Monday, November 30, 2009

Bryce Canyon - a two-day diary

(Click images to view larger)
I almost didn't take my little trip to Bryce.  I had planned on going from Friday through Sunday.  But my kitchen contractor wanted to bring his construction foreman by to meet me and go over the demolition plans.  They said they would be starting this Wednesday.  I felt such pressure after that, I knew I simply had to stay home and get the kitchen all cleared out.  I got most of it done on Friday.  And then I considered going on Saturday for a short visit.  I knew there was a storm headed that way, but the weather forecasters said it wouldn't amount to much.  By 9 a.m. I decided, packed a small bag, my camera, and some warm outerwear, and headed out.

It's just over a four-hour drive by I-15.  I have in the past take four different routes to Bryce, and the one I chose, I-15 most of the way, is a little farther but a bit faster than Hwy 89 but not as far as the Hwy 12 route.  I made good time, but started hitting snow flurries just past Beaver.  I took the Hwy 20 cutoff to Hwy 89 and found myself driving in a snowstorm through that small mountain pass.  I didn't like it.  I almost turned around.

If you know me, you may know of my fears: a fear of heights, a fear of mountain roads, and a fear of driving on snowy roads.  Before this trip was over, I would face all three of these fears, and at one point all three at once.

But Hwy 20 was okay after all and I arrived at Bryce Canyon around 2 p.m. and checked into the hotel.  The long road leading to the park takes you through the Red Canyon which gives you a little preview of red rock formations.  But nothing prepares you for the breathtaking view the first time you approach the rim of Bryce Canyon and look down on the incredible color and formations - the mostly red "hoodoos" or spires formed from millions of years of layers of sediment eroded into amazing sculptures. I don't know how many times I've visited Bryce - dozens for sure - and I never get tired of the stunning beauty there.

I had a few hours until sunset, so headed right to the park.  Bryce is small; one 18-mile road runs the length of it.  As you drive along the road, there are turnoffs to the viewpoints.  The turnoffs are short roadways that pass through a forest of fir trees, and end up at the rim which is a sudden dropping away of the earth into the most amazing view you could never have imagined lay just beyond that forest.  In the past I've gone only six miles into the park, as do most tourists, visiting the most popular view points.  I drove to the furthest away, Bryce Point and Inspiration Point, and then worked my way back toward the gate, stopping at each view site.  Snow began falling lightly at first and then a little harder.  It was cold and all the paths were icy.  I was extremely cautious not to take a fall while taking many dozens of pictures.  There were few hikers.  Much too slippery unless you had special gear.

At dinner at the old Ruby's Inn, I watched the snow falling and studied the Bryce map and plotted out my Sunday morning.  I planned on heading home by noon and wanted first to get some photo shots with the snow.  I began wondering about the sites that could be seen if I ventured beyond the usual.  I wondered what the Natural Bridge was like that I saw on the map.  The literature that came with my entrance fee said nothing about it, other than it was about 15 miles or so into the park.  I decided I would try it.  When I left the restaurant, I was shocked to see how much snow had fallen.  The roads were already snow packed and I drove slowly to my hotel, the new Ruby's Inn, just across the road.  I was glad I had my car, having driven directly to the restaurant from the park.  The snowstorm was a near whiteout and I crept carefully along the roadways newly hidden by snow.  We ended up getting only a few inches overnight, and the morning dawned brilliantly sunny and freezing. 

As I entered the park, the ranger advised me to drive very slowly.  The roads had been plowed but were ice packed and some cars had already slid off.  Indeed, a tow truck passed me as I headed into the park.  I knew my route to Natural Bridge involved some twisting and steep mountainous road -- something that makes me nervous on clear dry roads.  I decided to visit the nearer points first and wait to see if the roads improved.  The plan paid off.  I got some fantastic pictures of the same sights as the night before, now transformed with layers of sparkling snow.  The sun shone brightly and despite the freezing temps, the sun felt warm on my face.  I felt confident the roads must be improving and I set out for new territory.

