Bryce Canyon National Park: To the Top of the Stairs


Aquarius Plateau and Sinking Ship (foreground) from Bryce Canyon National Park

On Friday, September 9, 2016 Sean and I began our trip down the Grand Staircase with an evening flight to Phoenix. More often than not, this was our modus operandi, to fly out after work, stay overnight near the airport, and begin the trip proper on the ground in the morning wherever we were. That Friday, I was more than ready to be gone. It had been a very long week at work, culminating in issues with a new vendor. (I’d ultimately be proven right in my assessment of their shoddy service.) But either way, it would be good to do some hiking in a place I’d wanted to visit since childhood.


But first, we had to get to the airport. Our usual planning hit an obstacle since the Foster Avenue bridge over the Chicago River was out and we had to detour. Our cab driver was fantastic and rerouted to still got us to the airport promptly.

Soon we were through security and in line for our traditional O’Hare dinner at Tortas Frontera…with margaritas.



Image: Sean M. Santos

In American Way magazine, Sean came upon a quote by one Michael Farmer, above, which boded well for the spirit of our trip. Meteorites and adventure? Sign us up! But first we needed transportation, so off we went to the car rental center.


After a mishap about which hotel we were actually booked at (there is a Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Airport and a Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Airport North), we were settled in our room and ready for sleeps.


Next morning, Saturday, September 10, I did a little work for my new photography business, filing legal notice of my “doing business as” name, Out In The Parks. It was telling that I’d first established my business on our trip to California the previous month and then finally had the headspace to tie up this loose end while again on a trip rather than in “real life.” Afterward, we repacked our gear, transforming our luggage from “checked bag” and “carry-on bag” to “backpack” and “daypack.” Then we were ready for the seven-hour drive to Bryce Canyon National Park.


San Francisco Peaks above Flagstaff, Arizona

We drove north and up onto the Colorado Plateau until we reached Flagstaff, where we stopped at the REI to pick up our camp stove fuel and dehydrated meals. We also had lunch and got perishable food at a nearby Whole Foods.


Then we were back on the road, skirting the Painted Desert while listening to the My Dad Wrote A Porno and Better Friendship Through Podcasting podcasts.


Echo Cliffs. Image: Sean M. Santos

As we continued north  on US-89 through the western reaches of the Navajo Nation, the Echo Cliffs rose up on our right. They were the first taste of the nine days of geological wonders before us.


Echo Cliffs. Image: Sean M. Santos


Echo Cliffs. Image: Sean M. Santos

Ultimately, US-89 led us to the section of the Colorado Plateau between the Echo Cliffs and the Vermillion Cliffs, and then it led us up into the Echo Cliffs, providing huge views of the Kaibab Plateau, which the Grand Canyon is carved through, the Vermillion Cliffs, and Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, where the Colorado River runs downstream from Glen Canyon Dam.


Kaibab Plateau (left) and Vermillion Cliffs National Monument (right)

It was our first glimpse of a part of the Grand Staircase, the immense series of plateaus and cliffs that descend from the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument in the high plateaus of southern Utah, down past the Gray Cliffs and then the White Cliffs of Zion National Park, then the Vermillion Cliffs before us and the Chocolate Cliffs north of the Kaibab Plateau.


National Park Service Graphic

Each set of cliffs exposes a different layer of rock from tens to hundreds of millions of years ago. After the Vermillion and Chocolate Cliffs, the Kaibab Plateau rises before the great plunge to the depths of the Grand Canyon.



Echo Cliffs



US-89 winds beneath the Echo Cliffs, with the Kaibab Plateau in the distance to the right.


Vermillion Cliffs National Monument


Marble Canyon (Grand Canyon National Park) beneath Vermillion Cliffs National Monument


Echo Cliffs (foreground) and Vermillion Cliffs National Monument


Echo Cliffs

We descended from the Echo Cliffs, left Navajo Nation, and entered Page, Arizona, population 7,400, gateway to Lake Powell, the vast reservoir created by the impounding of the Colorado River behind Glen Canyon Dam. Named after the one-armed Major John Wesley Powell who led the first successful expedition by white men down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the lake drowned Glen Canyon, which Powell passed through with his men on the way to the big canyon.


