The surface of the earth can hold few weirder-looking spots than BRYCE CANYON, just south of US-89 86 miles northeast of Zion Canyon. Named for Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, who declared that it was “a helluva place to lose a cow”, it is not in fact a canyon at all. Along a twenty-mile shelf on the eastern edge of the thickly forested Paunsaugunt Plateau, 8000ft above sea level, successive strata of dazzlingly coloured rock have slipped and slid and washed away to leave a menagerie of multihued and contorted stone pinnacles.
In hues of yellow, red and flaming orange, the formations here have been eroded out of the muddy sandstone by a combination of icy winters and summer rains. The top-heavy pinnacles known as “hoodoos” form when the harder upper layers of rock stay firm as the lower levels wear away beneath them. Thor’s Hammer, visible from Sunset Point, is the most alarmingly precarious. These hoodoos look down into technicolour ravines, all far more vivid than the Grand Canyon and much more human in scale. The whole place is at its most inspiring in winter, when the figures stand out from a blanket of snow.
The two most popular viewpoints into Bryce Amphitheatre, at the heart of the park, are on either side of Bryce Canyon Lodge: the more northerly, Sunrise Point, is slightly less crowded than Sunset Point, where most of the bus tours stop. Hiking trails drop abruptly from the rim down into the amphitheatre. One good three-mile trek, a great extension of the shorter Navajo Loop Trail, starts by switchbacking steeply from Sunset Point through the cool 200ft canyons of Wall Street, where a pair of 800-year-old fir trees stretch to reach daylight. It then cuts across the surreal landscape into the Queen’s Garden basin, where the stout likeness of Queen Victoria sits in majestic condescension, before climbing back up to Sunrise Point. A dozen trails crisscross the amphitheatre, but it’s surprisingly easy to get lost, so don’t stray from the marked routes.
Sunrise and Sunset points notwithstanding, the best view at both sunset and dawn (the best time for taking pictures) is from Bryce Point, at the southern end of the amphitheatre. From here, you can look down not only at the Bryce Canyon formations but also take in the grand sweep of the whole region, east to the Henry Mountains and north to the Escalante range. The park road then climbs another twenty miles south, by way of the intensely coloured Natural Bridge, an 85ft rock arch spanning a steep gully, en route to its dead end at Rainbow Point.