Established: September 15, 1928
Size: 35,835 acres
Perhaps nowhere are the forces of natural erosion more tangible than at Bryce Canyon. Its wilderness of phantom-like rock spires, or hoodoos, attracts more than one million visitors a year. Many descend on trails that give hikers and horseback riders a close look at the fluted walls and sculptured pinnacles.
The park follows the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. On the west are heavily forested tablelands more than 9,000 feet high; on the east are the intricately carved breaks that drop 2,000 feet to the Paria Valley. Many ephemeral streams have eaten into the plateau, forming horseshoe-shaped bowls. The largest and most striking is Bryce Amphitheater. Encompassing six square miles, it is the park's scenic heart.
For millions of years water has carved, as it continues to, Bryce's rugged landscape. Water may split rock as it freezes and expands in cracks—a cyclic process that occurs some 200 times a year. In summer, runoff from cloudbursts etches into the softer limestones and sluices through the deep runnels. In about 50 years the present rim will be cut back another foot. But there is more here than spectacular erosion.
In the early morning you can stand for long moments on the rim, held by the amphitheater's mysterious blend of rock and color. Warm yellows and oranges radiate from the deeply pigmented walls as scatterings of light illuminate the pale spires.
There is a sense of place here that goes beyond rocks. Some local Paiute Indians explained it with a legend. Once there lived animal-like creatures that changed themselves into people. But they were bad, so Coyote turned them into rocks of various configurations. The spellbound creatures still huddle together here with faces painted just as they were before being turned to stone.
Did You Know?
Nineteenth-century Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, for whom the park is named, said it was "a hell of a place to lose a cow." The canyon's remarkable collection of whimsical hoodoo spires were believed by the early Paiute Indians to be people frozen in stone by the mischievous spirit Coyote. Early geologists feared the hoodoos would transform into humans.
Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks articles featured in "Cutting Loose" in National Geographic Traveler.