Image: Sean M. Santos

We stopped at a gas station and fueled up.


Image: Sean M. Santos


After the gas station, we drove over to an overlook that was part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. The overlook was recommended by my buddy and fellow Openlander, John. From the bottom of a rock staircase, it afforded visitors a striking view of the dam and the very beginning of Marble Canyon.




Glen Canyon Dam

Construction of Glen Canyon Dam began in 1956 and was completed in 1966. The reservoir filled completely by 1980 and then immediately began dropping due to seepage into the bedrock, immense loss to evaporation, and demand for its water.

Glen Canyon was chosen as the site of the dam after the successful blocking of the proposed Echo Park Dam, which would have inundated parts of Dinosaur National Monument on the Green River near the border between Utah and Colorado. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the proposal to place a dam in a National Park unit recalled the bitter dispute over damming Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Ultimately, the fight against the Echo Park Dam was the great mid-century success of the land preservation movement, a success that would reverberate into the 1960s as dam proposals for the Colorado River within Grand Canyon National Park would be defeated.

But remote, unprotected Glen Canyon was transformed into Lake Powell.


Glen Canyon Dam




Colorado River

Beneath the dam, the usually red Colorado flows green and anemic on its journey into Grand Canyon National Park.


Colorado River


Glen Canyon Dam

While there has always been opposition to the flooding of Glen Canyon, recently the drought in the West has renewed calls for the removal of Glen Canyon Dam. It may seem incongruous to remove a dam and drain a reservoir during a drought, but the argument holds that so much water is lost to evaporation and to seepage that it would be better to drain Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead to its capacity. Lake Mead’s bedrock is not porous like Lake Powell’s and even more importantly, eliminating the vast surface of Lake Powell would dramatically decrease the water lost to evaporation. Read more about the proposal here: Abrahm Lustgarten, “Unplugging the Colorado River,” The New York Times, May 20, 2016.


We crossed the bridge adjacent to the dam. For the next nine days we’d be north of the Colorado River and almost constantly within its watershed.

At the visitor center, which did not seem to have been designed back in the 1960s with security of the dam in mind…although now security concerns were omnipresent, we stamped our National Park Passports and used the restroom.



Glen Canyon Dam

Then we turned our backs on Lake Powell and headed north into Utah.

Now we were rising on the plateaus of the Grand Staircase, heading east through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument toward Kanab, Utah. The landscape was huge with distant cliffs and ridges and the world dropping away at points to the south.

In Kanab, US-89 turned north and so did we. The highway followed the Sevier Valley between the Markagunt Plateau to the west and Paunsaugunt Plateau to the east. In a few days’ time, we’d visit Cedar Breaks National Monument on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau, but first Bryce Canyon National Park on the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.


Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest

At state route 12, we turned east, crossed the Sevier River, and headed toward the plateau and Dixie National Forest. Route 12 wound its way through Red Canyon, within the National Forest, and it was our first taste of spires, hoodoos, and formations, which waited for us in abundance across the plateau.


Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest

We stopped for gas and firewood on the top of the plateau between Dixie National Forest and Bryce Canyon National Park. Then, it was time for our final short drive to the Park, hopefully in time to catch a bit of sunset.


Image: Sean M. Santos

I really can’t overstate how thrilled I was to be at the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park. As an adolescent, I’d sat and stared at the photos of the Park in my Reader’s Digest Guide to the National Parks. I had waited a very long time to visit this place, and here I was doing it on this huge, multi-year odyssey with my husband.


Image: Sean M. Santos


We drove directly to the parking area for Sunset and Sunrise Points. Darkness had already crept across the main amphitheater filled with hoodoos, and only the distant formations were still illuminated. But we were here, and there it was before us, that labyrinth of astounding pink, red, and white spires.


Boat Mesa (left), the Sinking Ship (center right), and the Aquarius Plateau (distant right).






There was a vastness to the sound coming from the amphitheater. It wasn’t an echo, exactly. It was a silence or an emptiness of sound that was suddenly filled by the cawing of a crow out in the amphitheater.


Visitors strolled the rim path, or were bunched at the overlooks waiting for the sunlight to vanish, or sat with glasses of wine taking it all in.


