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From the Top of the Staircase

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.

The Paungsaugunt Plateau forms the top lip of the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south for 100 miles to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Staircase preserves more of Earth's history than any other place on Earth, documenting over 600 million years of history.

Artist's depiction of the Grand Staircase (Source: National Park Service,

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.

It is difficult to determine whether this is an immature male or a female black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). First year males can vary in their appearance considerably.

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.

Crypto (hidden) biotic (life) soils are composed of algae, cyanobacteria, and fungi that cannot be seen with the naked eye. The life in these soils provides critical resistance to erosion by wind and water

I noticed a mat penstemon (Penstemon caespitosus) 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.

I noticed Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) bushes and the occasional Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii), 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!

The phantasmagoric stature of a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) stopped us in our tracks

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 needles 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.

Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) has adapted to heavy snowfall by increasing the flexibility of its branches. This pine can be found growing on windswept cliff ledges alongside bristlecone pine

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.

A colorful western tanager forages in the trees near our campsite

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 spent a moment in meditation, honoring 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.

The next morning, we rose early and drove over to the visitor center where we got a permit for a night in the backcountry. We would drive to the southernmost point of the park, Rainbow Point, and hike the Riggs Spring Loop in a clockwise direction.

The view looking north from Rainbow Point

The Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce reportedly described the Paungsaugunt Plateau as being "a hell of a place to lose a cow." After venturing into the labyrinth of hoodoos and spires, we fully empathized with Bryce's sentiment. If it weren't for clearly cut trails and navigation aids, we would have been fully disoriented in that magical world of rock and wilderness.

The highlights of our trek into the backcountry included a run-in with a greater short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi), enchanted forests of towering 200-foot tall ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), filling our water bottles up at Riggs Spring, and enjoying a gorgeous sunset on the pink cliffs at Yovimpa Point. Here are a few photos of our journey, followed by a short video.

This greater short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) was my favorite animal we encountered in Bryce Canyon. This lizard occupies a variety of habitats in the west, from semi-arid deserts to high mountain forests up to 11,300 feet. It relies on its camouflage to remain hidden from predators, but when provoked by canids, some lizards can build up blood pressure behind their eyes and accurately squirt blood to deter them

Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) grows in sandy soils, often in groups with other Scarlet Gilia, true to the name aggregata

This wing-tapping cicada (Platypedia spp.) was likely a victim of a butcher bird (Lanius spp.). The shrike likely skewered it on the sharp leaf of this Buckley's yucca (Yucca constricta) to attract a mate

Golden hour near our campsite at Yovimpa Point

Angie scores us some much-needed water at Riggs Spring

Sunset on the cliffs near Yovimpa Point

From Yovimpa Point, much of the Grand Staircase can be seen (Source: NPS Photo/Peter Densmore)

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