Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Red Rock and Red Roll

I had a longish drive from Zion to Red Rock, though not nearly as long as the following day's drive would be. I reflected that this was probably why Zion is one of the most overcrowded national parks: it's one of the very few top-tier national parks within a few hours' drive of a major metro area. If you live in Vegas, you could wake up at 6AM on a Saturday and be in Zion shortly after 8AM. Folks flying into the airport can easily make a day trip out of it, unlike more remote parks that require more of a commitment to travel and establish lodging closer to the park.

I gradually left the mountains behind as I drove, moving into the desert. Traffic moved quickly, now that I was back on an Interstate highway for the first time in over a week, and very few people were headed in my direction.

Following the GPS instructions, I skirted along the northern perimeter of Vegas, then headed into my next and final recreational destination, Red Rock. Unlike most of my parks on this trip, this one is run by the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the BLM properties I'm familiar with are relatively bare-bones affairs, but Red Rock is pretty thoroughly (and nicely) developed: a very well-maintained scenic drive with a day-use charge, a large visitor's center with many exhibits and a gift shop, good restroom facilities and water, and many hiking trails.

I'd considered doing the Grand Circle Loop, a collection of trails leading from the Visitor's Center that would take you to many of the park's destinations, but decided instead to focus my time on the Turtlehead Peak trail, and otherwise take advantage of the road.

I did have a lot of fun at the very first stop, Calico Hills. This is a really picturesque collection of, uh, red rocks that form a rambling, interesting slope. This is a very popular climbing area. A lot of people like me just scrambled around and climbed up as far as we felt like going, but I think some more serious people use this area for more intense climbs.

I continued slightly farther and then started my main hike at Sandstone Quarry; a few trails lead from here, but I had my eye set on Turtlehead Peak, yet another trail that advertises a worrying ration between a long trip time and a short distance traveled. You start off crossing several broad washes through the canyon, then make a gentle ascent through the scrubby desert. I peered at the mountain ahead and to my right. "Is that Turtlehead Peak?" I wondered. "I guess it kind of looks like a turtle's head."

Yes: as I would learn, it was Turtlehead. The face you see while approaching looks extremely forbidding, but I anticipated that the trail would wrap around and find a more reasonable purchase up some slope that I couldn't see.

There were a good number of people on the trail at first, but it thinned out dramatically once it reached the foot of Turtlehead and began climbing. The trail became a lot more obscure, too. This was the one time on my vacation when I got significantly lost: not terribly lost, I doubt I was ever further than 1000 feet from the trail, but 1000 feet can be a long way on a rocky, steep, scree-filled mountain.

Looking back, I think my main problem was unfamiliarity with local trail-marking procedure. Throughout all my hikes in the desert, and in other Western parks over rocky or sandy terrain, I'd gotten used to having cairns as trail markers. You look for the pile of rocks, walk towards it, look for the next pile of rocks, walk towards that, and so on. I'd been thrown off because there were some cairns early on in the rocky portion of the hike, but they almost immediately vanished. Instead I should have been looking for blazes: small daubs of white paint on rocks that mark the way. Though even this wasn't foolproof: many of the rocks around here are naturally white, and I suspect that in other cases the markings have been covered up by rockfall or other debris.

As it was, I was inching my way up a precarious slope, thinking "This is probably not a trail," when I suddenly saw two people walking up the hill a ways to my right. "Oh," I thought, "That is the trail!". I carefully moved laterally along the slope in their direction, found their trail... and went "Oh, crap, this isn't a trail, either."

Still, you can only get so lost when walking up a mountain. I mean, it's Turtlehead Peak, so I'm going to end up on top no matter what: just keep going higher up! And with all the rock I was less concerned than I would have been otherwise about messing up the resources by continuing off trail. I kept my eye on the ridge and carefully chose a route over the most solid surface I could see, favoring long and gentle curves over short steep scrambles.

I finally emerged at the top and rediscovered the trail. The blazes were a lot more visible up here, and there's a lot less loose rock, so the route was really clear from here on out. I greeted a man coming down, who would be the last human being I would see for the next several hours. I was pleasantly surprised at just how deserted the peak was after seeing the large number of people down below. (Again: Not a misanthrope!)