We turned away from the view, walked back to the Jeep, and drove the short distance to Sunset Campground. We found our site, started a campfire, and began setting up camp as darkness gathered around us. It had been a long, but grand drive. And tomorrow we’d spend the day exploring a jewel of the National Park System.


5 thoughts on “Bryce Canyon National Park: To the Top of the Stairs

  1. Kurt A.

    I’m sure you are busy, but I can’t wait to see your Zion photos. You guys are getting better and better with the photography. Awesome. I’m planning on going to Zion in late Sept./ early Oct. Utah is one of my favorite places, but I haven’t yet reached Zion or Bryce. Natural Bridges and Capital Reef are 2 of my favorite places I’ve been to.

    That coyote shot from another park is one of your best, BTW. I know how hard it is to shoot wildlife…especially those nosy buffalo. lol.

    Glad to see you guys are still checking out the parks. Thanks for sharing….

    1. Brandon Hayes

      Thanks, Kurt! We’re so glad that you’re still enjoying reading about our adventures.

      I am very excited for Capitol Reef…someday. Along with Lassen Volcanic and Guadalupe Mountains, it is right at the top of my list of parks I’m most excited about visiting.

      Have a blast at Zion. Sean absolutely loved it. I did too, but he was just bewitched by it. I think I’ve got four more Bryce Canyon posts to go before we arrive in Zion. So they’re coming up fast. Where are you staying in Zion?

      And thanks for your thoughts about the Coyote image. If you haven’t read it, you should totally check out Coyote America by Dan Flores. Fantastic book about the Coyote and coyotes in American and Native American culture.

  2. Kurt A.

    Man, you guys hit some beauty sunlight that morning. I’m glad to hear you still have a bunch of Bryce photos to post…I can wait for Zion…take your time! I’ve heard that Bryce is magical, and those photos prove it.

    The first time I went to Capitol Reef was in Nov. and it was frigid, but devoid of humans. I mainly hit the south portion of the park and backpacked and camped a couple of nights down Lower Muley Twist Canyon. Didn’t see a soul the whole time I was there. I hit most of the goodies in the north end, but I have discovered that if you go off trail sometimes you can find secret wonders. I have found a boatload of them there. Even if a trail or park is crowded, as was the Grand Canyon when I was there (I think it always is), I found you could just wander away a little bit from the insanity and find huge and quiet areas not on the map, and they are just as beautiful as the main features. Disneyland ain’t my style.

    I never made it to Teddy Roosevelt NP. Not yet, anyway. I decided to hit New Mexico instead…and warmth, as the weather predicted for TRNP was wet and rainy.

    As for Zion, I plan on backpacking to backcountry sites in the Kolob Canyon area, and quite possibly in some national forest or BLM land outside of the park. Did you guys hit that area? I am not a fan of campgrounds, especially at national parks (unless they are empty, of course. Oh, I have some horrid memories). For the last 3 years I have camped in national forests, BLM land and other free campsites, away from the peeps. They are free and quiet. Or if the parks I go to allow backpacking, I try to do that at least one night. Badlands was great for that, as was Bandelier and Capitol Reef.

    Thanks again and glad to see you posting new photos.

    1. Brandon Hayes

      You are definitely whetting my appetite for Capitol Reef. I definitely feel you when it comes to solitude. Our most recent trip was to Death Valley National Park in February. It was four nights of solitude, including one night in a valley in the Cottonwood Mountains where the only human beings in dozens of square miles were Sean, my cousin, and me.

      As for Zion, we knew that it would be the most “in the belly of the beast” of the three Parks in terms of crowds, which is why we timed it to mid-week. And it wasn’t too bad. The worst was the crowd at The Narrows, but otherwise we were actually able to hike multiple trails in and above the canyon where we were the only hikers or two of maybe six total hikers on the trail. We did not make it out to Kolob Canyons because we went to Cedar Breaks instead, but on a second trip to Zion we would definitely get out and explore the less-visited peripheries more.

      Last night I was reading the essay about Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land. Really great stuff. You should definitely check it out before you eventually visit ol’ Teddy’s Park.

      Glad you are enjoying the posts and photos. There are lots more to come!

  3. Pingback: Grand Canyon National Park: Stepping Off the Grand Staircase | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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