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.
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.