Now that I could recognize the blazes, I had a lot of fun following the trail. There were a few spots where it seemed a little cheeky, breaking out oversized arrows or other overly-explicit directions. The steep part of the ascent was mostly done now, with just a few short scrambles necessary along the generally-gentle slope towards the top.

For almost the entire time, I'd been looking back and down at Red Rock Canyon, marveling at how its distinctive, uh, red rocks shrank and became a single discrete object. Once over the ridge, though, the entire area opened up and revealed new vistas. Once I reached the top I finally saw Las Vegas itself, as promised. There was a bit of a haze that day, but it was clear enough that I could make out the Strip and the overall sprawl of the city. I wandered the crest, marveling at the panoramic view, and also noticed an interesting device of mysterious origin and purpose perched against the ledge.

I ate, I drank, I descended. It was a calm and quiet return, though I very nearly got lost again once I reached the scree-filled middle portion of the hike, which oddly reassured me that I hadn't been uniquely dumb on my way up. I knew what to look for now, though, and while I suspect that some of the blazes were lost or invisible, I knew when to turn back and retrace my steps to try another potential route.

The valley floor was a lot quieter when I reached it, with only a few hikers on the trail and the parking lot nearly empty. I continued along the loop, stopping at a few more spots to see more sights. As with nearly every park I visited on this trip, I could have used another day or so at Red Rock to do all the hikes that looked interesting. I think I'd made the right choice for the one I'd done, though: the view and challenge of Turtlehead felt like a great cap to my two-week journey.

I bypassed the stops that only served as trailheads, hit up a view more with nearby viewpoints, and before long was headed into Vegas. I'd booked a room at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Summerlin, pretty close to the Red Rock area. I got to experiment with using their app as a key to my room, which was a neat experiment and makes me feel like I ought to deduct at least part of this trip as a business expense for research purposes. The hotel itself was great: corporate, like I'd expected, but super-comfortable and clean. The staff was incredibly friendly, too. It kind of pains me to say it, but I think that the best service I received in my entire trip was in Las Vegas: Every employee I met went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, which I greatly appreciated, even if it does make it harder for me to be snarky about Vegas.

Even if the people are great, the city of Vegas itself is definitely not for me: it absolutely demands a car to travel even the shortest distances. I'd hoped to walk to dinner from the hotel, but found pointless walls blocking my desired route, so I sighed and drove a half mile to get the 500 feet to my destination.

I had dinner at The Bar, a smallish and friendly establishment that was exactly what I expected. An enormous bar with four counters sits at the center; there are barstools all around it; and tables up against the walls. I had a pint of Newcastle and an enormous and delicious club sandwich. I took my time munching down while watching The Force Awakens silently play on the large TV as the bar slowly filled in. It sounded like a lot of the folks there were regulars, starting or ending their shifts at nearby casinos. Like almost every other building in Vegas, but unlike my hotel, there were slot machines all around the bar, but folks seemed happy to focus on the drinks, food, and conversation.

Back at the hotel I watched the sun set over the western mountains, slept soundly, and woke up early with the sun. There was yet another free breakfast in the morning, a step above the Continental breakfast I expected. Taking advantage of my early rising, I hit the road and had no traffic at all heading out of Vegas and back towards California.

My last day of driving was nearly as long as my first. Long ago I'd considered taking a route through Death Valley on my way back to squeeze in one more national park, but by now I was eager to get home, and hadn't heard many positive things about the park from other travelers on my trip. Following the GPS, I took I-15 to Barstow, CA-58 to Bakersfield, CA-99 up to Madera, then CA-152 all the way through Los Banos and into Gilroy. From here I was on familiar turf: US-101 up to San Jose, then I violated GPS by taking CA-85 to I-280 for the scenic route home. All in all, it was a little less than 9 hours of driving, broken up with some In-N-Out burger and fueled with a massive random shuffle of my entire Spotify library.

I swung by home to drop off all my gear and luggage, then brought the rental car back to the airport. It had served me very well, through rain and heat and days full of driving and days motionless by backcountry trailheads. I had picked it up with four digits on the odometer and was returning it with five, adding nearly 50% to its lifetime mileage. The return to Enterprise went really smoothly, just a quick scan and I was on my way home again, this time for good.

