Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Millennia on Display: The Splendor of Bryce Canyon

This past Spring, Beth and I made a too-brief visit to southern Utah, where we spent less than 72 hours exploring Goblin Valley and Arches National Park.  That one visit was all it took, though, to inextricably hook me on the red rock desert landscapes of the region, and I couldn't wait until we had a chance to return and see more of this spectacularly beautiful part of the world.  Even the unforgettable experiences of seeing Delicate Arch at sunset and hiking through the hoodoos of Goblin Valley under stormy skies had not prepared me, though, for the sheer majesty and deep, soul-moving beauty that is Bryce Canyon.

We arrived a bit after sunset after a day at Zion National Park (the drive up taking longer than expected due to construction delays), and though I'd hoped to beat the setting sun there, even the sight of the shaded amphitheater full of hoodoos was enough to bring a lump to my throat.  There simply are not words to properly express what I felt upon that first glimpse of Bryce Canyon; it was a uniquely moving, almost spiritual experience that took my breath away.

Sunset Point along Bryce Canyon's Rim
Viewed from above, the canyon drops off sharply from its edges, a vertical distance of over 1,000 feet--yet so much of the canyon is not open space, but rather is filled with towering rock formations: fins and hoodoos, arrayed in a splendor of pink, orange, red, and white stone.

Millions of years of history are on display in the high desert country of southern Utah—beautiful eons recorded in the layers of sandstone revealed by the erosive hands of Father Time in the regions mesas, canyon walls, buttes, and hoodoos.  Freeze and thaw: with each cycle, water penetrates more deeply into the rock.  Rain and runoff.  Dust and sand caught in the whisperings of the wind.  Uplift from vast geological forces below, pushing and folding the land.  Father Time and Mother Nature shape a long, inexorable course  across the landscape.

Beth stands near the edge of Bryce Canyon
Atop Bryce Canyon, rainfall and snow drains off into the Great Basin, never to see the shores of the Pacific.  Step a few short feet out over the thin air—and take a rather longer descent to the bottom of the canyon’s fairyland, and precipitation runoff joins the Colorado River watershed, passes through the Grand Canyon and (absent the interference of man) eventually reaches the Gulf of California.  Today, of course, the Colorado’s waters are stretched thin by thirsty California and irrigation of cropland in an area whose sole agricultural fault lies in its lack of precipitation--but regardless, the rim of the canyon marks a drainage divide, and runoff from precipitation along the rim actually has little contribution to the rock formations seen.

Instead, the Claron formation--rock up to 55 million years old--coupled with the Paunsaugunt Fault, where the western side has fallen relative to the east by around  2,000 feet--are responsible.  Differential erosion stripped away the white member of the Claron formation, exposing the pink below to more rapid erosive forces.  Where siltier sedimentary stone would have weathered into low badlands, the higher limestone and conglomerated content of Bryce's Claron formation protect (relatively) some of the rock, yielding the towering fins and hoodoos filling the amphitheater.  Likewise, smooth fractures in the stone (characteristic of the Claron formation) further define the channels of erosion's forces.

About 4 miles into the Fairyland Canyon hike
There's no better way to observe the full breadth of geological forces at work in forming Bryce Canyon than to descend down into its amphitheater--you'll certainly appreciate old Ebeneezer Bryce's declaration of it being "a hell of a place to lose a cow"--and that's just what Beth and I did on a grueling 8+ mile hike from Fairyland Point.  But that's a tale for another blog post; for now, simply enjoy the splendor of what I've found to be the single most beautiful and spectacular of our national parks, and ponder the millions of years of history on display there.