Bryce unCanyon Driving Tour and Day Trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hi, Kara again still filling in for Gunther. One of our readers thought I was a kitty…clearly they didn’t pay enough attention to the header picture at the top of the blog site…as you can see…I’m clearly and most definitely not a cat. Today’s post covers our short drive yesterday to get the lay of the land down in the park and our driving tour today to the northeast 60% or so of the park. Unfortunately the adults ran out of steam before they ran out of viewpoints…but they’re scheduled for a Ranger talk Monday afternoon down at Rainbow Point and they’ll catch the last few viewpoints and such then.

I’ll get to that unCanyon thing I talked about in the post title in a bit.

Yesterday we headed into the park for what was advertised as a 1 mile rim walk with one of the rangers…but what we actually ended up with was Larry the official park geologist…and his talk was certainly a lot more interesting. 

First up…I gotta serious problem with this sign. Its not the focus, that’s due to moving truck.

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Bryce Canyon is surrounded by the Dixie National Forest…and I can darn sure tell ya that this place ain’t anywhere near Dixie. Neil grew up in AL, the Heart of Dixie…after all…and this ain’t it. No BBQ, no southern accents, nobody saying things like “Ya’ll ain’t from ‘round here, are you?” We asked the ranger at the fee booth why it was named the Dixie National Forest…he agreed with us that the name was just wrong. Heck…I’m guessing whoever named it doesn’t even know the difference between a hissy fit and a conniption fit.

Anyways I digress…back to Larry the Geologist…he gave us a great talk on the geology of how the park was formed…and also some insights into the wildlife we might see. One thing he did caution us on was that we should not believe “the book”…because according to “the book” the Rocky Mountain Rattlesnake (or the prairie, western, or Great Plains rattler depending on which name you like…it’s actually closely related to the Western Diamondback)…anyways according to “the book” they are not found at altitudes of 8,000 feet or more. He wanted to assure us that “the book” was wrong since we were at about 8,300 feet and he had seen 3 of them in the past 3 weeks up at the rim walk at Sunset Point where he was giving the talk.

Here’s a shot of Larry doing his talk…he lives in the park full time, has a Ph.D. in geology and was pretty knowledgable about both the geology of the park (who would have thunk it) as well as the wildlife.


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In addition to geology…Larry asked us why we should not feed the wildlife…he was aiming this question at the members of the audience who were working on their Junior Ranger workbook and obviously the answer he was looking for was that feeding the wildlife would get them dependent on humans for food and they wouldn’t survive the winter. Neil thought his answer of “because it’s a $100 fine for feeding the wildlife” was a much better answer…but that’s just him.

Ok, on to that unCanyon thing I talked about it before…

A Canyon…I even looked it up on wikipedia and the googles to make sure Larry wasn’t lying to us…is “a deep cleft between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic timescales”. Note the key ingredient in that definition is the erosive activity of a river…hence places like the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Marble Canyon and even the upper and lower Antelope Canyons (albeit they were carved by flash flooding and not a continuously running river) that we’ve visited in the past few weeks are perfect examples. Bryce Canyon…on the other hand…doesn’t have any water in the bottom of it…and never has…it was formed by other processes which I’ll talk about in a bit but most definitely not due to erosion due to flowing water…hence it’s not a canyon at all. He said that in actuality Bryce is an “eroding, retreating, plateau margin”…but then he said that it’s not actually named that for two reasons…first is that Bryce Eroding Retreating Plateau Margin isn’t nearly as catchy a name as Bryce Canyon is…and second (and most importantly) is that Bryce Eroding Retreating Plateau Margin wouldn’t fit on the t-shirt…so they named it Bryce Canyon instead. 

Where does the Bryce part come from? It’s named for Ebeneezer Bryce who was a Mormon settler who settled in the Paria area just east of the canyon in the 1870s and subsequently moved to the edge of the canyon itself. He and his wife Mary lived on the edge of the canyon until 1880 and it became known as Bryce Canyon since they were the only folks living there. It was designated as Bryce Canyon National Monument in 1923 and upgraded to National Park status in 1928.

So…if it wasn’t formed by flowing water erosion and should more correctly be known as Bryce Eroding Retreating Plateau Margin…how did the canyon form?