Vacation was wonderful, but as always it felt great to be home. I love being in nature, and it helps me appreciate civilization far more: for a week after I felt profound gratitude every time I could acquire clean drinking water just by turning a tap, or go to the bathroom without digging a hole in the ground. The memories of that beautiful land will continue to linger for years and years, aided by my excessive number of photos and this overly verbose blog.

That's the end of my journey, but not of this series! One more post to come, in which I will present the statistical quantities that can be derived from my trip.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Youth of Zion

My approach to Zion ended up being very similar to my approach to the Grand Canyon. Instead of the more popular southern entrance, I arrived from the east, seeing some additional parts of the park and getting a quicker entry than I otherwise would have. Along the way I was listening to the very-appropriate classical piece Des Canyons aux ├ętoiles by Messiaen. My dad had turned me on to this a few months prior when we were chatting about the trip: Messiaen had also gone on a trip to Utah and been inspired by the parks there, especially Bryce and Zion, and had composed this piece to capture his own impressions. After experiencing it myself, I thought the music was wonderful, and the title particularly evocative, as so many of my own journeys had taken me from the deep embrace of canyons to the endless views near the stars.

The road from Bryce comes through Highway 9, a very pretty route that alternates between scenic high-speed sections and slow crawls through picturesque villages. Just past the eastern entrance, I parked at the East Rim Trailhead for my first hike. You can technically take this trail all the way into the main part of the park, but that would be a very long trek. I was aiming to reach an overlook of Jolley Gulch and then turning around.

I smiled when I saw the sign "Entering Zion Wilderness." Our country's top national parks have huge visitations and have to one degree or another been transformed to accommodate them, but they also sustain much larger acreage as primitive backcountry. It's a bit startling how many fewer people you find in those regions than the well-trod main parks. The wilderness areas aren't as spectacular, with once-in-a-lifetime views or completely unique features, but they exude a wide-open sense of serenity and primal energy that I never get tired of feeding on.

Two largish groups of backpackers passed me as I headed in, clearly pleased with their own adventures in the park. I felt a sense of kinship with them, though I wasn't going to be doing anything nearly as strenuous during my stay. I was now firmly in wind-down mode, looking forward to day hikes and not much else.

The gulch itself was a nice hike. In contrast to the relatively open trails in Bryce, this had a denser forest and canopy, so the views along the trail weren't especially remarkable, but the trail itself was cool, including a nice short scramble across a narrow rocky ledge - once again, I was grateful to be wearing proper boots with strong traction.

I started monitoring the time, worrying that I was spending too long on my amuse bouche hike and wouldn't be able to enjoy my entrees. But then I abruptly came to a clearing and saw the promised overlook. There's no sign or anything there, but it was clear that I was looking at Jolley Gulch. It was really cool to finally get some perspective on the land that I'd already hiked through and see it in detail. I also got my first good look at the cool hills surrounding it, with unique striated rock layers.

I walked around a bit, hopping up some mounds and along outcroppings, getting more looks at the gulch, then turned around and headed back. The trail had taken most of my remaining morning, but it was a nice, calm, peaceful introduction to Zion before reaching the main zone.

Back in the car, Highway 9 continued forward, with periodic pullouts for scenic points, including the cool Checkerboard Mesa, a large stone face cross-crossed with regular lines. A lot of people parked their cars and walked along the road, which was cool but also worrying, as there is absolutely no shoulder, rarely a trail, and lots of curves. I passed through a short tunnel, then a very long tunnel, which finally brought me into the main Zion Canyon.

It's a majestic, awesome view, and the road adds to it nicely, dramatically sweeping you down and back and forth as the landscape unfurls. And this wasn't even the main canyon! Once again many folks parked by the side to take photos and stare up at the walls. I pressed forward, hoping to get some good time in the main park.

My misadventures with parking in the Grand Canyon had made me wary of official guidance, so I headed directly into the Visitors Center parking lot despite the multiple signs warning that the lot was full. I probably spent about five minutes looking for a spot until a very kind person waved to get my attention and then pulled out of their own spot, which I gratefully occupied.

