Bryce Canyon, named for Mormon Scotsman Ebenezer Bryce, an early homesteader near the Paria River beneath the pink cliffs of Bryce Amphitheater, was declared a National Monument in 1923 by President Warren Harding. Five years later, after the requisite private properties were purchased and state properties were transferred, Bryce Canyon was upgraded to National Park status. The Park protects the southeastern rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau and the spectacular towers of pink rock, called hoodoos, that descend from the plateau’s rim into the basin below. For all its fame, the Park is diminutive, only thirty-five thousand acres, and it is surrounded by portions of Dixie National Forest, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, and private land.
We woke before dawn on Sunday, September 11, in the hopes that we would be able to see the sunrise from the rim of Bryce Canyon. Looking up, we saw some clouds, but we decided to walk the short distance to the rim anyway to see what we could see.
Near our campsite, we spotted a Mule Deer. We weren’t the only early risers, apparently. The campground was located across the main park road a short distance from the parking area for two of the most popular overlooks, the lodge, and the general store.
We made our way to Sunset Point. And we really were just strolling over from camp with no intention other than to have a look. Although I’d pulled on hiking pants, I was still wearing my pajama pants underneath them.
South and to the right of the overlook was the Silent City, a maze of dramatic formations and walls of hoodoos.
To the north, the rest of Bryce Amphitheater stretched toward Boat Mesa.
We could see a cluster of people standing at Sunrise Point. We preferred Sunset Point because there was little real difference in the vantage points (either way, the sun would rise and flood the amphitheater with color) and there were fewer people waiting at Sunset Point. We were two of maybe a dozen.
To the east, Canaan Mountain was just about where the sun would ultimately rise.
We also spotted watchers up on Inspiration Point, south across the basin that holds Silent City.
As sunrise drew closer and the clouds moved over the landscape, the light changed from moment to moment, sometimes darkening the features of Bryce Amphitheater to highlight a distant formation far beyond the Park boundary and sometimes allowing features even farther on, like Navajo Mountain, to come into better view.
Many of our fellow visitors were European, at least judging from the languages they spoke.
At one point, a helicopter flew past, marring the quiet, but happily it flew off seeking better sunrise views for its riders.
The sun clearly had risen before we could actually see it. From behind the clouds, it threw the same rays that inspired nineteenth century American landscape painters with their “…shed his grace on thee” vibe.
Then…boom…out came the sun, its rays aimed like lasers at the formations that surrounded us. After gaping for a moment at the sun itself, we turned and looked at the formations on either side. That’s where the magic of the sunrise really was.
Directly beneath us were the Thor’s Hammer formation and a photographer on Navajo Trail capturing her perfect shot.
The sun disappeared behind more clouds, which caused various parts of the scene to be lit in dramatic ways, particularly when the light illuminated particles in the air in the middle distance beyond Bryce Point.
The clouds and sun were putting on such a display that we lingered longer at Sunset Point than most of the other visitors. Finally it was just us and a retired couple from Holland, Michigan, with whom we began chatting. They were on the final day of their trip, and would soon begin the long drive home. They had also taken the time to pray that morning in a remarkable natural cathedral.
Sun up, the chipmunks and birds began bustling about looking for any treats dropped by visitors along the rim.
We had seen what we’d wandered out of camp for. The sun was up.
There was no reason, save the phenomenal beauty around us, to linger longer at the rim.
Nope. No indeed.
But maybe, we thought, we could walk just a few switchbacks down Navajo Trail to see the view beneath the rim in such pleasant light. Coffee and breakfast could wait a few more minutes, right?
Soon we had walked a bit down, then a bit further, until we felt solidly under the rim.
We decided to go as far as an overlook above Silent City and beneath Sunset Point. It was the top of Wall Street, one of the most popular trails in the Park, which went right through the heart of Silent City. The trail itself was closed because the previous day there had been a major rockslide along it. For safety reasons, the entire trail was closed off while the Park Service determined whether there was risk of further collapse.
Regardless, it was a fantastic view of the tops of the towers of the Silent City.