There weren't as many visitors beyond that initial six miles, but enough that I didn't feel all alone.  The roads were only fair with still a lot of ice, especially in shaded areas.  When I reached the steep switchback sections, I felt nervous but was surprised with myself that I was still calm and confident.  The road was a typical mountain road with drop-offs to one side or the other as you made your way up.  I didn't look down - just focused on the road.  I watched mile marker signs.  It was a long slow 6 miles until I reached a gate across the road with a sign "Road Closed", just one viewpoint before Natural Bridge.  I would not get to see it -- that site would have to wait for another visit.  This time I would see Far View Point which was the end of the line that day.  The views there don't show the dense hoodoos of the nearer points, but instead offer far vistas with wonderful flat-topped mesas in the distance.

Driving back down the mountain was better as the temperature was just above freezing and the ice on the road was turning to slush.  I made a few more stops in the park, and finally reluctantly turned my car toward Salt Lake and home.  I took over 200 photos, and now the trick is to narrow it down to just a few.

 Red Canyon approaching Bryce
 Storms can move in very quickly.  This one did.
 Hoodoo rock formations reveal millions of years of sediment layers.
 Trails ranging from easy to very difficult are popular in good weather. How many times did we hike the Navaho Loop with the kids in years past.  Steep descending and ascending, but otherwise an easy walk.
 Starting to snow, time to go to dinner.
Day 2:  Ice-packed roads, temps below freezing.  Drive and walk carefully.

 The end of the road.  Can't get to Natural Bridge today.
 The little Nissan with excellent snow tires, got me there and back.
Good-bye to Red Canyon, heading home.


Bill S. said...

Great pictures and story. I am glad you went, saw, photoed and got home safely. I have never been to Bryce Canyon, but will make it soon. Thanks.

Jacqui Binford-Bell said...

I am glad you went too. Bryce in the snow is beautiful.

When you talked of the winding roads and steep drop offs I remembered the "road" to the little town of Escalante. It had drop offs on both sides and my mind says absolutely no guard rails. My sister and I did that drive in the rain because we couldn't do our planned hike for that particular day.

I think it is good to brave our fears from time to time. It supposedly keeps us young.

Looking forward to more pictures.

Becky Stauffer said...

I'm sure you'll love it, Bill. If you have extra time, drive the Hwy 12 route from Torrey and Capitol Reef to Bryce -- or back. It's one of the most spectacular drives you'll see. It does add a couple of hours of driving and I only recommend it in good weather. Bryce is open year-round and is very accessible.

Becky Stauffer said...

Yes, Jacqui, you are thinking of Hwy 12 which passes through Escalante. I've driven it several times. The famous Hogs Back has drop-offs literally on BOTH sides of the road for a half mile. It scared me the first time I drove over it, and I still get shakey knees to stop and park at the pull-outs provided. But the road is in great condition and there are good emergency lanes and view pullouts, so it's quite safe in good weather. We once encountered snow going over Boulder Mountaiin which is near Torrey, which was a little scary, too. I'm such a chicken.

I think I exaggerated the mountain roads in Bryce. They were pretty typical for national park roads. I'm just a baby.

Michael said...

A great travel blog Becks...lovely photos and a description that brought the whole of your trip to life.
Me and my Nikon are so envious...laughing. I hope the trip did you good...seems to have.

Becky Stauffer said...

Thank you, Mick. It did me a world of good. I came home feeling invigorated and ready to face the coming disruption in my home.

I so wish everyone could see that beautiful canyon in person. You can only imagine the whole panorama from my little photos.

Nicholas V. said...

Fantastic commentary and photos! Brought back many memories of our time in the US and visit to Bryce Canyon.
Aaaaah :-)

Becky Stauffer said...

You know, Nicholas, many Utahns have never visited Bryce. It amazes me. But when I visit there, I hear more foreign languages and see more out-of-state license plates than Utahns.