Please, Go Easy on the Superlatives

Bryce Canyon National Park

I know the automobile reigns, but in many cases the best way to see things is on a bicycle.

Bryce National Park In a car you have the luxury of quiet communication, the radio and tape player, the shelter from the elements, the ease and convenience of speed. On a bike, really you have none of those, and that is why in many cases it can be better.

So I set off on a bike one dark and cloudy Sunday morning and pedaled my way across the northern half of Bryce Canyon National Park. To the day's credit, it featured both intense sun and driving rain, intermittent warmth and shivering cold temperatures. I emerged from the park five hours later, somewhat saddle sore and dirty, all the more happy and pleased with myself for having seen one of America's great parks foot by foot, pedal by pedal.

So many superlatives can be used to describe Bryce Canyon National Park that in the end it all becomes clich�. And even the beauty of the park itself can become a clich�: images of the park adorn so many postcards, book covers, table mats and billboards that one begins to forget the place actually exists. This small cove of rock and plateau is nothing short of a phalanx of color, a lesson in meta-geology and an open invitation to trancelike concentration.

Pedal pedal pedal. The bike chain creaks along with my left knee, which is tired from three consecutive days of biking and driving. Tree by tree the forest inches past, a bounty of vanilla scents and crushed pine needles. A chipmunk stands along the road. Other than the bike all is quiet. Then, a parking lot and a half-dozen cars. Signs and rules. A shuttle bus, leaving. Families and couples pile in and out of automobiles. And a sign: Bryce Point.

I prop the bike (incidentally: a Cannondale M1000, the best bike ever made) against a fence and limp over to a rock wall. This is Bryce Canyon.

You'll Wish You'd Paid More Attention in Geology Class

Bryce National ParkDeep caverns and rooms resemble the ruins of once-grand structures: churches, castles, battleships, steeples, prisons, courtrooms, men and women, marching armies. It is, as former park naturalist John Bezy wrote, a sculpture of heroic proportions, carved into exquisite, grand, whimsical forms that makes a million statements, a masterpiece of erosional scenery, a spiritual experience.

Formed over the last 80 or so million years but not granted formal protective status until the 1920s, Bryce is the belle epoch, the grand damme of scenic wonders ... Oh, I am getting so rosy I feel nauseous.

Bryce Canyon is an amphitheater of eroded rock and high badlands which make up the next to last step of the Grand Staircase, a geological phenomenon which begins down in the deserts of Arizona and, in huge leaps, bounds up the thin air country of the Paunsaungunt Plateau. One-half of the park is a loosely forested high country of spruce and ponderosa stands, the other half this red bowl of eroding earth.

Beginning as long as 100 million years ago oceans lapped up into what is today southern Utah, leaving behind beach sediment. At the same time, rivers from the north deposited more loads of sand and silt. Swamps and marshes grew at the edges of water and land, adding plant and animal decay to the soil. The ocean receded as continental plates rose and shifted; lakes formed in the margins.

Crustal movements set in motion massive compressional forces that gave way to periods of mountain building. Domes of pressure beneath the Earth's surface ruptured the land from its flatness. At the same time, tension within the crust pulled the western half of North America apart. Faults formed the high plateaus that now dot southern Utah. Rivers coursed through the new canyons.

Down along the east and west sides of the 9,000-foot high Paunsaungunt Plateau, macro-erosion was hard at work. Though the top of the plateau remained relatively unchanged, its steep sides calved to the forces of nature. With the sides of the plateau too steep for vegetation to grow, summer thunderstorms caused flash floods that ripped down the mountainside. Snow melt brought down more sediment, and freeze-thaw cycles - the plateau has an average of 200 freezes a year - drove ice into the rock, applying pressure that further wedged things apart.

But the rock did not erode in consistent patterns. Rather, the sediments deposited by those ancient rivers, lakes and oceans formed rock of varying strengths, and when it came down to erosion some rocks fell apart more slowly than others. Often, hard rock capped soft rock, or veins of hard rock protruded into areas of softer rock. Minute cracks became chasms. Master cracks prompted erosion on a larger scale. Under this scenario, the pinnacles, arches, window, hoodoos, turrets and pillars formed. This is Bryce Canyon.

Yup, This is Bryce Canyon

For thousands of years the Paunsaungunt Plateau was passing home to Anasazi Indians, who came here to hunt and gather food. Beginning in the 1700s Spaniard explorers and, later, American and French traders and trappers began to pierce southern Utah. For them, places like Bryce and the Cedar Breaks - Bryce's close cousin to the west (more on Cedar Breaks in a few weeks; stay tuned) - were true 'badlands,' places that halted exploration and travel. In the 1850s and 1860s Mormons, who had settled in Salt Lake City to the north, made their own journeys. A few settled.

One family that made a go of it for a while was Ebenezer and Mary Bryce, who attempted to farm the Paria River Valley, which lies below the park. Bryce, a native of Scotland, eventually moved on to Arizona, but the family name remained. In 1905 the federal government designated the Paunsaungunt Plateau a national forest, which brought a small amount of protection. As writers, photographers and tourists made further inroads in the next two decades a greater call for conservation was heard: in 1919 a lodge was built at Sunset Point and in 1923 Bryce Canyon was declared a national monument. Five years later the park's size was doubled and national park status was bestowed. Today, over one million visitors from every corner of the planet come to overlooks like those at Bryce Point and Sunrise Point and stare, mouths agape, into the void.

