Monday, July 14
Today’s mission: Bryce Canyon National Park, located 73 miles from Zion. I make a sandwich, gather up snacks and my water bottle, and hit the road.
The drive is very scenic. Route 9 meets highway 89 and there you turn north towards Bryce climbing through the White Cliffs of the Colorado Pleateau. Grand Staircase – Escalante Monument may lie to the south of here, but this whole area is still a part of it: a series of plateaus made up of layers of different colored sediments laid down over billions of years. Zion sits in the middle elevation wise, the Grand Canyon is at the bottom, and Bryce is near the top – in the Pink Cliffs.
Turning off of 89 and onto highway 12 I see a sign: Entering Dixie National Forest. Just beyond that, red cliffs eroded into fantastical shapes greet my eye, wow, this is pretty cool. There’s a Forest Service visitor’s center nearby for Red Canyon and a campground that I bet I would enjoy staying at. I pull into a turnoff and snap some pictures, quickly getting distracted.
But I’m still miles from Bryce, and can’t linger long. I had no idea this place was here, it bears further exploration at a later date.
Beyond that, 12 continues to climb and another right turn takes me into Bryce. Unlike Zion, I don’t have a employee pass that’ll get me in for free. I spend the $80 for a year-long pass that will get me into all National sites, considering the fee just for a regular pass into Bryce is $25, it’s a prudent choice for full-timers who plan to visit a lot of parks.
It’s all pine forest near the visitor’s center. Pinion Pine I think, the same kind of drought resistant trees with next to no underbrush that I saw on Defiance Mesa in the Hopi reservation. Just after the fee station is the Visitor’s Center, where I learn that there’s a shuttle that visits the first five viewpoints, sounds good to me. Bryce is set up a little like Zion in that way: it’s a drive 18 miles long along the edge of the bluff with viewpoints and trails along the way.
The first viewpoint is called Inspiration Point, I exit to walk out to the edge and take a peek.
Woah, and I do mean, woah.
Only 73 miles from Zion, and yet totally different. Those rows of spires are called hoodoos, the making of which is a combination off soil composition and erosion caused by frost wedging (Bryce gets below freezing 200 days out of the year) and heavy thunderstorms. The cliff walls erode into thin lines called fins. Those fins develop cracks which widen into windows, and then the tops of those windows cave in and leave a hoodoo behind. The hoodoo eventually erodes away into a pile of dirt, but new ones are being made all the time.
A person could get lost real easily down there. The road travels exclusively along the rim of the plateau (Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon) but there are trails that head down into that labyrinth, and I bet they’d be fun to walk. The three viewpoints I visit on the shuttle have similar views to this, overlooking vast cathedrals of hoodoos.
When I get back to the Visitor’s Center, I know I need to get back into Bertha and drive to the other viewpoints. It would be criminal not to see all of the beauty of this place, plus there’s a short trail at the end that will take me out to something else that’s been on my list to see since I started RVing.
One viewpoint overlooks Thor’s Hammer, a sizable hoodoo standing mostly by itself and featured on many Bryce souvenirs. Another features a magnificent arch wide and tall enough to drive the biggest Class A or 5th Wheel through, not that you’d want to try driving it down that steep a slope. Others feature sheer cliff faces with salmon colored rock against a deep green pine background.
The whole while, the sky gets angrier looking, and the occasional rumble of thunder sounds in the distance. If I want to make it to the end before the storm hits, I’d better get moving!
Wildlife crossings make picking up the pace a challenge. Twice I slow down for mule deer, who seem to know that in this place humans aren’t a threat to them. I snap a picture as two cross the road and nibble on dry grass the same color as they are. Then I stop at a viewpoint that has climbed high enough that the pines have given way to spruce and fir with the occasional aspen. Walking back to the truck I discover white fluid dripping from the back, uh-oh, what the heck is this?
It’s my RV wax! At 8,900 feet, the expansion of the air inside the 5 gallon jug of it I carry around has caused it to burst, it’s sprung a leak in a weak point and is draining off the edge of the truck bed. The jug is over half empty, and when I turn it on it’s side to keep the wax from draining out, air hisses out in a rush to equalize the pressure. It’s a good thing I caught it when I did or I’d have no wax and a sizable mess. I make a mental note when I get back to Cas to open other airtight containers to let them equalize, even though my little RV is only at 6,000 feet. The wax container has a permanently swollen look and I imagine it was under stress before I got here.
Another overlook offers another stunning view. The dramatic clouds add to the pictures I’ve been taking out here, much more interesting than a cloudless blue sky. But I can also see the rain streaking down from this vantage, hurry hurry hurry.
At last I make it to the last stop, at a startling 9,100 feet. The one mile loop trail leads me through a eerily quiet forest. I think most other park visitors have left the trails due to impending weather and I only see three other groups while I’m out. The whole while dark clouds roll overhead, but I can’t leave without seeing what’s at the far point of this loop.
The spruce forest breaks on a jutting point with thin soil and strong winds. And there, clinging to the edges of the cliff in this harsh environment where no other trees can grow is my quarry: the Bristlecone Pine.
Bristlecone Pine are the longest lived trees in the world, a few individuals of the species having reached the mind-boggling age of 5,000 years old – and they’re found right here in the western US. California has all of the truly ancient ones, but according to the plaque next to a particularly gnarled specimen that unfortunately looks to have died recently, it was over 1,600 years old. The Roman Empire was just converting to Christianity when this tree started growing.
They don’t look like much. The tallest among the ones here are maybe 15 feet, and the closer to the cliff edge one gets the more stunted they are. Nearly all have dead branches, about half have dead trunks and are now utilizing secondary branches as trunks. They’re survivors though, persevering through the ages. I can now head back home to the RV, another to-see item checked off my travel list.
On the way out, I spy a young Bristlecone perched on a rock beyond the safely fenced zone of the trail. Good luck little guy, may you have many, many years ahead of you.
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