Bryce Canyon’s name is a little misleading, because it isn’t a canyon. Bryce Canyon is actually a series of massive natural amphitheaters eroded into the Pink Cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in Utah.
Unique rock formations called hoodoos steal the show in Bryce’s amphitheaters. Hoodoo derives from the word voodoo, and carries similar connotations. Spainards believed the rock formations held a mystical appeal to Native Americans.
Although Paiutes did not revere the hoodoos, they told tales of animals and birds living in a city that was turned to stone by Coyote, who believed he had been mistreated by the city’s residents. The product of that transformation was the creation of the hoodoos.
It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see the hoodoos as a stone city, or to see faces among the rocks. The spires of arches of these badlands look like a terrestrial city of towers and castles. Admittedly, some formations do take a bit of imagination to interpret. The formation of Bryce Canyon began 60 million years ago when sediment dropped and consolidated on the bottom a body of water called Lake Flagstaff. Then, the Colorado Plateau lifted unevenly 16 million years ago creating a series of plateaus we call the Grand Staircase today.
Resulting variations in the hardness of rock layers of limestone, siltstone, dolomite and mudstone help create the hoodoos. Water flowing through the cracks of soft rock erode away from harder rock layers, creating capstones with long necks–the spires of hoodoos. The constant freezing and thawing of snowmelt, and runoff from rainwater ensure the landscape will continue to change. In fact, it’s estimated that the Pink Cliffs recede one foot every 50-65 years due to erosion.
Sometimes the hoodoos seem alive, and that’s not just because the formations undergo constant change due to erosion. During the day, it appears as if the rocks change color and even shine in the light. You can track the progression of clouds and the sun by the changing colors of the hoodoos. The shades of red, pink, brown, yellow and black that color Bryce Canyon are caused by rust. Iron oxide colors the rock because it is either found within the rock formation itself, or it is carried into the rock by groundwater. Hoodoos are also colored by bacteria that ingest dust and produces iron that sticks to the rocks creating an effect known as desert varnish. Additionally, evaporating water creates salt deposits adding streaks of white to the hoodoos.
Visitors to Bryce Canyon can take in the park from several viewpoints along the park’s main road, but the best way to appreciate the hoodoos is to actually hike down in them. You can avoid the crowds on longer trails, and you get a much more intimate experience. It’s one thing to look out into the amphitheater, but it’s entirely different to be on its stage looking up at the hoodoos. The difference is like looking upon the ruins of a city melting into cliffs and dunes, and actually being in it.
That isn’t to say that the views from the Pink Cliffs’ edge isn’t impressive. They provide the best panoramas of the surrounding hills and mesas that spread out in the rolling greens of fir and ponderosa pine trees for as far as the eye can see.