About 65 million years ago according to Larry…this entire area of UT and AZ was much lower in elevation and was underneath a shallow but very large freshwater lake…with the water in the lake being very alkaline despite being fresh…with great amounts of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate dissolved in the water. Over the millennia the minerals precipitated out of the water and formed layers of what would become sandstone on the bottom. The lake dried up and reappeared numerous times…and at each dry spell the surface of the stone was eroded into soil before being submerged again…so it ended up with layers of sandstone separated by softer layers of soil compacted into stone. Once the layers were built up…and about 50 million years ago the entire region started to rise…not by plate collision action but by other processes so that (mostly) the land lifted vertically and steadily to it’s current height. Naturally some of this uplifting was differential and as a result there were two series of parallel cracks…one running NE to SW and another running NW to SE. If you had looked from overhead you would see a checkerboard pattern on the surface of what is now known as the Colorado Plateau which runs from western Colorado through southern UT and on down into northern AZ all the way past where the Grand Canyon is now located. 

OK…so there’s this upraised plateau with an elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 feet with this checkerboard pattern of vertical cracks in it…and in this area Bryce Canyon has over 200 days a year when the temperature goes from below freezing to above freezing. Water from rain flowed into these vertical cracks and repeatedly froze and thawed…since water expands when it freezes this action gradually increased the size and depth of the cracks…with the stone cracking off and falling down. After many millions of years…what you end up with is a canyon like area of land that is gradually eroding due to freeze/thaw action at the edges…and what you get is a series of geological formations…first you get a fin when a crack that is parallel to the edge keeps expanding. Once the fin is separated from the rim of the canyon…the fin starts eroding via the same processes…and what forms next is a hole (or holes) in the fin…these are called windows instead of arches or natural bridges as in other canyons due to the different formation processes. The window expands until the top collapses and then when you have just the pillars on the side they are known as hoodoos. The top rock of the hoodoo is harder and gradually the lower portions of the pillar get thinner and thinner until they have a cap…I’ll show you a shot of Thor’s Hammer in a bit that shows this cap. Eventually the thin portion of the pillar gets so thin the entire thing collapses…so fins/windows/hoodoos have a definite life cycle although it’s on a geologic scale rather than a human scale…it’s not millions of years like it took to form the entire canyon but more on the 50,000 to 100,000 year time frame. I’ll have some photos to help explain this a bit later.

Following Larry’s talk…we went to dinner at the Bryce Canyon Pines restaurant…and wished we had stayed home and cooked…not very good at all and they were charging Disneyland prices.

Friday we set off for a driving tour of the northern portions of the park…the entire road is about 18 miles long from the park entrance down to Rainbow Point…but with the thin air and the multiple stops we made for viewpoints and overlooks…most of which required a short hike to see…we ran out of steam before we ran out of road. No matter though…since we already had a second day planned.

Ok, enough of that blathering…let’s get on to the photos which is what ya’ll really came for.

Probably the most famous feature here is the hoodoos…and although they’re everywhere they’re really concentrated at the north end of the park in what is known as Bryce Amphitheater…which has several overlooks on it…the most famous of these are Sunrise Point and Sunset Point…obviously named for the great views at that time of day. We’ll be getting photos from those view points at the optimum viewing time later on next week.

Bryce Amphitheater…the single most famous view in the park. All of the hoodoos you can seen parallel rows were separated first into fins along one axis of the checkerboard vertical cracks then the fins gradually eroded into windows and then hoodoos. The wavy sides of the hoodoos represent the various layers of sandstone laid down by the shallow lake that repeatedly dried up and returned, the darker area that are skinnier are the layers of soil deposited during the dry periods and then later compacted into stone.

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Thor’s Hammer hoodoo…the most famous hood in the park.  The skinny part just below the cap rock…which is a harder stone than the shaft…is about 3 feet thick. In wintertime when the Amphitheater is snow covered the snow mound around Thor’s Hammer is orange from the ongoing flaking off of the rock…it will eventually fall…maybe thousands of years on a human scale but relatively quickly on a geologic scale.  

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Sinking Ship Rock in the foreground about 2 miles distant and the Aquarius Plateau in the background about 17 miles distant…Aquarius will become important later on in the blog.

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Chipmunk…this was actually the one that precipitated Larry the Geologist’s question about why don’t you feed the wildlife. They…and the ravens and Stellar Jays…are notorious beggars for food from visitors.

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Heart shaped window…this one is about 10 feet high and across.

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More windows.

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Utah Prairie Dog…the smallest of the 5 species of this rodent found in North America.

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Better shot of Sinking Ship Rock and Aquarius when it was a bit less smoky from the Brian Head fire about 20 miles to the west of the park.

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More windows…the ones on the left are into the face of the plateau while the one on the right is on a fin that separated from the plateau. As you can see the window on the right one is bigger and the arched rock at the top thinner indicating it formed earlier and will shortly become two hoodoos.

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Natural Bridge…about 40 feet wide and 60 feet tall…but again it’s not really a natural bridge since it wasn’t formed by a meander and eroded by flowing water. It’s actually just a fin that didn’t fully separate…it’s still connected to the plateau on the left end…with a big window in it.