Zion has become famous for its difficult parking; if you check their Twitter feed, they report each day the time when their parking becomes full. The main part of the park is completely off-limits to private automobiles and you need to take their shuttle. They further recommend that people park in Springfield and take another shuttle into the park. In principle, I think that's a great idea. It was disappointing to later discover, though, that all of the parking in Springfield is paid; it looks like $20/day is the going rate near the entrance, and $15/day further out. Which is especially annoying since that isn't part of the park's communication, which emphasizes the free nature of the shuttle, so I suspect a lot of visitors will be surprised. Furthermore, once you actually come to the shuttle stops you'll see signs encouraging you to walk into the park and stating that the shuttle bus is often full. So... yeah, while I was fully prepared to park in town, I'm really glad that I didn't. I think this is another area that will require some careful thought and planning in the future. My immediate thinking is that Springfield derives an enormous benefit from being next to the park, driving its tourism and lodging and restaurant business, so it would be in their best interest to partner with the park and provide free parking. But there's just no financial incentive for them to do so, and obviously people are willing to (probably grudgingly) pay for parking, so I don't see them changing, and there's no way for the park service to compel them to do so. I dunno.

Hey, wasn't this post supposed to be about my hikes?!

I hopped on the shuttle bus and headed north. The buses in Zion are great, I liked them significantly more than the Grand Canyon shuttles. They're huge double buses, with a front and a rear cabin, giant windows, and a nice mix of pre-recorded messages about the park and chatty drivers who share their own personal (and interesting) thoughts and tips on the park. They also run really frequently! I think the signs say something like "You'll rarely wait more than 15 minutes for a bus," but I don't think I ever waited more than 5. There were even a few times when two buses would arrive at a stop practically back to back; unlike Muni, though, this didn't mean that the third bus would be significantly delayed. I feel like the Zion setup was a lot more conducive to hopping off and back on than in the Grand Canyon, where you would fear losing a seat on a crowded bus.

I'd been keeping tabs on the status of trails in Zion, mostly because of the Narrows but I'd also noticed that there were several other trail closures. A few of the hikes that I'd been interested in like Observation Point and Hidden Canyon were still shut. The big hike that I still wanted to do was Angel's Landing. I'd been concerned by a Twitter post several days earlier warning that the wait to do that hike was several hours long. I don't think I've ever seen a line for a hike before! Still, it sounded like a great hike so I departed the bus and hopped on the trail.

There was a slight hiccup at the very start. The map had said that there was water available at the trailhead, but none was to be found; they were doing some construction, which might have contributed to it. I'd filled up in the morning and still had a bottle and a half, so I wasn't overly concerned, but after closely monitoring my water during long desert hikes I did worry a little about it.

The trail starts off extremely easily, with a wide and paved stretch that runs along the Virgin River. You then start to gradually ascend, still with a paved surface, hugging the rocky cliff side as you go higher and start to get better views.

After a while, the switchbacks grow more pronounced. There were quite a few people on this trail, of all sorts of fitness levels, from bare-chested dudes sprinting up and down the trail to elderly folks slowly making their way up with canes and stopping at every corner. I took advantage of a few shaded nooks in the hot day, sipping some precious water and eyeing the distance left to go.

You eventually reach a nice saddle, which opens up to some great views of the canyon and has a ton of people resting on the rocks. However, this is only the beginning of the hike. Just to the right are the chains: steel cables bolted into the cliff face. To go further you need to grab onto them and hoist yourself higher and higher up the ascent.

This area definitely got congested, but there were a lot more people coming down than going up. While there are no posted signs, there's a definite etiquette at play, similar to crossing a single-lane bridge. A group of people would make their way down a section of the chains, folks at the bottom would patiently wait for them to finish, then start coming up. More people coming down would then congregate around their end until that squad had passed, then they would descend, and so on.

With all the people on the trail, this was far from the fastest hike I've taken, but honestly that was totally fine by me: it was technically challenging, even with the cables, and strenuous, and hot, and having some built-in down time helped make the overall experience easier.

