Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bryce Canyon Figure 8

Bryce Amphitheater viewed from along the Rim Trail
6.4 miles loop, 1700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Bryce Canyon National Park entrance fee required

The hoodoos of Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park are some of the oddest and most fascinating geological features on the continent. The Figure 8 loop, which combines the Queens Garden and the Peekaboo Loop Trails in Bryce Amphitheater, provides direct access into the most spectacularly eroded sections of this wonderous terrain; it is the absolute highlight of a visit to this smallest of Utah's five national parks.

I visited Bryce Canyon in winter to see the pink hoodoos of the amphitheater coated in snow. Bryce Canyon is a pretty long ways from anywhere, unless you live in Cedar City, Utah, so I'll skip the directions to the trailhead; I would briefly like to note though that on the February day when I drove to Bryce, the temperatures hit -4 degrees F (-20 degrees C) while I was driving east on Utah Highway 14 from Cedar City. Temperatures when I arrived in Bryce were a balmy 6 degrees F. Winter brings beautiful scenery but also plenty of hazards: hypothermia is possible in low temperatures, snow on road can cause dangerous driving conditions, and snow and ice on the trail may require hiking with traction devices.

I started the hike at Sunset Point, although it's also possible to start the trail from Sunrise Point as well. From the large parking area at Sunset Point, I walked along the paved walkway to the overlook itself, where a fenced platform jutted into the canyon, providing a spectacular view of one of America's most iconic landscapes. Sunset Point lies in the heart of Bryce Amphitheater; to the north was a view of the hoodoos of Fairyland and the Table Cliff Plateau while to the south I could look directly down into the eerie spires of the Silent City. Although the spot is beautiful at any time, I found it especially remarkable when I returned the next morning for the sunrise: the dawn light accentuated the palette of the canyon's colors and the snow sparkled.

Sunrise at Sunset Point
Sunrise over the Silent City from Sunset Point
From Sunset Point, two trails descend into the canyon, either of which can be used to start the Figure 8; the Wall Street and the Two Bridges Trails join at the bottom of the canyon to themselves form the Navajo Loop. In winter, the Wall Street portion of the Navajo Loop is typically closed, as it was during my visit, so I started the hike by descending the Two Bridges leg of the Navajo Loop Trail into the canyon. Snow covered the trail almost as soon as I left the paved, shoveled walkway at Sunset Point so I donned microspikes for the descent.

A few quick switchbacks brought me down to eye-level with two of the most famous hoodoos in the Amphitheater: Thors Hammer and the Three Graces stood to the north of the trail. In the distance, snow coated the red rock ramparts of the Table Cliff Plateau.

Thor's Hammer
Just a few steps further down the trail brought me to a series of steep, tight switchbacks that descended into the amphitheater between two pink rock fins. The trail construction here was impressive, with good stonework supporting each switchback as the trail dropped to the bottom of the canyon. Many people who entered the canyon without traction devices were slipping during this descent, so be sure to bring Yaktrax or microspikes if you come when there's snow on the ground!

Switchbacks down the Two Bridges Trail
After the switchbacks ended, the trail continued through the narrow slot canyon, with a short spur leading to an unimpressive view of the Two Bridges- two fairly unnotable rock spans. I reached the base of the canyon about two thirds of a mile from the trailhead and came to a junction with the Queens Garden Trail; here, I made a right and stayed on the Navajo Loop Trail. Less than a hundred feet further on, I came to a second junction where the Wall Street leg of the Navajo Loop ascended to the right and the connector to the Peekaboo Trail led off to the left; I took the left fork and followed that trail a tenth of a mile to the start of the Peekaboo Loop.

The Peek-a-boo Loop branched off from the right of the connector trail in a small clearing that was at the time completely snow-covered. From here, I had a good view of the canyon from the bottom up.

View at the base of the canyon
I hiked the Peekaboo Loop clockwise, taking the left fork at the start of the loop; the Peekaboo Loop forms one of the two loops of the figure 8. This is the direction that I would recommend hiking, as it saves the best of the Peekaboo Loop for last and placed the Wall of Windows in my field of view as I hiked.

The loop started by the following the bottom of a small canyon dotted with junipers and pines; here, snow cover was complete, with over half a foot of snow on the ground, but the trail was discernable by prior footprints. As the trail climbed out of the canyon it passed some small sets of fantastic hoodoos. Views of the Silent City and the northern parts of Bryce Amphitheater reemerged as I ascended; soon afterwards, the trail approached Fairy Castle, a larger hoodoo that was a bit redder in an area of paler hoodoos.

Hoodoos on the Peekaboo Loop
High among the hoodoos, the trail was still dwarfed by weirdly eroded rock spires that rose to either side. Cutting through a gap in the hoodoos, the trail emerged on the other side of a fin and new views of the snowy terrain near Bryce Point emerged. Here, it was possible to tell that different layers of the canyon were composed of different colored limestones of the Claron Formation; these limestone layers together make up the Pink Cliffs, which form the highest tier of the Grand Staircase, an extraordinary progression of sedimentary cliffs that descend stepwise from Bryce Canyon through Zion to the Kaibab Formation at the Grand Canyon.

