Published by the New Zealand Herald Travel Magazine, 17th November 2015
“Isn’t God’s creation wonderful?”
He turned around and fixed me with an earnest gaze.
“Absolutely,” I gasped, panting.
“Hey, man. Do you need some water?”
I absolutely did.
Like a fool I had embarked on the Navajo Loop, one of many self-guided hikes available in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, without packing water in my rucksack. “Drink at least a litre every 1–2 hours” advised the park’s newspaper, The Hoodoo, named after the extraordinary pinnacles of rock that characterise Bryce Canyon.
At Bryce, which sits at over 9,000ft, altitude plays a major part in making any physical activity quite exhausting. Apparently, at this height your lungs only receive 70% of the oxygen they are used to and I was puffing like an old steam train.
It was late in the day when, on the spur of the moment, I’d said farewell to my family, who preferred to stay on the rim, and headed down into the canyon to enter the weird world among the hoodoos before darkness set in.
The trouble with canyons is that once you head downwards you have to climb up again. I passed people merrily descending the winding trail, but many more wheezing their way up slowly, grim, sweaty faces betraying their pain.
Down among the hoodoos I found myself in a landscape reminiscent of a far-flung planet from Star Wars. From above, Bryce Canyon is beautiful in a bizarre way, but below, the pinnacles and spires seem to take on a life of their own, quite menacing in the way strange shapes lean and crowd over you and walls appear to be closing in. You feel very small.
The Paiute Indians, who once inhabited the canyon, have a history that says the hoodoos are the “Legend People” who Coyote turned to stone because they were bad. I was reminded a little of China’s Terracotta Army: legions of rock sculptures jammed together below ground; lost souls doomed to slowly weather and crumble under the harsh Utah sky.
Bryce Canyon National Park is named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon settler who came to the area with his wife Mary in 1874, and built a house at the mouth of the canyon where he farmed cattle. He famously said that “it was a helluva a place to lose a cow”.
Strictly speaking, Bryce is not a canyon at all but an amphitheatre carved into the face of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Over the millennia, streams have eaten out crescent-shaped bowls into the plateau, the most spectacular of which is Bryce Amphitheatre, the six-square-mile scenic centre of the park.
The hoodoos that fill the amphitheatres have themselves eroded from surrounding cliff walls. Thin walls of rock, called fins, are eaten away from the cliffs by snow and ice. As the snow and ice melts, water seeps into fractures and, as it refreezes, it expands and cracks. This happens over 200 times a year at Bryce. The rock is further sculpted by rain and wind to form the free-standing bulbous spires called hoodoos.
Hoodoo rock is multilayered, both hard and soft, so that a large, hard, heavy head sits above a softer, narrow, crumbling neck – which can feel rather disconcerting when passing below.
Although hoodoos are individual, they are not spirits and are, of course, quite dead. But you feel quite differently when you observe them at sunrise. As the sun appears over Aquarius Plateau the hoodoos begin to glow orange and red, sometimes white or salmon pink; shadows shift around and the spark of sunshine ignites their many hues in a glorious kaleidoscope. It’s as though a spell has been lifted.
I was nearing the end of the 2.2km Navajo Loop trail, at the end of an especially tortuous switchback section called “Wall Street”, on account of the sheer rock faces you must ascend between, when I caught up with the young American couple who offered to hydrate me.
They had stopped to admire Thor’s Hammer, one of the most famous rock formations in the park near a spot called “Silent City”. I took a photo of them with their iPhone in front of the top-heavy hoodoo, the three of us marvelling at the downright weirdness of Bryce Canyon.
“Hoodoo you think you’re kidding?” I quipped, and we laughed before turning to face the steep, final few-hundred-metre climb.
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is approximately 4 hours’ drive from Las Vegas, Nevada, or 8 hours from Los Angeles
Accommodation: In the park, in cabins or motel-style double rooms, at Bryce Canyon Lodge: http://www.foreverresorts.com
For more infomation visit BryceCanyonCountry.com