in length and grow at the end of the branch, whereas limber pine needles are 1.5 – 3 inches and grow along the entire branch. Like the name suggests, limber pine is so flexible that one can tie an overhand knot with the branches.

Our first day's hike through the Queen's Garden and Navajo Loops

After finishing our day hike, we returned to the Sunset Point Campground where we had set up camp. Although crowded, we still found an abundance of tranquility all around us. While Angie cracked jokes with Clay and Evelyn at the picnic table, I watched several Western Tanagers flit about in the treetops and a pair of Cassin’s Finches mating. I’m a normal dude, I swear.

What we liked especially about the Sunset Point Campground was its proximity to Sunset Point. As dusk began to settle in, we walked across the street and over to sunset point, a stroll of less than ten minutes. Once there, we sat and watched the colors change over the hoodoos in front of us and looked down inmeditated to the spirits of Jay and Christina. Clay had recently lost his brother and I had recently lost my sister. It was a moment of fierce connection, sadness, strength, and beauty that I will never forget.

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