“Harvest-pumpkin orange” I decide while glancing at the towering limestone ramparts. In a landscape of warm kaleidoscopic colors that change with the swinging of the sun, that hue flares across Bryce Canyon National Park's hoodoos as I shoulder my backpack for a trip into the park’s “basement.”
Most of the 1.6 million people who trek to the park in southern Utah each year cling to the 18-mile-long feeder road that shadows the rim. They’re satisfied to gaze into its amphitheaters of hoodoos that time, wind and water have so artfully carved into the Paunsaugunt Plateau’s vibrantly painted geology.
Sixty-five million years in the making and still under construction, the cliffs once were muds, clays and silts on the bottom of a freshwater lake that flooded much of southwestern Utah. Brilliant My three-day sojourn takes me away from the historic log lodge that architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood first sketched in 1923. It was one of his first designs, and his reputation grew with each national park lodge he designed during the next three decades. Fortunately, a room awaits my return, and for now I’m anxious to see what most Bryce visitors miss.
Within minutes of leaving my car I’m zigzagging along a spur trail that practically trots downhill to the Under the Rim Trail. At the junction, I tilt my head back and marvel as the setting sun seemingly ignites rocky minarets in a blaze of orange. Rising about me is a quiet, breathtaking wilderness of orange geology and towering trees in which details elude those in a hurry.
Hiking south, I pause to inhale the butterscotch scent that wafts from the rough and rumpled bark of 100-foot-tall ponderosa pines. Planting one’s nose against a tree seems beyond strange, but the sweet bouquet is hard to believe unless you personally sample it, and besides, there’s no one around to deem you peculiar.
The next morning, I stumble upon the fury of erosion that cloudbursts exact on Bryce Canyon. A week earlier, storm waters had cascaded down the park’s imposing cliffs, undercutting trees and shuttling rocks, small boulders and anything else in their path while continuing the masterful sculpting of the park. Carefully picking my way through the debris, I spot in a rock under foot the fossilized remains of what seems to be a bi-valve mollusk or maybe an ammonite shell that thrived in that prehistoric lake that long ago inundated the landscape.
Stopping for lunch, I discover the source of the “paint” used on Bryce Canyon. There at my feet, trickling from a seep within the grassy bank, are the crimson waters of Iron Spring. The pigmentation and a quick taste tell me the waters are heavy with ferrous oxide, which explains the burnt orange, cream and buff that tints Bryce Canyon.
Behind me and farther north along the trail lies another paint pot at Yellow Creek, whose sulfur-rich waters also stain the park’s rock art. I also notice that “EJB” dallied long enough near the mineral-rich waters in 1938 to whittle his initials into an aspen’s milky white trunk. It’s tempting to think the initials belong to Ebenezer Bryce, who purportedly carped that the maze of canyons bordering his ranch –and now sharing his name-- were a “hell of a place to lose a cow.”
But Ebenezer died in 1913, leaving me unsure who EJB was, yet able to enjoy the same solitude he must have. That night, having hiked around “The Promontory” and through Mutton Hollow, I scan the star-choked skies above Riggs Spring for meteors. Tomorrow I’ll time my arrival at Rainbow Point to squeeze in the 2.9-mile hike through Queen’s Garden and the Navajo Trail. The loop leads through the park’s most active erosion zone, a place where runoff and whipping winds continue to deepen Wall Street with its Douglas-fir sentinels and ever-so-slowly bring Thor’s Hammer closer to toppling.
For now, though, I mull the words park ranger Kelly Cahill left me with before I descended below the rim. “It’s a whole ‘nother park,” she promised me.
How right she was.