“Something smells sweet here. What is it?” I say, stopping to catch my breath.
“The finish line,” answers Jim McDaniel, as the Three Amigos, slowest hikers in the Backroads group, look up at their final ascent—the climb to the top of Wall Street— a .7 mile trail soaring 520-feet straight up– through towering walls of rock.
Bryce Canyon’s Wall Street –metaphorically named for the urban canyons in Manhattan’s financial district—is a colossal slot canyon crossed by two dozen switchbacks. Despite the sheer challenge of conquering it, we’re grateful for the merciful shade it provides after an exhausting seven-mile hike through this isolated amphitheatre in Southern Utah.
Our group leader, Courtney, who patiently waits for us to catch up, explains that you rarely see a crowd at this magnificent park. I ask her why, dumbfounded at the prospect of missing the unique and otherworldly rock formations made of orange and white sandstone called hoodoos–translated from the Pueblo Indians to mean “cast a spell.” For the last 60 million years, erosion and changing temperatures have peeled off layers and carved out pinnacles and spires.
Courtney explains that the answer is found in the steep, sandy pathways threading between enormous rocks, the windswept fir trees, the scruffy vegetation and rivulets formed by ancient rivers now dry after centuries of climate changes.
“So why wouldn’t tourists come to see all that?”
“Because of the hiking. Most Americans don’t like to hike much. Did you notice that almost everyone we passed was European? She’s right. Almost every person we encountered on the miles of taxing hills and steep inclines was either speaking German or riding a mule.
Bryce is stunning from any position, but for the best views, you need to hike down into the canyon. There are shorter options, but I want to try the famous three-circuit hike; which requires stamina, an early rise, gallons of water and pile of trail mix. Already puffing at 8000 feet above sea level, we start at Sunrise Point descending below the rim 320 feet on the 1.8 mile Queens Garden Trail. Along the way, Courtney identifies memorable formations including the famed Queen Victoria—a rock that looks like the British ruler looking sideways.
Next, we continue on Peek A Boo Loop, 4.9 mile circuit, but this trail is more strenuous, estimated to take 3-4 hours. Passing under natural bridges of rock, we pause to relish the breezes blowing through the cool tunnels formed in the cliffs. Traveling up and down the winding paths like a roller coaster, we pass the Wall of Windows and the hulking rock nicknamed The Cathedral. There’s a lot of stepping over mule dung and stopping to watch the Manzanita, an aqua-colored kamikaze bird piloting its way between the hoodoos. Here the smell of juniper and sage penetrate a fierce clarity of altitude.
Onward, the sun is baking your shoulders and your face turns red with exertion. Dust puffs up around your feet; rocks tumble from your touch. The rock matter is delicate and fragile in many places, which explains how these formations were created.
These hoodoos remind me of dripping very wet sand at the beach slowly into a pile. It creates a misshapen tower with a rounded point. There’s no sign of water, but at some points, the ground has birthed a peculiar oasis where a hearty oak or a wide-trunked pine flourish in the desert sun. As I’m plodding along, I remind myself to relish the journey–stopping to gape at the colorful vistas and sandscapes.
Soon we’re laughing, because every time we think we’ve reached the top of Peek A Boo loop, the trail points downward again. “It’s a cruel joke someone played when they designed this trail,” insists the third member of the Three Amigos, Judi Hartnett. Judi is an intrepid traveler who’s signed up for three Backroads tours this summer—one with each of her daughters. Judi explains that she uses these trips to get into shape. Although capable of keeping up with the triathletes who’ve left us in their dust, Judi graciously joins the slower pace demanded by Jim who’s steadily snapping photos, and by me, who is vertically challenged.
I don’t have the lung power to move quickly through the scenery, but feel proud that I am putting one foot in front of the other after four exhausting hours. The beauty of this quiet world is inspiring, but what a relief to begin the final lap—the Navajo Loop Trail—1.3 miles that winds its way back up the rim through Wall Street. Courtney incredulously points out hikers starting out in flip flops and one bottle of water. She says she’s given up advising strangers on trails, “You have to let them discover their folly on their own.”
After conquering the longest, most difficult hike of my life, I drag myself back to Bryce’s alpine style lodge called Xanterra. The cabin has a gas stone fireplace, high-pointed roof with pine beams, rustic hickory furniture–perfect for relaxing after a day in the sun or desert chill. Dinner in the main lodge is followed by talks on stargazing and the history of the region. The food is bountiful with wild salmon at dinner and apple-filled crepes for breakfast.
The lodge has signs promoting the “leave no trace” mantra of all wilderness guides. Xanterra has taken many obvious steps to reduce their carbon footprint, with low-flushing toilets (one for number one and another for number two), request to reuse towels, buckets to recycle and no air conditioning. You don’t need it here anyway, because of the cool desert air.
Before the Mormons, ancestral Puebloans and Freemont Indians inhabited these lands around Bryce Canyon and called the hoodoos “the Legend People” whom their god Coyote had turned to stone. The Paiute Indians named Bryce “Red Rocks Standing Like Men in Bowl-Shaped Recess.” White explorers like Captain Lawrence Dutton and John Wesley Powell documented their 1870’s explorations here, naming the area the Pink Cliffs and Claron Formation.
In 1875, Scottish immigrant Ebenezer Bryce, a contemporary of Brigham Young and his Mormon pioneers, harvested timber nearby. Eventually neighbors called it “Bryce’s Canyon.” In 1923, US President Warren Harding named it Bryce Canyon National Monument. It was officially changed to a national park in 1928 by an act of Congress. Approximately 1.7 million people visit Bryce Canyon National Park each year and it’s open year round.