I finally hauled myself up to the top, which is a lot bigger than I had imagined. I'd envisioned a peak, a small place for people to huddle around, but there's actually a very long ledge, so even with a lot of people up there it felt a lot less crowded than the climb up had been. Even better, the views were absolutely incredible, everything that I had hoped for. I kept looking back and forth: to my right, the southern entry to the park, where the tree-lined canyon walls swooped dramatically down and the landscape spread out. To the left, the northern half of the canyon, with the Virgin River bursting from the Temple of Sinawava and tall peaks glowering down at the valley far below. I also marveled at the trail below me, surprised at how far up I had come with relatively little horizontal distance to travel.

Sitting down on a rock, I munched some celebratory snacks and a delicious gulp of water, then carefully made my way down. As is often the case on steep routes, going down can be more difficult than coming up. The crowds were further thinning out now, though, and as I already knew the route, so I made good time. I also offered strategic encouragement to those making their way up - people looked really beat, as I'm sure I must have before.

Once I hit the pavement, the rest of the descent went much more quickly, and I was soon back at the shuttle bus. I back-tracked to the Zion Lodge, where I had a late-afternoon lunch in the form of a giant chicken Caesar salad. I think I ate more salads on this trip than I do in a typical year, and enjoyed them more than I normally enjoy pizza (which is a lot!).

It was late enough in the afternoon now that I could check in to my lodging, so I headed out of the park, expecting that it would be quieter in the evening. This was my second lodging splurge of the trip, Flanigan's Inn in Springfield. It's located just a few minutes' walk from the park's pedestrian entrance and is on a beautifully landscaped estate, with meandering paths around a swimming pool and mature trees, and a short rail up to a hillside meditation labyrinth (which seemed to be under construction during my stay).

The room itself was great, very modern and comfortable with plush chairs and stylish lighting, and a nice balcony overlooking the courtyard, with a little patio table and chairs. I'd also read good things about the spa at Flanigan's, so I called to see if there were any openings for a massage. They were booked for the rest of the day, but had a slot available for the next morning, which I gratefully reserved.

I walked back into the park. It felt a little odd to go through a pedestrian kiosk, which looks and is staffed just like the typical auto ones. It was after six by now, and the friendly-looking ranger just waved me in.

I got back on a shuttle bus, which was now almost completely empty. My soft goal was to get off at every stop; I ended up skipping ones that didn't have any trails or scenic viewpoints, but still hit quite a few. This late in the day the Court of the Patriarchs wasn't very photogenic, with the sun directly hovering over them, but I bet it's stunning in the morning. I had more luck with Big Bend, a crook in the Virgin River that's positioned nicely to reveal the canyon around you.

I was particularly interested in Weeping Rock, the one trail still open from that trailhead. True to its name, there's a significant volume of water that seems to gush out directly from the side of the tall, flat cliff face. Apparently, this is ancient water that seeped into clay in pre-historic times, then was crushed under heavier rocks in subsequent geological ages. The weight on top eventually forces the water out, leading to the surprising display we see today.

My trip ended at the Temple of Sinawava. If all had gone according to my original plan, I would have been walking out of this at around this time. As it was, I enjoyed the leisurely and accessible stroll up the Virgin River. The paved portion of the trail stops right at the entrance to the Narrows proper, with a cool little stone staircase descending into the river. There were several signs warning that the Narrows were closed due to the river flow level. I stared wistfully in. The Temple area itself looks really cool, two guardians keeping watch over this passageway between them, and if the stars align in the future I would like to try that walk myself.

But I had no regrets: missing the Narrows had allowed me to visit Bryce, the most beautiful park, and climb Angel's Landing, one of the most unique and interesting hikes I've done. I happily rode the shuttle back to the entrance and returned to Flanigan's, where I had a late supper on my balcony and watched the sky fade into dark.

The next morning, I was one of two people at the opening of the great and inexpensive breakfast buffet at The Spotted Dog, a restaurant on the Flanigan's property, and we chatted about our experiences at Zion and nearby parks. I cleaned up myself and my luggage, then had a fantastic massage at the Deep Canyon Spa with Drey. Over the last decade or so I've gotten in the habit of getting a massage near the end of my long vacations, and it's always a wonderful way to sort of lock in the relaxation I've been feeling, along with loosening any sore muscles I've picked up during my hikes.

