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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bryce Canyon

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Panguitch wasn't any bigger than the other bland country burgs we'd passed through on our southward journey through Utah, but proximity to Bryce Canyon National Park meant they had a real Main Street with hotels, restaurants, and retail businesses. Our Airbnb was located above one of these, a colorful gift and supply shop called Thunder Horses Mercantile with an attached cafe. We arrived in town too early to check in and decided to press on ahead to the park, a half hour journey that took us through a beautiful area called Red Canyon that we didn't have time to explore.

Bryce Canyon is set up similarly to the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, with a main road that passes along the rim that provides access to several overlooks. The main difference with Bryce is that there's only one rim, which somewhat simplifies the task of getting the full experience. As with the other canyons we found Bryce to be busy but not unpleasantly crowded. For example, my guidebook had advised beginning the day at the furthest outlook in order to make turn-offs to the right on the way back, to avoid having to wait for pauses in traffic to make the turn-offs to the left. There weren't enough cars on the road to make turning left an issue but it was easy to imagine both lanes jam-packed due to visitors not having the foresight to do things that way.

The first thing to understand about Bryce Canyon is that it is not a canyon, a term that only applies to a chasm formed by the erosive action of a river. There's no river at the bottom of Bryce Canyon, which is centered around a bowl-shaped depression which has become known as the Amphitheater. The Amphitheater is the main draw for visitors and it's a very difficult sight to describe. I had read about it and seen some pictures but I really didn't grasp the magnitude of what we would be seeing when we approached the rim. My research had indicated that the best spots to view the Amphitheater were Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, adjacent outlooks about a ten minute walk from each other along the rim. It was a little difficult to find parking at Sunset Point in the early afternoon but eventually something opened up and we proceeded to the rim where there was a wide viewing platform. We had already experienced a bounty of incredible views on this road trip but there was no doubt that this was the most amazing thing we had seen thus far. Irregular rows and clusters of rusty, white-capped hoodoos projected from the hillsides as far as the eye could see. Although on first glance they seemed uniform, closer inspection revealed variety in their rippled surfaces and the shapes of their caps and spires. Some almost appeared to have faces and it was easy to imagine having stumbled upon a stadium filled with attentive members of a gigantic alien race. It was an awe-inspiring and hypnotizing sight that kept us on the platform for a good fifteen minutes. What finally got us off the platform was our desire to get a closer look at a steep trail that a line of people were using to descend between two steep walls of hoodoos.

The trail turned out to be the Navajo Loop and it was one of the coolest looking trailheads I could have imagined. The descent was a series of short switchbacks that had been carved out of the compressed sandstone dirt that formed the hillside between two cliffs. I wasn't really thinking about going down there because we hadn't come prepared with our hiking boots and the afternoon heat was fairly high. It was Mei Ling who convinced me that we could tackle the trail that afternoon and give ourselves more flexibility the next day. We began slowly picking our way down the switchbacks. The drop-offs weren't very high but I still kept myself between the kids and the edge of the path as best I could as the sandstone walls rose higher and higher around us. Despite being in sandals we didn't find ourselves slipping on the gently-graded dirt surfaces.

At the bottom we had a completely different perspective on the hoodoos and spires that now towered above us. The next stage was a short passage through Wall Street, the park's only slot canyon, which soon passed us into the forested base of the depression.

We continued on the Navajo Loop through the base of the Amphitheater among stately Ponderosa pines. This part of the hike was quite easy and enjoyable. There was some remarkable interplay between the trees and the sandstone formations, especially one enormous pine that had been nearly uprooted by a flood and prevented from falling by a cliff that it now embraced as it continued to grow.

Of course what goes down must eventually come back up if it expects to return to its car, and we completed the loop with an exhausting ascent up another series of switchbacks without anywhere near as much protection from the sun. On the bright side we got a close look at a group of some of the most amazing goblet-shaped hoodoos in all of Bryce Canyon.

