Bryce Canyon is made up of 14 horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters that conjure up images of skyscrapers and abandoned ancient cities.
Forty years ago, an undergraduate geology course roused my long-term interest in how our planet formed and continues to evolve. I recall pulling an all-nighter trying to explain how older rock layers ended up on top of more recent ones. And that was before plate tectonics became the accepted theory of the earth’s continuing geologic turmoil.
Thus, when a couple near St. George in southwest Utah offered a house exchange close to some of America’s most outstanding geological wonders—Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks—my husband and I decided to learn more about these areas in the south of the state, uniquely sculptured by nature’s forces.
From our home in southern British Columbia, we drove across the U.S. border southeast towards Utah. We arrived there in early January—a good time to visit this desert area with cool nights but warmer sunny daytime temperatures. In summer, the parks attract millions of visitors who usually travel to the many viewpoints by shuttle. Temperatures frequently reach a blistering 43° C (110° F).
In contrast, driving a car allows for a personal schedule. The drawbacks: the museum and park lodges are closed in winter and hiking trails are often icy. The advantage: we were usually alone at viewpoints and could linger without having to compete with outstretched arms trying to catch selfie photos against each spectacular backdrop.
Further south, the colors and elevation of Utah’s topography change: the mountains are tinted pink, rose, vermillion, rust, deep orange or coral—it’s the iron oxide compounds in the rock that offer such astonishing colors.
The author sizes up the geological variety of Zion National Park. David Scott
Bits of snow outline the massive north side of a cracked “checkerboard” mesa, one of many geological anomalies found in Zion National Park.
Many distant mesas rising against the horizon are so flat that they bring the deck of an aircraft carrier to mind. Other mountains are topped or flanked by eerie forms, resembling fantastic animals, human faces or cartoon characters.
Around St. George, our final destination, the rust-colored mountains are ever-present. Alluvial fans edge the hills, the silt so fine, it feels like talcum powder. This is desert country with an average annual rainfall of 30 centimeters or about a foot. When the wind blows, the powdery sand slithers through every crack and doorsill.
After a 45-minute drive to the 590 square kilometer/228 square mile park, we paid $25 for a week-long pass, then stopped at the visitor center where a 22-minute film provided background on the park’s geology and inhabitants. We learned the canyons have been inhabited by modern humans for thousands of years, including the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo people, the Southern Paiute and most recently, the Mormon settlers who arrived in 1847. The Paiute believed the canyons “have songs in them” as the wind whistles through. The Mormons named the region “Zion” imagining a physical resemblance to the biblical Promised Land.
Slickrock illustrates weathering of rounded soft stone in parts of Zion National Park.
The park’s canyons are part of the Colorado Plateau created over eons. During the Cretaceous period (144-65 million years ago), the whole North American continent was split by a great seaway from the Beaufort Sea in northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Dunes, shallow seas, volcanoes and streams laid down the sandstone, limestone, ash and mud that make up Zion’s mountains, buttes and bluffs. After faulting and folding lifted up the area to a height of 3,400 meters (11,150 ft), water coursing down the plateau cut into the soft stone, creating cliffs known today as the “Grand Staircase.”
We drove the eastbound Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, one of the park’s two roads. We crawled up the slopes through several severe switchbacks, curled through the mountains to a height of 2,053 meters (6,736 feet). It’s easy to see why the Mormons called this region the “Temples of God.”
The creek-like Virgin River today was once a mighty river shaping the Zion canyons over millions of years.
Slickrock, where weathering has rounded the stone, was visible after we’d traversed a 1.1 km tunnel built in 1927-30 (now a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark). Where a bit of water seeped through cracks, vegetation thrived and created hanging gardens.
Pinion pines, twisted juniper, and the quaking aspen silvered by the pervading light, grew next to the Virgin River. Although only creek-sized when we hiked alongside its bubbling waters, this now modest-sized river and its tributaries have been responsible for shaping the canyons over millions of years.
A few days later, we visited again and traveled the park’s second road, Zion-Canyon Scenic Drive. Although in the same park, the topography varies from the eastern route. The earth’s enormous forces have thrust the rock layers in divergent directions so they’re cross-bedded. Erosion has sharpened the layers’ edges, creating interesting mosaics. Bits of snow outlined the north side of the cracked “checkerboard” mesas, fashioning a gigantic grey-and-white quilt.