Feeling refreshed and happy, I hopped back in my car and started driving towards my next - and final! - park: Rock Rock Canyon.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Bryce Bryce Baby

I think my last post, about my trip to the Grand Canyon, might be the longest post I've ever written for this blog! Definitely the longest post that doesn't involve me complaining about a video game.

The Grand Canyon was the longest visit of my two-week vacation and covered the midpoint of my journey. From here I headed north towards Bryce Canyon, a "bonus" park that I was able to visit when my plans to through-hike the Zion Narrows fell through. The drive to Bryce was good, but the area around the Grand Canyon was starting to grate a little: this was the third time that I'd driven the long Desert View Drive and highway 89. In retrospect, I really should have driven to the North Rim and shuttled South instead of the other way around, which would have cut out hundreds of auto miles. But it was handy to have a car at the South Rim to visit Desert View and other points, so, I don't know, I don't have any major regrets.

The roads to Bryce are relatively narrow, but traffic was light and I made good time. I'd booked lodging at Best Western Plus Ruby's Inn, and discovered that it's an enormous complex, and a historic one as well. From various literature in the Inn and within the park, I learned that Reuben Syrett was largely responsible for Bryce becoming a park in the first place: he had set up tents on the rim, developed interest in the park, then eventually built the Inn, which over generations has grown into a huge, sprawling complex. It was fun to experience a kind of Rashomon-like telling of this tale, with the park service putting a very different spin on Reuben's entrepreneurship than the inn itself does.

Ruby's Inn has a slightly ramshackle feel to the layout, and you can tell that it's expanded in an ad-hoc manner over the years, but the actual facilities were really nice. There was some really great artwork in my room, a nice view of a small lake, and a hard-working but very effective air conditioner. I was eager to maximize my time in the park, though, so I hopped back into my car and headed right into the park. Fortunately this was a very short journey, since the Inn is just a minute or so's drive from the entrance.

Every entry to a National Park is similar: the posted speed limit slows down to 5MPH or so, the road splits into multiple entrance kiosks, each staffed by a ranger. I would hand over my "America the Beautiful" annual pass and my driver's license for ID - they don't really inspect it, but will ask for it if you don't provide one. They ask if you want a map; most people come into the parks multiple times, since even if you pay in cash you get unlimited entry for 7 days. I'd always take one on my first entry. Even though I had come up with a plan of what to do in each park months ago, the brochures always contain some interesting reading material as well, and the paper map can be very handy to have.

Once in Bryce, I drove past Sunset Point, figuring it was probably crowded with people watching the approaching sunset, and continued to Sunrise Point. The parking lot was nearly deserted, and I strolled towards the rim.

My jaw dropped.

Bryce spread out before me, vast and varied and colorful and beautiful. Delicate spires ("hoodoos") gracefully reached towards the sky, arrayed in columns and rows, hundreds upon hundreds in sight. The gentle slope of the rim curved around them, embracing the landscape in a hug.

I slowly walked along the rim, drinking it all in and taking way too many pictures. Then I hopped back in my car and continued along the scenic drive. Bryce is designed a little like Arches in that it's a very car-centric park: there's a road that you drive along and then pull over to see various overlooks and points of interest. But that first view of the park is definitely the crown jewel, and I think plenty of people spend all of their time there without regrets.

The sun was swiftly dropping; I knew that I wouldn't complete the scenic drive before darkness, and I wanted to see at least a few of the viewpoints in the evening while the park was slow and quiet. I would have a full day here on the next day and could wrap up any remaining viewpoints, as well as the hikes I wanted to do in the amphitheater.

The road brings you further south and higher up, with views that are more distant but broader. I enjoyed them, but I was particularly struck by the light, which was doing some stuff I've never seen before: a distant point appeared to be casting out dark rays, projecting blackness into the sky. I still have no idea what causes this phenomenon, but I loved it.

