BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #5

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

 

January 11, 2012

 

THE ESCALANTE

 

Though millions of tourists throng Utah’s national parks, few are aware that most of them are part of a colossal geological formation Spanish explorers dubbed “The Escalante” (named after Spanish explorer Francisco Escalante), or “the Giant Staircase.”  The Escalante reaches into Capitol Reefs National Park to the northeast and Cedar Breaks National Monument to the northwest (reaching a height of over 10,000 feet).  Bryce varies several thousand feet in elevation (6,600 to 9,120); Zion (to the south) ranges from 3,666 to 8,726 feet in elevation.  East is the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (a vast 1.9 million acre preserve established by presidential proclamation in 1996).  The Escalante descends via Glen Canyon south to the Colorado River floor of the Grand Canyon (the lowest step).  Its two great river systems are the Paria and Escalante.  This area is without doubt one of the most remote regions in the lower 48.

 

            

 

BRYCE CANYON

 

“It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

                                                                        –Ebenezer Bryce

 

Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer, moved with wife and family to this then remote region in 1875.  Other Mormon settlers, since the then all but unknown canyon represented the Bryce family’s back yard, so to speak, dubbed it “Bryce’s Canyon.”  In 1916, Ruby and Minnie Syrett decided to homestead in the area.  As word of the canyon’s unique beauty got out, tourists started packing in.  The Syretts concluded that there was a living to be made here, so set up tents, fed meals to the visitors, and eventually built a rather primitive lodging they called “Tourists’ Rest.”  In 1918, the Salt Lake City Tribune wrote of the canyon in glowing terms, declaring it to be “Utah’s New Wonderland.”

 

In the fall of 1918, just after World War I ended, Stephen Mather (founder of our National Park system), came to southern Utah to see for himself some of the wonders he’d been hearing about. When he reached Bryce, a guide told him to close his eyes, led him to the very edge of the abyss, then told him to open his eyes.  When he did, he was so stunned by what he saw that he responded by saying, “Marvelous!”  “Exquisite!”  “Nothing like it anywhere!” (Burns and Duncan, p. 174).  He determined to preserve it at all costs for the American people.  In this, he was ably supported by Utah Senator Reed Smoot.  In 1923, President Harding proclaimed it a National Monument; in 1928, doubled in size, Congress created Bryce National Park.

 

It is considered to be among the most spectacular and rewarding of all America’s national parks: “The spectacle of Bryce Canyon unfolds from the rim, a panorama of pink, purple, orange, and white limestone figures creating visions of oversized gargoyles, spires, temples, and arches set in gigantic scoops that span miles and drop 1,000 feet below. . . .  At Zion you look up, at Bryce you look down.” (Barnes, p. 127).

 

Because of extreme temperature fluctuation and seasonal rainfall, Bryce’s topography is continually changing.  These often bizarre-looking rock pillars, pedestals, and toadstool forms are collectively known as hoodoos.  And they are what makes Bryce so unique.

 

There are three very different ecological zones: highest, where spruce-fir predominate; middle, ponderosa pine stands; and lowest, with piñon pine and aspens.  It encompasses 35,835 acres (56 square miles).

 

BRYCE CANYON LODGE

 

According to Christine Barnes, both Stephen Mather and his associate, Horace Albright were determined to have constructed lodges and hotels worthy of their settings.  Especially were they set on choosing only the best architects to design them.  For Bryce, renowned architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood was chosen for the job.  Underwood first visited Bryce in 1923.  Since he was not permitted to build it on the rim itself, he positioned it in a grove of ponderosa pines just a short walking distance from two of the canyon’s most spectacular overlooks.  Since tourism was crucial for park success, Mather persuaded Union Pacific Railroad’s management to partner with the Park Service.

 

Underwood had the needed stone cut at a quarry only a mile and a half away; the timber was local as well.  Even the workers were local.  From all indications, it appears that the lodge was intended to be only temporary, to be replaced with a better one later on.  Rather than using great logs such as were used in other lodges, 20-inch-logs were hauled in.  The original portion of the lodge was completed in 1925.

 

Adjacent to the lodge, Underwood completed a complex of 67 wood-frame cabins by 1927.  By 1929, Underwood completed fifteen Deluxe Cabins.  Given that the Great Depression of the 1930s followed that year, Underwood was never permitted to build a more substantial lodge.  Because of this, these Deluxe Cabins, with their steeply-pitched gable roofs, stone foundations and chimneys, big front porches, and half-log-slab exterior walls, are all that remain of the architect’s original template for Bryce.  Architecture historians today consider these cabins to be among the finest examples of historic rustic architecture to survive down to our time.

