At the Grand Canyon, you stand at the edge, peering into a gaping hole, the splendor of the canyon sweeping before you. At Badlands National Park, the unforgiving precipices exist as far as the eye can see. In Yosemite National Park, the waterfalls and cliff faces surround you.
When I travel to national parks, it is usually obvious why I’m supposed to be impressed. There is a moment of catching my breath, of blinking once again … just to make sure I’m seeing what is really in front of me.
Not so with Bryce Canyon National Park.
The afternoon we arrived in Bryce, we decided to drive to Rainbow Point, the southernmost area of the park accessible by car. I stood at the lookout, trying to be impressed. Okay … there were a few distinct rock formations with a funky orange color, but so what?
Moving north we stopped at more lookouts—Black Birch Canyon, Ponderosa Canyon, Agua Canyon … even the Natural Bridge—but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t work up the excitement over Bryce that I had in Zion or Death Valley or Rocky Mountain National Park. I really couldn’t tell what the big deal was. What was this park’s secret?
In spirit of all things environmental, we decided to spend the following day hitting up the shuttle bus system. Our first stop was Bryce Point, which was also our first glimpse of the Bryce Amphitheater, the bowl-shaped expanse filled with hoodoos (pillars of rock created by erosion). For those who have seen the Amphitheater, you can understand how this view was drastically different than what we saw in the southern end of the park. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t work up the “wow” that I was sure I was supposed to be feeling.
We traveled along the rim, stopping to appreciate the way the light bounced off the hoodoos and pointing out funny shaped formations the way you would point out creatures in the clouds. Yes, the Bryce Amphitheater is stunning, but something kept nudging at the back of my mind. This park just wasn’t sitting right with me. As I looked past the hoodoos, there was … well … flat, boring land. And a town called Tropic. Nothing all that spectacular.
I just couldn’t bring myself to fall in love with Bryce.
So I tied on my hiking boots and ventured into the Amphitheater. An afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and crowds of people poured out of the trailheads leading below the rim. We pulled on our ponchos and tucked the cameras out of site. That’s when I started to smile.
We wandered down the Queens Garden Trail past a mesmerizing shrine of trail cairns, skipped the small crowd hovering under tree cover at the bottom of the Navajo Loop Trail and headed directly for the Peekaboo Loop Trail. In Bryce Canyon National Park, that’s where the real magic happens. After a moderate climb up the western side of the trail (so that you’re facing east), the true beauty of Bryce Canyon is finally laid out like a multi-course feast that begs to be admired. Hoodoos clung to our right, taunted on the left and painted a three-dimensional portrait reminiscent of an IMAX film in front, behind, below and above us.
I stood, transfixed in Bryce Canyon. I was a part of it. It was a part of me. For once, I wasn’t looking at this park, wondering why I should care. Now I knew. Now I had no choice but to care.
After several hours of wandering from overlook to overlook, looking over the edge into the abyss below, I had stumbled upon the true beauty of Bryce Canyon by surrounding myself in it. Down here, miles away from those overlooks, engulfed in this national park, Bryce Canyon had finally opened up and let me in on its secret.