As dusk started to settle in I headed back to the Inn, where I finally cleaned myself up from my long backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon and slipped gratefully into the clean sheets. The next morning I took advantage of the free breakfast buffet, which was really tasty and varied. I'm impressed at the sheer size of the dining area at the inn. It's arranged well, so it doesn't feel like a cavernous space, but walking around I realized just how dang many tables it had, and even with as many people as were eating there, there was plenty of room for more.

I was eager to return to the park, so I did. My goal had been to hike the "Figure 8 Route", which combines the Queen's Garden, Peekaboo Trail, and the Navajo Loop. I'd seen the previous day that the Navajo trail was still closed for repairs from the winter; I'd initially thought that I could come up the other part of the loop, but today I realized that one was closed as well. I ultimately decided to make a big loop, still starting with Queen's Garden but then taking Peekaboo all the way up to Bryce Point and then descending along the Rim Trail.

Yes, one of my complaints about the Southwest is that there are entirely too many trails named "Peekaboo". One would be pushing it, and three is definitely excessive.

There were a good number of people on the Queen's Garden trail; it's a lot more accessible and less punishing than the Grand Canyon trails, though there's still the risk of not realizing what you're getting into until after you've hiked down too far. Seeing the hoodoos up close was really cool; I was struck by just how varied the colors are, with reds or browns or pinks but also some yellows. Later I would learn that this rock is primarily limestone, which is white, but they contain trace amounts of iron. The colors we see are basically the rusting of the stone, and the shades depend on the mixture of iron to limestone in each hoodoo.

Queen's Garden eventually brings you to a particular rock formation that, apparently, looks like a famous statue of Queen Victoria. I honestly couldn't really see it, but I was lucky enough to be there when a group of British tourists arrived, and they definitely saw it, saying things like "It's her spitting image!" and "That's the old girl!"

The trail grew quieter as I continued to the Peekaboo leg. This was more of a forested area, with hoodoos attractively nestled within the greenery. I climbed more here, as Bryce Point is notably higher than Sunset Point so I had more elevation to climb than I had descended. The landscape opens up more as you climb, and I kept seeing new things, including some really cool arches and windows in the rocks.

As I walked down the Rim Trail back to my car, I saw a sign for a ranger talk in the afternoon and resolved to attend it. Before that, though, I had some more locations to visit. I continued along the scenic drive, checking out a couple more overlooks. There weren't as many as I had originally thought; I think I had confused the number of miles with the number of stops, and there are really just a handful of stops, but all worth seeing.

Parking was generally fine, except for Rainbow Point at the very end, where I needed to circle twice before finding a spot. My goal here was hiking the Bristlecone Pine Trail Loop, a smallish loop trail through the woods. Bristlecone Pines are cool and odd-looking trees, primitive and ancient; I don't think I'd make a trip specifically to see them, but they were a neat addition to an already-great environment.

Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also the highest viewpoints in the park, and I enjoyed the impressive and vast sights they afforded. Then I headed back to the main park: lunchtime!

I swung by the General Store near the campground, which is surprisingly well-stocked, and got a large slice of pretty-darn-good pizza (after discovering that I needed to forcibly yank on the display-case door to open it) and a cup of pretty-good coffee. Cheese, grease, crusts and caffeine: everything a growing boy's body needs!

I walked back to the rim just in time to meet the so-called "Rim Walk Program." As the ranger explained, we would be walking a total of a whopping quarter-mile, so not exactly a workout, but still a great program. His talk was mostly about the history of the park: Reuben Syrett was the main character, though maybe more of an antihero in this version of the story. "Bryce" was apparently an earlier Mormon settler who had visited and named the area, but had little or nothing to do with its subsequent popularity.

The ranger was of the opinion that "Bryce Canyon" is the most inaccurately named park in the entire National Park Service, as it is definitely not a canyon, but rather the edge of a plateau. He also thought that the park would have been better named after J. W. Humphrey, a Forest Service supervisor who fell in love with the park and wanted to protect it. The history of the park was fascinating: there were various factions who all wanted to control the park, including powerful Mormons in the state legislature, Reuben Syrett and a consortium of local developers, and the Forest Service (which is more focused on exploiting resources than protecting them). The one group that didn't want Bryce was the National Park Service, and it took a lot of politicking before they reluctantly accepted responsibility for it.

