On Monday, September 12 we woke to a beautiful, sun-drenched morning in Sunset Campground at Bryce Canyon National Park. After logging more than fourteen miles of hiking the day before, the sun was well up by the time we emerged from our little tent. Today we planned to say goodbye to Bryce Canyon National Park and hello to Zion National Park, with a stop at Cedar Breaks National Monument in between. But before we bid a fond farewell to Bryce Canyon, we still had some beautiful things to see.
We took our time striking camp, enjoying a leisurely breakfast and even a campfire as we burned the remainder of our wood. We’d been so sleepy the previous evening that we still had some firewood leftover.
After we struck camp, we headed south on the Park Road as it passed the already-full parking area for Inspiration Point and wound through meadows before rising gently toward the end of the road at the parking area for Bristlecone, Rainbow, and Yovimpa points, each higher than 9,000 feet, so some 1,000 feet higher than the elevation of Sunset Campground.
Down at the southern end of Bryce Canyon National Park, we set off on Bristlecone Loop Trail, an easy mile winding through the forests along the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
Multiple social trails led from the main trail out to the edge of the cliffs. Unfortunately, the warning sign about dangerous crumbling cliffs was only visible if you were walking the trail clockwise, not counter-clockwise as we were, which resulted in the unfortunate (and unusual for us) image above. But it also led to Sean’s image below, down from the dangerous cliffs.
Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels and Red Squirrels were busily preparing for winter. Although we perceived mid-September as the tail end of summer, the squirrels knew that up here at 9,000 feet, the winter would come soon and likely suddenly.
The pink cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau continued to the south. Where they conclude in the image above is roughly the southern boundary of Bryce Canyon National Park before it gives way to Dixie National Forest and then Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Out at the point at the southernmost point of the loop, ancient Bristlecone Pines were battered by the wind. These are very special trees. A Bristlecone Pine in California is over 5,000 years old, making it the oldest individual tree on earth.
To the south, the Grand Staircase dropped cliff by cliff toward the bulge of the Kaibab Plateau. The only portion of the Grand Staircase that cannot be seen from this spot in Bryce Canyon National Park is the Chocolate Cliffs. Visitors are standing on the Pink Cliffs. The White Cliffs are easily visible in the foreground, and the Vermillion Cliffs are off in the distance.
As we headed back toward the trailhead, we noted the different species of tree comprising this higher elevation forest.
And then we watched while a Red Squirrel cut a cone from a White Fir, and it fell to the forest floor.
Back at the trailhead, we walked along the parking area to Rainbow Point, which offered a view from 9,115 feet north along the wide arc of the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park. The Under the Rim Trail below those cliffs offered wonderful backcountry camping, but not for us this trip. Already I was making mental notes that these ten days on the Grand Staircase were a preliminary taste of a trip hopefully to be followed by many others.
As gorgeous and expansive as the views in this southern portion of the Park were, they did not boast the astonishing maze of hoodoos of Bryce Amphitheater and other northern sections of the Park. The difference is due to the fact that these portions of the Pink Cliffs were carved much earlier then the northern portions. So the maze of hoodoos that would once have been here has now vanished, just as the hoodoos of Bryce Amphitheater will vanish, and the upper reaches of the Paunsaugunt Plateau will erode away to create mazes and walls not yet imagined.
Regardless, it was a hell of a view with the deep blue high-altitude sky giving way to the deep green of the forest, then the white of the Claron Formation, and then the Pink Cliffs, down to the forested canyons below.
And out to the north the volcanic Black Mountains loomed above the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
After Rainbow Point, we walked back along the parking area to Yovimpa Point, which gave a higher view of a similar vista to Bristlecone Point.
On the way we encountered a Murder Raven plotting murder.
We could see other visitors making the same mistake we made and getting too close to the cliffs on the way to Bristlecone Point.
Yovimpa Point was nice, certainly, but boasted not nearly so much personality as Bristlecone Point, surrounded by those magnificent trees.
But there was a spider on the concrete.
I shouldn’t begrudge the view from Yovimpa Point. It is accessible for those who can’t hike the mile to Bristlecone Point, and it is dramatic and quite beautiful.
We climbed back into the Jeep. On the way south along the Park Road, we’d not stopped at any overlooks. Now on the way back, we stopped at some of the most dramatic. Ours was now the classic National Park road trip experience.
First up: Black Birch Canyon, elevation 8,750 feet.
Then Agua Canyon, elevation 8,800 feet.
And then Natural Bridge, elevation 8,627 feet.
Natural Bridge is gorgeous. That fiery red against the deep green of the pines hundreds of feet below is just spectacular. But it was still for us a pull-into-the-parking-lot-and-pop-out-with-the-camera moment. At Badlands National Park two years earlier, that sort of Park Road magnificence had been the centerpiece of our day, but now it felt…I don’t know, cheap?…compared to other National Park experiences. As beautiful as these images are, I was literally standing on the concrete of the parking area when I captured them.
On the way back, we passed through a section of the Park that had been burned in a wildland fire.
And then we emerged into the mix of grassland and forest near Bryce Amphitheater, which underscored that this was habitat for Pronghorn.