Day 19: Utah’s Rocks

This morning started off with a bang, as we were up (like actually up) by 5:30 AM.  Why, you may ask, were you up at such a ridiculous hour?  Well, we were very near Bryce Canyon (2 miles away) and had heard a rumor that sunrise over the park was spectacular and we figured this was our one time to see if that rumor was true or not.

The hoodoos starting to wake up

For a little background on Bryce Canyon National Park, first of all, it’s not really a canyon at all.  What the…?  It’s a series of more than a dozen amphitheaters, each one at least 1,000 feet deep.  Ok, so it looks an awful lot like a canyon and someone here is arguing semantics.  Secondly, much of what makes Bryce “Canyon” spectacular are all of the hoodoos in the amphitheaters.  Hoodoos?  Along with being fun to say, hoodoos are the oddly-shaped tall rocks (or spires or pinnacles) that were formed by a whole lotta erosion.   Anyone looking for a more scientifically accurate answer will just have to Google it.  Thirdly, the biggest amphitheater is near the park entrance and likely the most photographed.  For that amphitheater alone there are 4 viewpoints, of which Inspiration Point is one.

Hanging with hoodoos at the crack of dawn

And that is where we found ourselves around 6:30 AM while it was still dark out.  It was also very cold but we were excited with anticipation to get our first glimpse of Bryce “Canyon.”  Around 7:01, just as advertised, the sun started to come up and we saw the reds of the hoodoos beginning to emerge.  Whoa, the rumor was true.  It was indeed several special minutes as the sun was coming up and slowly revealing this natural wonder.  We stuck around for another 45 minutes or so, snapping away with our cameras and feeling very pleased for dragging ourselves out of bed.  I may have even patted myself on the back.

We went back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and to check out and then were right back in the park, ready to hike down into the main amphitheater for a closer hoodoo look.  As is the case with many of our hiking adventures, we had a little confusion over which trail we were to take.  The National Park map showed the route we wanted was a loop trail but the accompanying written information specified a couple times that it was not a loop trail.  And our experience with National Park trails on this trip has been that there is not very much signage once you are out there except warnings about being eaten by bears, dying of dehydration, falling off a cliff, or all three.  So before we descended into this desert bowl we wanted to make sure we had a solid idea of where we were going and what was expected of us.

More of the “canyon.” Those are full-sized evergreens along the ridge, to give you some scale. Yeah, it’s that big.

Because it was getting a little later than we wanted, and because some of us in the car (ahem, Jim) may have been just a wee bit fussy that we had to go back to the Visitor’s Center for map clarification, the one of us who was driving may have not come to a complete stop at a stop sign and (*ZAP*) got pulled over by a park authority.  For privacy reasons, I don’t want to give away which one of us just got a federal traffic violation, but his name starts with a J and ends with IM.  I won’t tell you more than that, so don’t ask.  The park officer was a very nice woman who had a job to do, and her job entailed writing tickets to those who do not exhibit complete cessation of vehicular movement at stop signs.  Don’t worry, I have made a separate entry on our trip expense spreadsheet for this indiscretion.  It was $75.

The scofflaw in our car took the ticket with humility and then asked the park officer about the trail that had set off this entire chain of events.  He told her he wanted to get his $75 worth.  She kindly offered up her personal advice on the matter and we even chatted for a few more minutes about the park in general.  One of the interesting things she told us was that foreigners make up about 60-70% of the park’s visitors, something we had noticed in several of the parks we had already been (she also added that foreigners rarely pay their moving violations, tsk, tsk).  We’d like to take a moment to thank all the foreign visitors for visiting this beautiful country of ours and supporting the National Park System.

Scofflaw, I mean Jim, and the hoodoos

All this behind us (but definitely not forgotten, mostly because I liked to bring it back up much to the driver’s “delight”), we made our way back to the spot where the hike started.  We did the Queens Garden Trail hike that dropped us down 320 ft. elevation under the rim of the amphitheater and up close and personal with the hoodoos.  It was getting to be very warm outside and the walk was down a series of switchbacks into the non-canyon canyon (and then back up again), so we tried to make quick work of the almost 2 miles.  Did I mention we were at 8,000 feet elevation?  There may have been a little huffing and puffing but it was all worth it.  After that was done we got back into the car and drove to the very end of the park and back, stopping at various viewpoints along the way before heading out.

Natural “Bridge.” Mmmm-Hmm.

By the way, one of the viewpoints is called Natural Bridge, but the feature is not really a bridge at all, it’s a naturally formed arch.  First the canyon in Bryce Canyon isn’t a really canyon, and then the bridge in Natural Bridge isn’t really a bridge.  Someone is playing fast and loose here.

We managed to make it out of Bryce Canyon without further incident (Jim) and our drive took us to National Scenic Byway (NSB) 12, which is also designated an All-American Road (AAR) by the Federal Highway Administration.  There aren’t many roads that are both NSB and AAR, and the AAR designation is earned only when the road has a one-of-a-kind feature so exceptional it won’t be found anywhere else in the US.  Ooooh, this was gonna be good.

Roadside feature

The road took us through the Grand Staircase-Escalante, which essentially is another series of giant red rocks, windy roads, and a vast aspen forest.  No dips, though.  I think that dips would have made it perfect.  The 4 random cows we saw alongside the road helped make it pretty cool, though.  We stopped to take a picture and tell them to be safe.  They just looked at us like disaffected youth.

Visitor’s Center with prominent rock formation behind

Eventually we turned off Scenic Byway 12 and onto Highway 24 that took us to Capitol Reef National Park.  This park was full of…  you guessed it, another set of ginormous red rock formations.  We think it’s pretty cool, though, how the US Government has snagged up all the good sections of land for public use and viewing.  I mean, we had been driving through some sort of mundane scenery when (BAM!) here is almost 242,000 acres of unique topography in the middle of nowhere.

These suckers are huge

Capitol Reef has a fairly short scenic drive that we decided to take, stopping for a few pictures along the way.  At the end of the drive is a turnoff onto a gravel road that goes to the Capitol Gorge parking area.  From there we had to hike in a ways to see the full effect of the Gorge and see some petroglyphs on the rocks.  We only hiked about a mile in and a mile out to get the effect, although really only ¼ mile each way would do if you were either (A) short on time or (B) a little bored with or jaded by giant rock formations.  We were (C) all of the above.

Jim at Capitol Gorge. Can you see him down there?

Hike complete, we were back into the car and on the way to our final destination, Moab, Utah.  It must be noted that as soon as we left the park boundary the scenery turned on a dime, and not for the better unless you enjoy looking at miles and miles of barren wasteland with gray rock formations that look like big piles of gravel.

By the time we arrived into Moab it was pitch black so we were unable to see the scenery and it will be a surprise for us in the morning.  My guess is it involves rocks.  Great big piles of them.

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