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Doe Pronghorn…she was about 10 feet from the road when we saw her. Contrary to popular belief…Pronghorns are not antelopes even though they are referred to as such since they look like antelope and because it fits a similar ecological niche to the antelope found in Africa. It’s actually the sole surviving member of the family Antilocapridae and it’s closest living relatives are giraffe and okapi that live in Africa. It’s what is known as an artiodactyl mammal which means it’s an even toed ungulate. Pronghorn are the second fastest mammal in the world at 60 miles an hour only outpaced by the cheetah which runs about 65. It can sprint longer than a cheetah can so in the ecological past when it was running away from the now extinct North American version of the cheetah it could stay away long enough for the cheetah to get tired.

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I stuck this one in because you can see the evolution and lifestyle of a fin as it becomes windowed, then hoodoos, then collapses. This was originally a long fin and then developed 3 windows in it. The one on the left is the youngest and it’s top has collapsed but not completely yet leaving two hoodoos. The two former windows on the right separated by a now collapsed hoodoo are older. 

There’s a very similar sort of formation up in Arches National Park in the Fiery Furnace area where there were two sets of parallel cracks at an angle to each other…except that the rock up there is granite or some other harder stone and they tend to not erode away…but rather once the crack opens from the freeze/thaw cycles it makes a more straight sided pillar rather than the irregularity that a hoodoo has.

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A few shots of a Stellar Jay…the largest Jay out in these parts. Too bad Neil couldn’t get him flying…it’s actually much more colorful than a Blue Jay is but when it’s perched the really blue feathers are folded away.

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Another pair of female Pronghorns we spotted just before we exited the park for the day…they ran across the road in front of us so Neil stopped and grabbed the bird lens from the back seat. All of these were taken out of the window to prevent them from startling and running away.

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Saturday was devoted to a morning drive over to Red Canyon about 10 miles east of Bryce and then to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument which starts just east of Bryce and covering almost 2 million acres from Bryce just about over to the Colorado border and from just north of Page AZ almost up to Canyonlands and Capital Reef National Parks in northern UT.

We got a few nice photos of Red Canyon…extra credit if you can figure out why it’s called Red Canyon. Again though…it’s not an actual canyon as it was formed by the same freeze/thaw erosion methodology of Bryce and not by flowing water.

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This is what an altitude bear looks like…as opposed to a sea level bear like Gunther…his photo is at the top of the blog.

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One of the two tunnels in Red Canyon you have to pass through to head east from US-89 towards Bryce Canyon. Coming from the other wide it’s marked as 13’6” clearance which is exactly as high as our rig is. Turns out the limited clearance is only on the far right side of the east bound lane (or the left side of the tunnel as it is in the photo)…the main portion of both this one and the other one which is about 200 yards from it is 15’ something. Neil just dumped the air out of the rear suspension on Big Red to give us another 4 inches and then waited until he could see a clearing in the traffic and just straddled the centerline through the tunnel…then aired up the suspension again.

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This is the smoke plume from the northwest corner (closest to Bryce) of the Brian Head fire to our west. Neil took this just as we turned around at the western end of Red canyon and headed back east…the fire is about 10 miles away from this point and Bryce is another 10 miles to the east. 

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With Red Canyon done…we headed towards our second destination of the day…Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Here’s a shot of the relief model of northern AZ and southern UT Neil took in the Bryce visitor center…it’s a crappy shot but serves to help illustrate why it’s named Grand Staircase.

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Ok, to orient you you’re looking north and the Grand Canyon is at the bottom. The narrow canyon going east and then north from the east end of the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River  and Marble Canyon. Page AZ, Glen Canyon, and Lake Powell are just below the top edge of the green  and Bryce Canyon is at the northeast corner of this model.

When you look from high overhead…like in space high…there are a series of cliffs that gradually get higher as you go northwards from the Grand Canyon…Vermillion Cliffs near Marble Canyon is the first one and there are several others as you go north named Pink Cliffs and White Cliffs…then there’s the Aquarius Plateau just north and east of Bryce. Aquarius…at 11,000+ feet tall…is the highest plateau in North America. As you look at the succession of cliffs from south to the north it’s like a giant set of steps on a staircase…hence the name. Don’t know where the Escalante part of the name came fro other than Escalante UT is the town about in the center of the monument.

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This is the same end of Aquarius Plateau that was visible behind Sinking Ship Rock in the earlier photo…that one was taken looking northeast and the plateau stretched to the left from the point. This one is taken from the other side looking southwest so the plateau continues off to the right.