After a longer 3.5-hour drive from St. George into south-central Utah, we reached Bryce, another astounding geological wonder that conjures up images of skyscrapers, abandoned ancient cities and cathedrals reaching for the heavens. Although its name belies it, the small, 145 sq km/56 sq mile park is not a canyon, but a series of 14 horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters, carved up to 300 meters (984 feet) deep into the Paunsaugunt Plateau. These limestone formations have been shaped and colored through erosion and oxidation of iron in the sediment, a testament to Nature’s creativity.
Sunrise and sunset catch Bryce Canyon’s whimsical formations at their most dramatic.
The geological forces that created Zion also formed Bryce, yet the parks offer very different experiences. At Zion, you look up; at Bryce, you gaze down. What we saw are curious, fantastic forms, called “fins,” “pinnacles” and “spires.” However, the common name for the pillars populating Bryce is “hoodoos”.
Hoodoos are formed mostly by water and temperature. Small cracks absorb moisture. It freezes 200 nights a year in the 2,750 meter-high park (9,022 feet). When the sun warms the stone, the expanding water causes further fracturing. Add to that the process of water slowly dissolving the minerals cementing the limestone and sandstone, and the stone endlessly erodes and evolves.
Bryce Canyon’s towering hoodoos come in many different colors and shapes, making this destination a photographer’s delight.
Human Presence for 10,000 Years or More
From 10,000 years ago or more until AD 400, says Utah archaeologist Jessie Jennings, the only culture represented in Utah, as well as the rest of the Great Basin, was the Desert Archaic people. That culture is characterized as a hunting-gathering one, a flexible, highly adaptive lifeway. After AD 400, newcomers from the Virgin River branch of the Kayenta Anasazi began building small settlements and practicing flood-plain agriculture to grow corn, beans and squash along the permanent water courses of southwest Utah. After AD 1,000 Shoshone and Paiute people displaced the Anasazi, using a more efficient harvesting technology to settle and expand eastward across the Great Basin.
Just before leaving St. George, I hoofed up the Anasazi Trail with a local neighbour to explore the Anasazi Ridge high above the flood plain of the Santa Clara River. It was here that the Anasazi farmed and scored the rocks with their petroglyphic art. Both fallen boulders and flat smooth cliff faces had obviously provided good surfaces for carving.
On the Anasazi Ridge, strikingly-visible petroglyphs have been carved into the dark brown, long-lasting “desert varnish” that overlays the sandstone.
Solid body figures with stick-like appendages are found at many Anasazi Ridge sites.
Here clay minerals and manganese coat the sandstone and create a thin layer of dark stone known as desert varnish or rock rust. When scraped, the softer, lighter stone gets exposed. Archeologists believe the Anasazi, who left this area a thousand years ago, carved the petroglyphs, as the designs resemble those in other places they inhabited. Their petroglyphs depict humans, spirals, squiggles and seven-toed bear tracks. Bighorn sheep are also popular as well as abstract figures.
Once again, I wished that rocks could speak. Did these figures have special meaning? Did people hope for better hunting by depicting animals? Or were they the scribblings of teenage offspring engaged in an early form of texting?
The airports nearest to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are in St. George, Utah and Las Vegas, Nevada. Most people rent cars to view these parks.
Both the Zion and Bryce Canyon visitor centers are open year round. For detailed information, visit www.nps.gov/brca and www.nps.gov/zion.
For information on southern Utah accommodation, weather, state parks and other activities, visit www.utahstgeorge.com. For tourist information covering the whole state of Utah, see www.utah.com.
Enjoy other articles by Marianne Scott in our feature article collection: Spain’s Self-Catering Apartments or Hotel Accommodation: Which Works Best?, An Annual World-Class Music Festival on British Columbia’s Remote Pacific Coast and An Exploration of Oregon’s Coast.
Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Marianne Scott writes for numerous publications in the U.S., Canada and the UK. She also writes as a volunteer for some non-profit organizations. She’s the author of Naturally Salty — Coastal Characters of the Pacific Northwest, and Ocean Alexander, the First 25 Years. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.