Peering down upon the Bryce Canyon amphitheater today, it is difficult to believe that at one time this spot was viewed as a harsh, mostly-undesirable place.
The colorful hoodoos, collecting the soft glow of the morning’s rising sun are too enchanting for us to comprehend that they weren’t always thought of as the aesthetic enticements they are today – geologic icons responsible for luring millions of visitors each year from across the world to this otherwise lonely corner of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. We are all lured to southwest Utah to witness the spectacular and otherworldly scene that unfolds at Bryce Canyon.
The story of human history at Bryce Canyon begins with Native American occupation which traces back to roughly 12,000 years, however, the exact time is unclear. There were three groups of natives that are known to have been in the area of Bryce, the Anasazi and Fremont, and the Paiute. The Anasazi and Fremont peoples were first to arrive. Paiute influence here can be traced back to roughly 1200AD. These hunters and gatherers lived off of land not known for its hospitality but did so with some success until the late 1860s. Yet, there is no real evidence the native peoples lived full-time in the region. The harsh climate was likely not quite what they wanted.
Spanish explorers passed through this region in the late 1700s. It did not take them long to know this area was not quite what they wanted.
It wasn’t until the mid-1850s, with the arrival of the Mormon settlers, that anyone decided to make a more permanent go of things in the area in-and-around what is now the National Park. Notable among these folks was Ebenezer Bryce, the man whom the Park was named. Bryce homesteaded and developed this area in the 1870s, and was attributed to one of the more famous quotes about Bryce Canyon that lives on today.
“A helluva place to lose a cow.”
But, even for Mr. Bryce, this land was not quite what he wanted either, and even though the Park has his name, Bryce moved away only a few years later.
Ultimately, pioneer settlers changed the face of the area by taming and diverting rivers, harvested timber, killing off wild animals (Grizzly Bear and Grey Wolf), and developing livestock operations. They also formed communities, infrastructure, and brought notoriety to this remote, yet intriguing part of the world. Perhaps they’d be able to give it a ‘go’ in a place no one previously wanted.
Tourism at Bryce Canyon began around 1919 with the arrival of roads and more importantly, the railroad. The real work of getting the area recognition began in 1915, when Forest Service Supervisor, J.W. Humphrey, was taken to see what existed at the eastern corner of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
“You can perhaps imagine my surprise at the indescribable beauty that greeted us, and it was sundown before I could be dragged from the canyon view. You may be sure that I went back the next morning to see the canyon once more, and to plan in my mind how this attraction could be made accessible to the public.”
By 1916 lodging and accommodation operations began to spring up, as rancher Reuben Syrett (Ruby), and his wife, Minnie, set up tourist services near the Bryce Canyon rim. The Union Pacific Railroad eventually moved in, taking the development of the area to new heights including a new Lodge at Sunset Point, and nearby rustic cabins. Ruby moved his enterprise to his nearby ranch (where it remains today).
As development was taking place, new federal protections were also being passed. Bryce Canyon was proclaimed a National Monument by President Warren G. Harding in the summer of 1923. Congress passed a bill establishing “Utah National Park” roughly one year later. Bryce Canyon was restored as the Park’s name when it officially became a National Park in February 1928.
Bryce Canyon National Park is famous for the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. But, what is a Hoodoo? Well, if you go by its technical definition, hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Simply put, these eroded rock formations are developed in a three-part method. First, the sediment must be deposited. In the case of Bryce Canyon, this rock layer is called Claron Limestone, deposited at sea level roughly 50 million years ago in a shallow fresh-water lake. Next, the landmass was pushed up high in the sky because of plate movement. It is at the elevation where the Hoodoo amphitheater now sits where forces of nature can break down the rocks to create its current landscape. The final piece of the puzzle is erosion and weathering. This is the process by which materials are stripped away by natural forces, carving and designing the features you see now. Freeze-thaw cycles (of which there are many here), as well as rain, are the major influences of this process.
Today, millions of visitors make the trek to this small corner of southwestern Utah to take in the beauty of the views, hike the spiderweb of trails that traverse through the Hoodoo amphitheater below, and to breathe in the fresh high plateau air. Bryce Canyon has rightly become a land wanted by many.
Bryce Canyon is a significant component of Backcountry Journeys’ Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce photography tour. This tour is one of our classic itineraries, and for good reason. Following a visit to nearby Zion National Park, our tour will then move to Bryce Canyon to take advantage of all of its dynamic and vastly different landscape. In addition to the awe-inspiring views, Bryce shares with visitors a rich cultural heritage as well as an incredible geological story that is certainly at the top of everyone’s minds as they look down on the otherworldly rock features. Those paying close attention should be able to translate this story through their images of the land nobody else wanted.
If this sounds like the trip for you, we have GREAT news! Recent cancellations on our November 8th to 13th, 2020 ‘hiker’ version of our Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce tour have opened up two spots.
This six-day landscape photography tour will feature photography and hiking at both Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks. Iconic spots at Zion such as The Watchman, Angel’s Landing, and the Riverwalk will provide you images to tell the story of autumn in the aesthetically incredible Zion Canyon. Sunrise and sunset from high above the Bryce Canyon amphitheater will complement up-close and personal images from hiking into the maze of hoodoos below.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.