Bryce hoodoos
The trail meandered through elevated terrain and passed through the first of multuple tunnels blasted into fins before descending into another forested canyon bottom. As the trail began to climb out of the forest and up the other side of the canyon, it passed almost directly under Bryce Point, a lofty viewpoint perched atop a paler member of the Claron Formation. At 1.3 miles from the Peekaboo Loop junction, I came to a junction with a connector trail headed up towards Bryce Point; I stayed on the loop and almost immediately afterwards came to my first good view of the Wall of Windows, a soaring limestone fin with two eroded holes.

Wall of Windows
In the next quarter mile the trail approached ever closer to the Wall of Windows, passing by countless grotesque rock pillars until finally reaching an open, spectacular view at the foot of the Wall of Windows. Here, the Wall's rocky ramparts stretched overhead, fading into a maze of hoodoos. This is surely one of the most oddly beautiful and bizarrely memorable spots that I have ever visited.

Wall of Windows
The hoodoos here were sculpted into shapes that almost felt familiar: some rocks felt life-like, resembling the forms of gnomes or humans or wolves or even llamas. In the mythology of the Paiute people of the Colorado Plateau, the hoodoos are humans turned into stone by the trickster Coyote. The actual process for the formation of these hoodoos is physical and chemical weathering: fins of sandstone are gradually broken into individual spires by frost wedging, which occurs when water that seeps into cracks in the limestone freeze and enlargen the cracks. Mildly acidic rain then helps turn the rock pillars into bizarrely shaped hoodoos.

These hoodoos look oddly life-like
Past the Wall of Windows, the trail began descending into a canyon, but then very suddenly made a sharp turn up a side canyon and began a switchback ascent towards the top of the canyon. This route initially seemed mysterious as the head of that particular side canyon appeared to be a dead end, but upon reaching the fin at the head of the canyon I found a tunnel through the rock.

One of many tunnels along the hike
Emerging on the other side, the trail stayed high for the next half mile, delivering consistently stunning views of this wonderland of pink rock.

Bryce Amphitheater views along the Peek-a-boo Loop
After the trail passed through a narrow crack in a fin, views of the densely-packed hoodoos of the Silent City returned. Here was an incredible view of the multi-knobbed form of those pinnacles and the multi-colored rock layers from which they were eroded. The Cathedral, a massive block of pink limestone, rose above the other side of the trail.

Silent City
The Peekaboo Loop ended with a slow descent along the north side of a fin back to the trail junction; there were almost constant views of the Silent City on this stretch of trail. Returning to the Peekaboo Trail Junction meant I had hiked the full 3 miles of the Peekaboo Loop and that I was just over halfway through the full hike.

Silent City from the Peekaboo Loop
I followed the connector trail back to the Navajo Loop, then turned right at the Navajo Loop and came back to the junction of the Two Bridges leg of the Navajo Loop and the Queens Garden Trail. This time, I followed the Queens Garden Trail to the right.

The next mile consisted of fairly easy, flat hiking at the bottom of the amphitheater. A sparse forest of pines lined the trail and there were constant views of pink and orange hoodoos rising to the south and east.

Hoodoos along the Queens Garden Trail
About a mile from the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop junction, the trail began to climb steadily and soon reached a junction for a signed spur trail for the Queen Victoria hoodoo. I took the short spur trail, which led uphill to a view of a small fin where one of the naturally-sculpted pinnacles indeed resembled the stately figure of the British queen. I was a bit surprised that this portion of the amphitheater was named Queens Garden after such a small natural rock figurine.

Queen Victoria
Returning to the main trail, I followed the sign towards Sunrise Point and continued along the Queens Garden Trail. Oddly enough, the trail passed through another tunnel in a fin; while other tunnels were carved in locations where they seemed necessary, this one appeared to have blasted into a fin just for the heck of it.

As the trail climbed steadily up from the bottom of the amphitheater, views widened and soon it was possible to see across the amphitheater to Sunset and Bryce Points along the rim. Further up, the trail swung to the other side of a ridge and there were views to the north of Fairyland and the Table Cliff Plateau.

Queens Garden Trail
View towards Fairyland
The trail climbed steadily up the ridge via switchbacks; it's tiresome to continue to describe these views and I'm sure it's tiresome for you to read about it, too, so I won't. A snowstorm set in as I exited the amphitheater on the Queens Garden Trail. I was glad to have my microspikes, as many parts of the trail were slippery with snow and ice.

Snowstorm sets on Bryce Amphitheater
The Queens Garden Trail ended at Sunrise Point at the rim of the amphitheater. Perhaps due to the bad weather, I found Sunrise Point to be the least scenic of the four major rim viewpoints of the canyon (Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce); I'll have to return sometime in nicer weather.

Snowstorm at Sunrise Point
Hoodoo view from Sunrise Point
The final half mile of the hike followed the Rim Trail from Sunrise Point back to Sunset Point. From along the rim, I was able to spot Queen Victoria, Thor's Hammer, and some of the other hoodoos that I had gotten to see up-close earlier along the Figure 8. Intensifying snow drove me to quickly finish up the last portion of the Figure 8 loop and return to my car.

It was snowing pretty heavily.
View along the Rim Trail
I stuck around the park until after the snow ended, taking a drive down to Rainbow Point and enjoying many views of hoodoos along the way. After sunset, I headed over to Inspiration Point to appreciate the dark night skies of the Colorado Plateau.

Night sky at Inspiration Point

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