A wonderland of fiery rock formations mixed with rich evergreen forests and meadows, Bryce Canyon National Park preserves some truly amazing natural features in southern Utah. First protected in 1923, this park is perhaps best known for having one of the largest and most beautiful collections of hoodoos on the planet.
Hoodoos are tall, slender spires that form from the erosion of sedimentary rock under particular circumstances. Although they can be found across the globe, the geology and climate of Bryce Canyon have created an abundance of them in this unique location.
The colorful beds that are exposed here are part of the Claron Formation, deposited in lakes and streams from the Paleocene to the Eocene epochs of the Cenozoic Period (approximately 60-40 million years ago). Changing climatic conditions and shifting shorelines and environments lead to the deposition of limestone, mudstone, siltstone, sandstone, and conglomerate in that approximate order of abundance.
Since then tectonic collision and uplift helped to gradually elevate this region by thousands of feet. Formed from the massive Colorado Plateau to the east, several smaller plateaus fractured off from the margin. In this particular area the Paunsaugunt Plateau was created, and over the last few million years erosional forces have worked away at its edges.
The main driving force of hoodoo formation at Bryce Canyon is frost wedging. Most of the park sits between 8,000 and 9,000 feet of elevation and experiences approximately 200 freeze-thaw cycles per year. Rain and melting snow seeps into fine cracks, freezes, and the expansion of ice helps force the rock apart. Over millennia this process has fractured the sediments into countless intricate shapes.
Rainfall also helps chisel away at the rocks. Water combined with atmospheric carbon dioxide forms a weak solution of carbonic acid, and this substance is particularly good at eating away at limestone. Thin, more resistant layers of siltstone, sandstone, and magnesium-rich dolomite that overlie limestone can often form caps on the weaker rock. These caps help preserve hoodoo shapes for a while. After these cap rocks are finally weathered away the limestone that remains is typically dissolved at a much faster rate. Resistant sediments are also interspersed with the limestone here, creating lumpy shapes as a result of differential erosion.
While the beautiful rocks take center stage at Bryce Canyon, the lush forests and meadows are also intriguing. Lower elevations are filled with pinion-juniper forests, while the highest elevations harbor firs, spruce, and ancient bristlecone pines.
The middle elevations that dominate most of the park are filled with ponderosa pines.
The understory of these pine forests features abundant manzanitas.
In open meadows pronghorn and prairie dogs can often be found. A variety of smaller mammals, reptiles, and birds also lurk among the foliage and rocks.
Although I only had a few hours to see the high points of Bryce Canyon, it was obvious there was much to be discovered among the hoodoos and pines. Many miles of trails traverse the wilderness and invite exploration of this magnificent landscape. Since winter brings abundant snowfall and summer brings abundant crowds, spring and autumn are perhaps the best times to visit. These shoulder seasons also present relatively mild temperatures, making the exertion that comes with hiking the varied elevations much more pleasant.