Once we were done hiking we had a fairly stark choice. We could go back to Panguitch, settle into the Airbnb, have a leisurely dinner and get to bed early. Alternatively we could drive for an hour and a half to the Hell's Backbone Grill, one of the best-regarded restaurants in southern Utah, in the town of Boulder. The added benefit was that the second half of the drive along Highway 12 was reputed to be an breathtaking scenic drive through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The downside was that it meant an additional exhausting three hours of driving on top of the driving we'd already done that day. In the end we decided it would be better to get the drive done that day when we had the additional motivation of an excellent dinner, rather than leaving it until the next morning and then having to drive an additional two and a half hours to Lake Powell. There were dirt roads that would have shortened the distance between Boulder and Lake Powell but I had been advised that these were not safe to drive without a high clearance four wheel drive.

The first half of the drive was regular western countryside, pleasant enough but not particularly memorable. It wasn't until we passed Escalante that the landscape really began to open up around us. Colorfully stratified ridges and canyons began to appear around us and the road began to swivel between impressive formations. At one point the ground on either side of us dropped away completely and we found ourselves driving along a winding ridge with no guardrails and steep dropoffs that began at the shoulder of the road on either side. I later learned this stretch was called the Hogback. I was so focused on making sure I didn't drift from the center of the road that it was hard to enjoy the amazing views of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that we had from the ridge.

Not long after this white knuckle section of the drive was completed we arrived at Hell's Backbone Grill. Based on the name and the location in the middle of nowhere I was expecting some rough-and-tumble barbeque joint and I was quite surprised to find an idyllic farmhouse with a covered wooden patio and an attached farm stand. The restaurant was quite busy as well and it was fortunate we were early or we might have had to return to Bryce empty-handed. We were seated after a half hour wait and had a very enjoyable meal of farm-to-table bistro type food. I'm not sure the food itself was worth the three hours of round trip driving but it was a suitable finale after the amazing views from the Hogback.

As we finished our desserts the sun had already commenced a rapid descent and we realized that the last thing on Earth we wanted to deal with was driving back across the Hogback in darkness. We peeled back onto Route 12 with every intention of getting back to Bryce in record time but the views of the Grand Staircase under the setting sun were so incredible that we couldn't resist pulling over a couple of times to admire them. We completed the stretch just as my visibility was starting to suffer and then had a boring hour long trip through darkness between Escalante and Panguitch. Getting into the Airbnb was a confusing and tortuous process that required locating an unmarked door in pitch darkness and then utilizing two different pass codes, but the apartment itself was very modern and spacious. There was no time to enjoy it as we still had to unpack and get the kids ready for bed, knowing that we'd be checking out in just nine or ten hours.

The Thunder Horses Mercantile had a pretty decent cafe along with some fascinating hunting goods on display. Between some slow service at breakfast and dawdling in the store we got a later start on our second visit to Bryce Canyon than I had hoped. As recommended by the guidebook we drove to Yovimpa Point at the end of the road and then worked our way backwards through the various viewpoints. Along the way we saw incredible natural formations such as a giant goblet hoodoo and the Natural Bridge.

As advertised, the best views of the Amphitheater came at Inspiration Point. From here we had a sideways view of the basin filled with endless rows of hoodoos, a dizzying canvas of wavering lines and bands of color. The location lived up to its name in every way.

Eventually we ended up at Sunrise Point where we planned to descend to the base for the second time, this time via the Queen's Garden Trail. We were all kitted out now in our hiking outfits and better prepared to tackle the trail than we had been the day before. The trail had beautiful views over the park and got us close to some amazing formations, but it also had some frightening drop-offs that we hadn't needed to worry about on the Navajo Loop the previous day. It's pretty difficult to enjoy a hike when I'm completely focused on spotting upcoming threats to life and limb and trying to herd three kids away from them. Once we reached a particularly uncomfortable series of drops which appeared on alternating sides of the trail I had had enough and we decided it was best to head back to the trailhead. At this point we'd already seen Bryce from every possible angle and another hour of walking through the basin probably wasn't going to add very much, so we returned to the car and got ourselves on the road to Lake Powell.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:23 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog panguitch boulder_utah

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