Bryce Canyon
A Hell Of A Place To Lose A Cow
First Published in SunFlyer


Bryce Canyon National Park consists of a collection of horseshoe shaped amphitheatres on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. Erosion carved a myriad of majestic and eerily shaped rock columns from the natural Claron Formation. These are known as hoodoos. Located at well over 8 000 ft, visitors to Bryce Canyon will mostly look down on the hoodoos and into the canyons.

The Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon form the northernmost and highest part of the USA's Grand Staircase, a series of cliffs that extend from the Kaibab Plateau in the south.

The stately hoodoos soon cast their peculiar spell. They speak of a timescale of millions of years, endurance beyond the human comprehension of three score and ten. Through their imposing presence, the hoodoos tell tales of an Earth we never knew.

Approximately 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and mammals were still small, when birds were only just starting to evolve and flowers grew instead of grass, Earth's ancestral continent, Pangaea, transformed herself into Gondwanaland and Laurasia (also referred to as Larussia).

During this time a broad, shallow sea advanced over parts of Laurasia that were later to become North America. As continents continued to drift and heave, perhaps even influenced by the fall of the Yucatan asteroid that is believed to have ended the era of the dinosaurs, this sea receded again, leaving behind a thick layer of marine deposits. These marine deposits now, aeons later, form the lowest and oldest rocks of the fantasyland that is Bryce Canyon.

As time passed the sediment was deformed by horizontal compression and covered with volcanic flow from the North that, to this day, protects the softer under-layers. Mother Earth's stormy heart bubbled and frothed. With a great seismic hand she broke apart her protective layers and displaced huge chunks of herself, forming amongst others, the High Plateaus of Utah. Streams flowed over the upturned blocks, washing away the younger, weaker layers to uncover the resilient, if drably-coloured former marine sediment, now side by side with brightly coloured deposits from freshwater lakes and streams.

These layers of sediment and stone are today exposed in shades of geological history as the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. It is a common misconception that the hoodoos were formed through wind erosion. The distinctive rock formations of Bryce Canyon are, in fact, the result of a very long, multi-faceted argument between Water and Earth.

Water erosion takes place in two ways.  Mechanical water erosion occurs through fast moving water that causes scouring, abrading and gullying. The Paria River and its many tributaries contributed in this way to the formation of the Bryce Canyon hoodoos. Chemical erosion occurs when water enters porous rock and dissolves the cement that holds the rock together.

And then there is frost wedging. The plateaus surrounding Bryce Canyon receive on average 100 inches of snow and 19 inches of rain every year. The area is in an almost perpetual state of either freeze or thaw. As the ice melts, water runs into the rock joints and freezes overnight, forming an expanding ice wedge that forces the joint apart. The wedge grows as more water gathers and freezes. Eventually the force of the wedge is large enough to break off pieces of rock. This is how the wily ways of Water sculpted an enchantment of pinnacles, fins, domes, temples and mazes from the earth.

Humans came relatively late to the area surrounding Bryce Canyon. There is evidence in the wider vicinity of human habitation as much as 12 000 years ago. When Euro-Americans first arrived in Utah, Paiute Indians inhabited the area. According to the Paiutes, the hoodoos were "legend people" turned to stone in anger by the mythical Coyote when the people spent too much time beautifying the city Coyote had intended for them.

In the early 1870's the Kanarra Cattle Company used the adjacent plateau for grazing. Ebenezer Bryce, a skilled carpenter, arrived with his family in 1875 to harvest timber. The canyon behind his house became known as Bryce's Canyon. When asked about the canyon, the Scot is reported to have said rather pragmatically: "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow." Although the Bryces stayed for only five years before moving to Arizona, the name has endured.

Reuben and Millie Syrett were also early settlers, with their house just outside the current park boundaries. They invited their friends and family to see the intricately eroded rock formations. Word spread and soon there was popular demand for a lodging facility, which the Syretts built and named "Tourist's Rest". In 1923 the area was declared a national monument and development began on more lodges and inns. At around this time Reuben Syrett also became the first postmaster of Bryce Canyon.

Today the sharp edged, jagged tops of Bryce Canyon still captivate visitors. It is far more accessible, more welcoming than it was in the late 19th century, but in the depths of the canyon, looking up along towering rock cliffs to a tiny patch of blue sky, desolation still finds its way into the human heart.

The mind grows still and respectful before the majesty of these ancient spires. For some it is reminiscent of a dreamlike cityscape. For others it becomes a deeply spiritual experience, man and earth united in imagination and form, a reminder of God's awesome power and timelessness.

It is a territory that lends itself to myth and legend, prompting visitors to invent their own. Looking down into the primordial depths of terrestrial history, or up along the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon, the spirit of Coyote and those who went before him still stir in the breeze. The vast passage of time that so artfully arranged the hoodoos becomes meaningless, as the present moment stretches on into eternity.