Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (and a View of the Galaxy)

Bryce Canyon has been on my bucket list ever since I was a kid, so I was excited to finally visit! As we drove from Moab through the deserted back highways, dark clouds closed over our heads, and lightning flashed in the distance. We saw a couple antelope bounding through the sagebrush away from the oncoming storm, and within a few minutes, it hit us.

The next thing we knew, we were driving through such torrential rain that we couldn’t see the road in front of us, and soon ice pellets began thundering and bouncing off the windshield, so loud that we covered our ears. Gary inched along the highway, hoping to move through the storm, but it seemed to be following us! 

At last we stopped at a Subway near Bryce’s entrance, and dashed into it— getting soaked to the skin in the fifteen feet between the car and the door— to go to the bathroom and regroup. We at last decided to drive to Bryce’s lodge and try to wait out the weather there.

By the time we walked into the lodge, wet and shivering, the rain had let up a bit, and we warmed up with some nice soup at the lodge restaurant (I highly recommend the elk chili). Then we decided to drive down the park’s main road to see what we could see.

I’m still not entirely sure how Bryce qualifies as a “canyon”— it’s mostly a ridge of land that looks down into a garden of the most bizarre spines of rock I’ve ever seen. If you just drive along the single road through the park, you won’t see much: but if you park at the numerous overlooks and walk ten feet to the lookouts, you’re rewarded with views of pockets of the incredible rock formations. They seemed to glow a pinkish red under the roiling gray sky. 

I named this raven Carc.

We hiked a mile loop at the end of the road (panting to catch our breath in the 9,000+ foot elevation), then headed to our campsite for the night, a KOA down the road. Our campsite was perched on a hill, and we huddled in the lee of a tree to keep out of the fierce wind. We had hoped for a glimpse of the meteor shower tonight, but the clouds made us lose hope. Instead, we attended an ice cream social at the KOA and went to sleep hoping for better weather tomorrow.

When we woke up, we were rewarded— it was sunny but not too warm, thanks to the higher elevation. We drove toward the park to see what we could see on foot. 

Although you don’t have to hike to enjoy Bryce, we had a great time walking a trail down into the “canyon,” which wound between the spires, cut through fins and columns and balanced rocks, and ended in a grand series of switchbacks that took us straight up a narrow slot canyon called Wall Street. Seeing the formations from below was awesome! The only downside is that this is a very popular trail, and we were walking in a constant stream of people. So if you’re after solitude, Bryce Canyon during the summer is not the best choice.

Next we hiked along the rim for a while, which was less crowded and had beautiful shifting views of the “Amphitheater.” We took a free shuttle back to our car, poked around the visitor center for a bit, then headed out. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Kodachrome Basin State Park, which had beautiful columns and formations in its own right. Utah is incredible!

One of my favorite things about the area, though, happened on our second night: the clouds cleared (except in the north where the meteor shower was), and even from our campsite we were treated to the wonder of dark skies that surround Bryce Canyon. Zach and I pulled out our sleeping pads and laid down on the ground, staring up at the constellations came to life: Scorpio sprawling across the lower sky, Ursa Major and Minor hovering far above our heads, Cygnus flying and Delphinus swimming above us, Cassiopeia looming large on the horizon. But soon more stars appeared, and it became impossible to see the constellations for the number of diamonds in the sky. The Milky Way began to glow, not pure white but tinged with reddish and bluish brown, like the pictures you see from the Hubble Telescope— a three-dimensional splatter of stars. I stared at the Milky Way, and it really struck me that I was gazing into the center of our galaxy. The weight of it really hit me, and I began to cry. Stray meteors fizzled and trailed above our heads, and I felt that if this happened to be my last night on earth, with Zach lying beside me and our galaxy spinning above my head, I would be perfectly content.


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