Cedar Breaks

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The natural amphitheater in Cedar Breaks National Monument 

Cedar Breaks National Monument is a great example of the amount of natural diversity packed into Utah’s southwestern corner.

Located between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks sits on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau at an elevation higher than both Zion and Bryce.

Since Cedar Breaks has an elevation of over 10,000 feet above sea level  it supports conditions that encourage an explosion of wildflowers in the park’s summer season.

Peaking in late July and lasting through August, the wildflowers enjoy the cool, moist conditions that elevation affords them.

When I visited Cedar Breaks in early August, the park’s forests and meadows were filled with the subdued hues of mountain bluebells, the red bristles of Indian paintbrush, the white pops of columbine, and the deep purple shades of beard tongue.

Color paints entire swaths of Cedar Breaks in the park’s meadows.

While Zion and Bryce do boast wildflowers of their own, the variety and amount of flowers that Cedar Breaks boasts provides a great contrast to the drier environments in lower lands.

More than 150 species of wildflowers grow in Cedar Breaks, and the greens of mountain meadows and forests add to the sense that the park is one huge natural garden.

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Columbine along a trail in Cedar Breaks 

Spruce and aspen trees populate the park’s forests, which are currently regenerating after having been recycled by native pine beetles.

The main geological feature in Cedar Breaks is its natural amphitheater, which is more than 2,000 feet deep and more than three miles across.

Like Bryce Canyon, the amphitheater in Cedar Breaks features rocky columns and spires. However, in Cedar Breaks you get the unique impression that the park’s mountain meadows and spruce forests are eroding away into the multicolored badlands of the amphitheater.

This contrast was noted by early settlers who named the area Cedar Breaks, noting the trees–which they mistook for cedars and are actually spruce and bristlecone pine–and the badlands in the amphitheater which they called “breaks”.

Along the rim of the amphitheater fields of flowers transition into scraggly outcroppings of twisted and ancient thousand-year-old bristlecone pines that grip rocky outcroppings by way of their powerful roots.

While Cedar Breaks is worth exploring because of its unique features, it’s worth noting that the park draws less visitors than Zion and Bryce. If you’re looking for a place to get away from people it’s definitely worth trying Cedar Breaks. In 2016 Cedar Breaks attracted 899,676 people, while more than 4 million people visited Zion and more than 2 million people visited Bryce.

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Bryce Canyon’s Hoodoos

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Bryce Canyon’s Natural Ampitheater 

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. IMG_20160727_145541326The 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. IMG_20160727_115050830_HDRThe 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. IMG_20160729_092225713

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.

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