He also delved more into the enormous impact that the Union Pacific Railroad had on the development of all Southwestern parks: the railroad created a spur line and wanted to compete against the newer Santa Fe Railroad, so they aggressively promoted the "Grand Circle Tour" of Bryce, Zion, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and also funded the development of all the lodges and buildings I'd seen in these parks. The Bryce Lodge is the one remaining intact lodge from the original development, as the others were all destroyed in fires at various points and rebuilt in different styles.

As with many ranger talks, this one ended on a somewhat down note while talking about how humanity has adversely affected the park. First, he recapped the issue with western forests, how the Big Burn of 1910 kicked off a zero-tolerance approach to forest fires, and how that has resulted in forests that are significantly denser today than they naturally would be. He also touched on visitation and how the National Park Service is grappling with their contradictory mission to preserve the parks and make them accessible. Zion Park has been a leader in restraining visitation, by shutting down parking and making most of the park accessible only by shuttle bus, and has apparently started mulling imposing absolute caps on the number of visitors allowed per day. Bryce hasn't taken any of those steps yet, since it isn't yet as popular as Zion, but they're having the same discussions there.

I've since continued to mull the idea of a visitation quota. It's a bold choice, and one that could be very effective at preserving the natural resources of the park; I think it's analogous to the quota many parks impose on backcountry wilderness permits, which have seemed to be successful. But... I feel like the parks are such a wonderful treasure of our country, and I'm worried that they might become yet another playground for the wealthy and connected. Even if it's a nominally fair lottery system, I can imagine all sorts of opportunities for those with extra time and money to game the system and get a slot to visit, while working-class people would find it significantly harder than they do now. I dunno. I think it's a discussion worth having, but one to handle carefully.

The talk wrapped up late in the afternoon. I spent a little time hunting for a place called Valhalla that I'd heard had great pizza; I had a hard time finding it, and when I did, I saw a sign saying that it was closed for the winter and would open mid-May. I scowled at the empty door. It was June! The General Store closes at 5, so I would have to do without supper for now. Fortunately, the park itself fed my spirit. I returned to the amphitheater, then decided on one final hike, Fairyland. I'd initially considered doing the Fairyland Loop from the trailhead that starts outside the park; the day was growing short, though, and I didn't think I'd have time to do it. Instead, I decided to walk the Rim Trail all the way to Fairyland Point and then return as an out-and-back. I do prefer loops, but this had some advantages: only moderate climbing, and by doing this I would have hiked the entirety of the Rim Trail during my day in the park.

I was really impressed with Fairyland, which I personally think looks just as pretty as the main Bryce amphitheater, though I know I'm in the minority. I was interested in the signage which noted that Fairyland was earlier in the erosion process than Bryce, so in a few centuries it might look like Bryce does today, while much of Bryce may have vanished by then. The erosion process in this park is very different from the process that created the enormous dramatic arches in Arches, which were primarily formed by very very slow rain; Bryce has over 200 days a year with low temperatures below freezing and high temperatures above freezing, so water will seep its way into rocks, freeze, expand, slightly pushing out the rock, then melt, and repeat. That process is what makes the hoodoos, and Bryce has the "Goldilocks" location and temperature to get more of them than anywhere else in the world. As with many other parks, climate change poses a significant threat to the process, and rangers have already observed some noticeable changes over the last couple of decades. It's really sad to think that this may one day be gone... obviously, in the grand scheme of things it would eventually erode away entirely, but it's a shame that humanity might destroy something so beautiful.

The hike out to Fairyland was peaceful and quiet, with nobody else on the trail the whole way. I made good time coming back as well, and continued to soak in the view as the sun descended. I'd spent most of these past 24 hours inside the park, and felt like I wanted to soak it in for every minute that I could.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and when the time came I returned to the Inn. This was only the second place I stayed at on this vacation where I was in the same room for two consecutive nights, and it was nice to have it be a bit of a home base, even if I had spent almost all of my time in the park. I made a late supper out of leftover trail food, then took advantage of their free breakfast the next day before departing. I was sad to see Bryce go, but given everything I had heard, it seemed very appropriate that I was immediately following it up with a visit to its sister, Zion National Park.