Utah’s Natural Wonders: Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park

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Bryce Canyon. Photo by Richard Varr

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Zion National Park. Photo by Richard Varr

I visited southern Utah last month (October), flying into Las Vegas for the annual Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) Convention. The drive to Zion National Park was about two and a half hours, while it took another two hours traveling east to reach Bryce Canyon.

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Photo by Richard Varr

Bryce Canyon: Blazing Sunlit Hoodoos

They shoot up from the ground below like soldiers or chess pieces in formation, blazing with deep orange and burnt red hues under the Utah sun. I stand above Bryce Canyon in awe, looking down upon a gargantuan crevice in the earth with so-called hoodoos – water-carved, rocky spires with stratified stone layers – reaching upward within what looks like organized and uniform clusters. I’ve seen the hoodoos in travel guides and magazines, but never imagined they could look so imposing in person.

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Photo by Richard Varr

Bryce Canyon is actually not a canyon, but instead on the edge of a plateau that has been dramatically eroded over millions of years by lakes, water currents and runoff leaving layers of sediments. Water freezing in crevices helped break down the rocky layers even more. The whole process has resulted in a rock city of sorts with incredible formations of pointed hoodoos.

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Hiking into the basin. Photo by Richard Varr

IMG_5056The park has several lookout points from above the basin. But the most thrilling adventure perhaps is taking a hike deep within the hoodoos along several marked paths. I took one ranked moderate, the 1.8 mile Navajo Trail that loops from Sunset Point, one of a dozen or so stopping points along an 18-mile drive. The hike took me down steep pathways, alongside towering rock walls and hoodoos, into the belly of Bryce. Walking down was of course easy, knowing that with every step down would mean a steep climb up at the end of the trail – well worth every grunt for the spectacular scenery along the way.

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Hiking alongside the hoodoos. Photo by Richard Varr

IMG_5086Upon reaching the bottom of the canyon, the rocky dirt trail levels out in more of an open area alongside trees, boulders and hoodoos.   As the trail starts to ascends, it tightly winds around more and more hoodoos. To conserve my energy and make the climb as easy as possible, I hike for a short distance and then stop – not so much because I’m out of breath, but instead to simply look around and take in the spectacular views at every turn.

VIDEO:  My Hike Up the Canyon

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Thor’s Hammer on the left, halfway up the canyon. Photo by Richard Varr

IMG_5164A rock formation called Thor’s Hammer, for example, is something easy to spot. With the climb up, you get up close with the hoodoos at different heights – not just looking down or up. At times, you’re at eye level with them so to speak, giving you a different perspective of their shapes, stratification and colors.  A word of caution – the drops from many of the trails are steep, where walking off trails could prove fatal. So be careful when hiking and avoid distractions like looking at a cell phone. And realize that you’ll probably huff and puff more than usual as the air is thinner with the park reaching altitudes of 9,115 feet. That’s pretty high.

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Zion National Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Zion’s Walls of Stone

With mountainous rock cliffs, peaks and even flattop mountains, Zion National Park is another natural wonder of stone formations.   The park’s dramatic peaks were – like Bryce Canyon – formed by rain and erosion over the millennia, in this case boring out a river valley and leaving behind towering cliffs and jagged mountain peaks.

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Lookout to view the Court of the Patriarchs. Photo by Richard Varr

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Great White Throne. Photo by Richard Varr

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The Narrows. Photo by R. Varr

During the warmer months, cars are not allowed and instead buses transport visitors through the central Zion Canyon from the Visitor Center to eight other stops. Highlights include the tall peaks at the Court of the Patriarchs, the flattop and white-peaked mountain (because of less iron oxide) called the Great White Throne, and hiking along the Virgin River in the so-called Narrows, where at one point 2,000-foot cliffs come within 18 feet of each other. At the entrance of the park, a sharply pointed mountain called The Watchman becomes illuminated with red-orange hues at sunset, as photographers stand by to snap just the right moment of brilliant colors.

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The Watchman in the background. Photo by Richard Varr

Wherever I visited, I was awestruck by the giant stone walls, their rock faces shaped by erosion patterns, crevices, mineral stratification and their flat, rounded and jagged peaks. For those out for a day of hiking, several trails lead alongside the main road while others shoot off deep into the cavernous valley. Some trails are rather flat and easy, while others are steep, rugged and strenuous.

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Zion National Park. Photo by Richard Varr

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