A spur trail led to a window in the rock and another view into Silent City.
The view through the window (above) revealed the slopes just beneath Sunset Point disappearing beneath the walls of partially formed rows of hoodoos emerging from the rock. We could hear the voices of visitors above us at Sunset Point as they echoed in the City. We could also hear the occasional clatter of a rock falling from the walls.
Then the sun gave us another laser light show above Silent City.
We walked back out from the Spur Trail and decided to take in the view of the full amphitheater beyond some hearty manzanitas.
And then we looked at Navajo Trail stretching out toward even more wonders. It was so inviting in the warm morning light. It wasn’t busy. There were just a few more sunrise photographers packing up their tripods and gear.
How could you say no to that trail?
You couldn’t. So we didn’t. Off we went.
Above us to the right stood the iconic formation, The Sentinel, silently gazing out across the amphitheater. (This was September 11, 2016. In late November, 2016, likely Friday, November 25, The Sentinel collapsed due to frost expanding between fractures in the rock near its base.)
Beneath the Sentinel, to our left, was Thor’s Hammer, probably the most famous and most photographed hoodoo in Bryce Canyon National Park.
The entire loop of Navajo Trail and Wall Street is only 1.3 miles long, but the trail is rated moderate due to its steep elevation loss/gain of five hundred feet and its high elevation, starting at almost 8,000 feet on the rim of the canyon. The most dramatic part of the trail is a series of switchbacks strung between two hoodoo walls, which dwarf Douglas Firs near their bases.
The quick drop reorients the world from one gazed upon from above to one gazed upon from below.
At the end of the hoodoo walls, the trail levels out somewhat. I counted thirteen switchbacks on the way down, which would help me pace myself on the way back up. After all, I didn’t want to kid myself that it wouldn’t be rough going back up pre-coffee, pre-breakfast, after a long day of travel, and unaccustomed to the elevation.
Near where the trail exited the hoodoos and entered the broad sloping washes of Bryce Canyon there were two natural bridges between another set of hoodoo walls.
Down in the canyon, the now-towering orange hoodoos were set off picturesquely by the rich green of the Douglas Firs.
Add a gleam of sun and a spackle of white clouds against the blue of the sky and the scene presented quite a picture indeed.
We reached the junction of Queen’s Garden Trail and the closure notice for Wall Street.
We also saw our first “Hike the Hoodoos” benchmark sign. The signs invited hikers to find three benchmarks for a small reward from the Visitor Center. Sean was charmed.
A few hikers passed the junction. Some heading down Navajo Trail the way we’d come and others arriving on Queen’s Garden Trail and continuing on toward Peekaboo Loop and adventures beyond.
But for us, coffee and breakfast waited back at our campsite. So we began the journey up Navajo Trail the way we’d come. We’d just have to save Wall Street for another visit someday.
Although they appeared more daunting from below, the one…two…three…thirteen switchbacks weren’t actually that bad.
In no time we were back up above the amphitheater with new sunlight painted over Thor’s Hammer and the other hoodoos.
Thor’s Hammer, like all the hoodoos in the Park, was formed by erosion. As the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau has slowly retreated over millennia, harder, more erosion-resistant rocks have protected the softer, underlying pink limestone of the Claron Formation. Channels of water from the rim of the plateau carve the walls and steep narrow canyons like the one we’d just ascended. Eventually, portions of the walls are hollowed out leaving a row of hoodoos, which eventually themselves erode away even as new walls and fins develop as the rim continues its slow retreat.
As we approached the rim, I turned and snapped one last image of The Sentinel. Little did we know that in less than ten weeks it would vanish forever.
Back in the forests of the plateau, we spotted Western Bluebirds on our way back to camp.
All told, we were gone less than two hours. Once back in camp, around 8:45am, we finally made our breakfast and hot, strong coffee. We rested for a bit in our new hammocks and enjoyed the warm morning. Around us, some of the more common of the Park’s wildlife were enjoying the warm morning too.
We had already seen some beautiful, beautiful sights, and the day had just begun.