 

 

As was true of so many sister lodges, Bryce Canyon Lodge and cabins have had it anything but easy during the last almost ninety years.  During World War II, the lodge was closed completely for two years.  Union Pacific Railroad discontinued summer train service during the 1960s.  But the post-war boom brought in so many tourists that the lodging facilities were strained to the limit.  In 1986, a serious restoration program was begun.  In the process, they discovered the lodge’s foundation was virtually nonexistent.  They had to construct a new one.  Most everything was spruced up.  In cooperation with FOREVER RESORTS, a great deal of effort and money has gone into restoring much of the lodge and cabins.  So much so, that the original aura has been almost completely restored.

 

 

OUR OWN JOURNEY

 

At Torrey, we picked up Highway 12 going south.  Before long, we began to climb – and climb, up 9,620 feet Boulder Mountain.  Off to the east jutting into the sky were the snow-capped Henry Mountains.  We passed the road that led to the spot where a number of years ago, traveling solo, I’d camped out for the night in my sleeping bag.  A tiny piece of my life left in that grove of trees.

 

After reaching the summit, we descended toward Escalante.  Another memory awaited there.  Even though I am not paranoid about heights, ahead was a stretch of Highway 12 that gave me the heeby-jeebies the first time I drove over it—would it be less formidable this time?  Vain hope!  Like many of you who love to travel, I’m a veteran of terrifying roads: the old Tioga Pass Road out of Yosemite still comes to me in my dreams sometimes.  But on Tioga, even though you were only one loose lug-nut from plunging into space, one could always fudge into the inside lane.  Not so the Escalante stretch: the most apt metaphor I can think of is, it’s like driving on a razor blade, with a sheer drop to the right of you and a sheer drop to the left of you.  Grand Staircase without railings!  I noticed that it was mighty quiet in the car; not until we reached tierra firme again did natural breathing resume.

 

It was mid afternoon when we turned left towards Bryce Canyon.  At the village, there were quite a number of restaurants and lodging options; necessary, because reservations in the park itself are limited to Bryce Canyon Lodge.  Other travelers are encouraged to leave their cars outside the park and take the shuttle in, for parking spaces in the park are scarce.

 

We thought we’d learned our lesson the year before when we took the Northwest National Park Loop: stay two nights at each lodge rather than one.  Generally speaking, we’d done that.  But not at Bryce. After all, it was a relatively small park.  BIG MISTAKE!

 

         

 

We pulled in at the lodge and checked in.  The lodge itself was western rustic, simple, blending into the ponderosa grove.  Then we found our way to the Deluxe Duplex Cabin (units 538 and 539) that we’d reserved over a year before.  It was an architectural thing of beauty!  Both outside and in!  The soughing of the pines and the somewhat isolated placement of our cabin combined to strip us of all the pressures of the world.  Making the experience even more meaningful was the realization that well over eighty years ago, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, National Park visionaries Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, and executives of Union Pacific Railroad had all studied and fine-tuned the creation of this very cabin!  Then, the icing on the cake: a knock on the door.  A welcome basket from the high command of FOREVER RESORTS, cherished friends of ours.  And just think: we’d have to leave this heaven-on-earth in the morning!

 

It almost took crowbars to pry us from our cabin!  For after all, we’d come here to see the canyon, not the lodging.  It was mid-afternoon, yet the canyon still overwhelmed.  Down below we could see hikers descending into the goblinland of the hoodoos; and other hikers were emerging from them on the way back up.

 


 

After a while we returned to the cabin as we had made early dinner reservations in the lodge’s dining room.  Delicious quesadilla!  Afterwards, almost too late, we raced back to the rim and mistakenly went to Sunrise Point first instead of Sunset Point.  The colors, though stunning, were already fading and the shadows were remorselessly closing shop.  Right on the edge, two engaging young women were seated on a bench overlooking the canyon, a simple dinner spread out between them.  I struck up a conversation with them.  Turned out they were from Germany, here on a holiday.  All too soon they’d have to return home.  But, they admitted, already they’d fallen in love with Utah.  They’d be back!

 

Later on, we returned and listened to a fascinating lecture on migratory birds; unfortunately, the serenity of the place had so seeped into our bones that all we could think of was migrating back to that wonderful cabin, sitting by the fireplace, crawling into bed, and listening to the wind in the pines.  So we did just that.

 

SOURCES

 

Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR: W. W. West, Inc, 2002).

 

Bezy, John, Bryce Canyon: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenberg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 2001).

 

Colorado and Utah (Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2010).

 

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

 

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

 

Utah’s National Parks & Monuments (New York: American Park Network, 2009).

 

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I appreciate the research you have done on the park. it motivates me to want to go. It is always good to know about the history of a site before viewing it.

    • Donald, good to hear from you. Glad you are finding the travel blogs helpful. JW

  2. Enjoy your comments immensely…wont ever be able to go there but your comments more than suffice.Blessings

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