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There were some Puebloan people living in this area as well as over in Mesa Verde…although they didn’t live in cliff dwellings they did build some granaries up underneath ledges on the plateau. Two shots…second one is zoomed in…you can see the granary as the darker section at the bottom of the second photo.

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The side of Aquarius…the only good shot we got today of the whole side of the plateau.

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Looking to the southeast towards what is known as the Hole in the Wall. Interesting story about this…after the Mormons had settled in Salt Lake City…they sent some settlers towards the Southeast corner of UT to establish another town. Since this area hadn’t been surveyed yet…interesting side note that Mr. Powell of Lake Powell fame on his second expedition to map this area surveyed and mapped the last remaining portion of the continental US…so this really is the behind end of nowhere…anyway, since it hadn’t been surveyed the settlers eventually came to the Colorado River about 20 miles north of where the Glen Canyon Dam now sits. The only problem was that it was 1,800 feet down to the river. Undeterred by this…they found a small crack in the wall and proceeded to dynamite out a road down to the river…the slope of this road varied from 25% to 45% going down…for those not familiar with grades the maximum grade on the freeway headed up to Eisenhower Pass over the Rockies west of Denver is only about 7% and you very rarely see a grade on a road that’s more than about 10% or maybe 11%…so 25 is steep and 45 even more so. Despite the grade…the settlers successfully got 83 out to 83 wagons down to the bottom and across the river. Don’t know how they got back up the other side as it’s a canyon wall over there as well…and I don’t know how they got the wagons down without losing control…lots of men pulling ropes I guess as wagons don’t have much in the way of brakes.

We were originally going to go up from Page to see the Hole in the Wall…but it was over a 100 mile trip each way on 4WD required roads although we were told that we didn’t need a high clearance vehicle. However, it was over 100F that day and cell signals were low in Page so we didn’t want to be 80 miles from nowhere, stuck in sand, no cell signal, and over 100F. It would have truly been an all day trip. The road we would have been on…Hole in the Wall Road…actually dead ends into UT-12 just east of where we took this shot. 

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Take a look at these next two shots…and let me know if you can figger out what’s wrong with them.

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The first is obviously the name of the river and the second was taken about 10 feet past the first looking down at the river bed. Notice the distinct lack of water, or even mud or even damp ground? Apparently this river only has water in it…when it rains. Now I don’t know much about naming conventions here in the west…but in the east we would call that a storm drainage ditch and not a river…because by definition a river…has water in it.

A couple of hoodoos right at the east entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park just east of where we are staying in Bryce Canyon City. Just east of this point there is a town down in the bottom of the canyon; it’s named Tropic because it was so much hotter than up on the rim. Again…I don’t claim to know much about western naming conventions…but we done been in the tropics and usually there are things like palm trees, girls in bikinis, cocktails with those little umbrellas in them and the like. Nuttin’ like that hereabouts.

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Another chipmunk…cute li’l buggers…ain’t they? Completely fearless…he (or she…I can’t tell) just sat there looking at us.

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With that our day was done so we headed home.

Sorry…no interesting stuff this time…there’s already like a bazillion photos to upload.


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7 Responses to Bryce unCanyon Driving Tour and Day Trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

  1. Such stunning photos. Looks like you got quite a bit of hiking done.

    I’m headed out west next week and can’t wait to see it for myself! I’ve never been further than Vegas, before. I hiked Lone Mountain and Red Rock Canyon while there in April.

    • Neil Laubenthal says:

      Actually most of our hikes here in CO, UT, and AZ have been short. We winter in SW FL at sea level and the lack of air…Bryce is at 7800 feet…is kicking our butts. We’ve been at altitude before but the highest we’ve been since we started full timing in the RV in 2012 has been 3000 feet or so until this summer. It’s hell when your body doesn’t hold up it’s end.


      The three kinds of stress…nuclear, cooking and a&&hole. Jello is the key to the relationship.


      • I wasn’t too worried about the altitude, though I have heard about altitude sickness. I just like the rock formations, the desert, the ocean views, and the rugged terrain. I take a lot of nature photography when I go hiking, so those are always real gems.

        Thanks for sharing!

      • Neil Laubenthal says:

        We never worried much about altitude when we were young but now that we are older it’s more of an issue. We just pace ourselves and try not to overdo it.


        The three kinds of stress…nuclear, cooking and a&&hole. Jello is the key to the relationship.


      • I have a respiratory illness so I’ll keep that in mind. 🙂

  2. Cynthia Bowman-Gholston says:

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful excursions. I really enjoyed these. Keep up the dream work.

    • Neil Laubenthal says:

      We aim to please.


      The three kinds of stress…nuclear, cooking and a&&hole. Jello is the key to the relationship.


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