The Motorized, Though Mortal, Enemy

Bryce National ParkBack in, I think it was like 1966, Edward Abbey wondered aloud why Americans insisted on driving their cars into national parks when they would not do the same to a museum or a cathedral. Cars and all their mechanized cousins, Abbey insisted, have no place in the world's great natural settings. After all, how does a car enhance the natural experience supposedly found in the parks? Instead, cars made the opposite - pollution, traffic jams, accidents, crime. Cars ought to go, Abbey said. Use bikes, walking shoes, horses, wild pigs - or, if you must, shuttle busses.

Yes, the automobile reigns, but now the force of change has begun to swing the other way. Parks have, one by one, begun to ban or at least discourage the automobile from some of our most spectacular - and crowded and polluted - parks. In Utah, Zion was the first. It is no longer possible, during the busy spring and summer months, to drive your car into Zion Canyon (actually you can, but only if you have reservations at one of the canyon lodges). Instead, you take a quiet, clean, comfortable shuttle bus to the canyon, which drops passengers off at trailheads and scenic viewpoints and visitor centers.

Bryce Canyon is the second Utah park to enact a shuttle bus system. Cars are not banned yet - but they may be someday. Taking the shuttle has many advantages: you park in a big patrolled lot outside the park, get a $10 park entry discount ($10 rather than $20) and get to look around as you cruise through the park, rather than dodge squirrels and bikers.

I rode the shuttle in to the park, a trip which took me past the clutter of the park village and up a strenuous hill. I was dropped off at the park visitor center. Then, I biked on in to and around the northern end of the park, where most of the best overlooks are. Unfortunately, I can not come back with such rosy stories of the park's effort to get visitors out of their cars. I had originally planned to go into a much longer rant about this - this effort to get cars out of parks - yet I now realize it would only interest me. But here is the gist of it: if Bryce Canyon wanted to do something to get people out of their cars they might try to accommodate the biking public. At no time during my stay in the park did I see a: bike lane, bike rack or bike trail. This is all very unfortunate because if the park would do just a little it could really be an ideal place to see by bike. It is cool, it is relatively level and - and this is the best - you will be biking biking biking along on the plateau and then all of the sudden the road ends in this 1,000 foot cliff and there is all of eternity exposed in a jumble of colored rock. I mean, that is a very dramatic thing and it is something that is completely lost for the motoring public. You don't drive up to the edge; rather, you drive to parking lot, get the screaming kids out of the minivan, and then walk over to the overlook. The drama of the whole thing is lost, and the drama is part of what makes the park so attractive. So there. Hello Bryce Canyon National Park superintendent master park ranger head honcho dude: please install some dumb bike racks and a bike lane or two. And put some bike racks on the shuttle busses while you're at it. Please. Thank you.

Whew.

The Monsoons

Bryce National ParkIt rained while I was at Bryce.

It is that time of year - we call it the monsoon season here in the southwest (not to be confused with the monsoon in India, where it really rains). It was cloudy in the morning from passing storms the day before, then cleared up nicely though moisture still hung in the air - a bit of fog and wet sage. Then about noon some real honker thunderstorms began to gather over the mountains to the north. In the forested areas of the park you could only sense that something was going on, but it was not until you got to an overlook and could gaze north that you began to realize the great forces at play here. I mean, I guess inside I knew it was going to rain. I knew it. But for some reason I sort of ignored this. I just kept on biking, which means I kept getting farther and farther into the park (which the way it is laid out means that it is sort of like a 20 mile dead-end road).

So there I was, about, oh I don't know, maybe eight miles into the park when the first shower hit. It wasn't too severe so I kept on biking, and after 15 minutes or so it ended. Then came another. This was harder rain, and I had to get off the bike and take cover under a ponderosa pine, which for the reader's reference does not offer a whole lot of cover. That stopped, and perhaps you'd think I was smart enough to turn around. Wrong. It was not until the hail began, hail which came so hard it actually whitened the ground, that is when I turned around.

You know, I contemplated getting on one of the shuttle busses and taking it out since I still had my shuttle pass and all, but seeing as how only two shuttle busses in the whole park have bike racks I just cut my losses and biked out in the rain, mist and cool temperatures (my knuckles actually got numb, which is not a bad thing to have happen in the middle of summer). I stopped at all the overlooks, locked my bike fences and handrails meant for the handicapped, and took in the sights. Rain and all. And then I biked all the way back through the park village and to the parking lot and changed into dry clothes while crouched behind the car. What a great day!

About Bryce Canyon:

Summers: are cool; bring a jacket for the evenings
Winters: are cold and snowy, but by no means uncomfortable; skiing is popular
Trailers: are not allowed only in the very northern part of the park
Horseback rides: are available; call (435)679-8665
There is also: a general store, historic lodge, restaurant, church services, campgrounds and all sorts of ranger-led programs
Visit them on the web: at www.nps.gov/brca or call (435) 834-5322
An interesting place to stay near the park is Western Town Resort. This is a sort of replica of a frontier village - with nicer beds. There is a Dutch oven cowboy cookout and western-style dancing at night. It is four miles south of Panguitch and about 17 miles from the park.

For more information, please contact the Garfield County Travel Council at 435-676-1160 or 800-444-6689.

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