Bryce Canyon is a group of 14 magnificent amphitheaters on the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. These amphitheaters are adorned by numerous columns, walls, windows, arches, caves, and bridges of different shapes and sizes. The whole canyon is a museum of architecture and sculpture in open air, where every masterpiece has been created by the great artist-nature.
Some columns are called hoodoos because of their distinctive bulbous shape. Some of the columns stand in rows, others are simply grouped together, and some stand alone. The process of creating all of these whimsical figures, spires, temples, and statues is always in progress because of weathering and erosion.
Numerous limestone walls, standing in rows in the amphitheaters are called fins. Snow and rain seep into the cracks in the walls. Then, when the temperature drops below freezing, water in the cracks freezes and expands, making the cracks wider and deeper. This process is called frost-wedging. Eventually, holes, called windows appear in the walls. When windows grow in size due to erosion and weathering, the tops of the windows collapse and new columns called hoodoos emerge.
The colors of these sedimentary rock formations vary from red to terracotta, purple, yellow, and beige with lots of tints in between. The sun casts a golden hue over the rocks, which makes the scenery play with a vibrant and ever changing pallet. The different colors of these sedimentary rocks depend on the chemical elements in them, such as hematite, limonite, and pyrolusite.
The origin of the canyon began about 90 million years ago. At that time, there was an inland sea that divided the continent from east to west. The oldest rocks in Bryce Canyon were formed from the sediment deposited on the bottom of this inland sea. Later, about 60 million years ago, large lakes replaced the inland sea and sediment was deposited. Eventually, the layer of the sediment reached 2,000 feet and, under pressure, turned into sedimentary rock. About 13 million years ago the tectonic plates moved and the crust of the Earth was pushed up to a height of several thousand feet. As a result, the Colorado plateau was formed. The area of the plateau is about 130,000 square miles. The sedimentary rock that was at the bottom of the inland sea cracked along the fault lines and formed seven major tables. One of them was the Paunsaugunt Plateau, where Bryce Canyon is located.
The name Paunsaugunt in Pauite’s language means “the home of the beaver.” Artifacts were discovered proving that Bryce Canyon was inhabited by the Basket Makers, or Anasazi people, as the earliest dwellers of the area. After 1000 A.D. Pueblo Indians moved in the area. Paiute Indians, seminomadic, peaceful hunters and gatherers inhabited Bryce Canyon after 1200 A.D. Different artifacts, such as Pauite arrowheads and obsidian tools were found in the canyon.
There is a Pauite’s legend about the first inhabitants of the canyon. The Pauites called these people the Legend People. They were not real humans, but they were different kinds of animals, birds and reptiles, which had the ability to turn themselves into humans. These people committed some bad deeds. Either they stole something or killed somebody so that the trickster Coyote turned them into rocks. Now they stand in the canyon with paint on their faces. The Paiute name of the Bryce Canyon is Angla-ku-wass-a-wits, which means “red painted faces.”
Bryce Canyon got its name after the Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who settled with his family in the area in 1875. He, with the help of other settlers built a 7 miles long irrigational ditch, which provided settlers with water for raising crops and livestock. Bryce also built a road for gathering firewood and logs. This road ended on the rim of the amphitheater. Consequently, people began to call it Bryce’s Canyon. However, the local climate was too harsh for his wife and the family moved to Arizona in 1880.
Forest Service Supervisor J.W. Humphrey was transferred from Moab to Panguitch in 1915 and was fascinated by the beauty and grandeur of Bryce Canyon. He wrote of the canyon the following.
“You can perhaps imagine my surprise at the indescribable beauty that greeted us, and it was sundown before I could be dragged from the canyon view. You may be sure that I went back the next morning to see the canyon once more, and to plan in my mind how this attraction could be made accessible to the public.”
With Humphrey’s tireless support and efforts movies were shot, photos and articles were published, promoting this natural wonder. There was a lack of good roads due to the canyon’s remote location. Humphrey managed to secure money for building bridges and roads for easy access to the canyon.
In 1917 Bryce Canyon was opened to the public. Later the Union Pacific Railroad became interested in the canyon as a tourist attraction and built a railroad to provide easy access to the amphitheater. In 1923 Bryce Canyon was declared a National Monument by President Warren G. Harding. But there were concerns about preserving the natural environment of the canyon. Thanks to the recommendation of conservationist Stephen Mather, Bryce Canyon was declared a National Park in 1928 and was included in National Park System.
There are lots of spectacular trails and vistas, such as Sunrise Point and Sunset Point to see and enjoy the view from the rim of the Canyon. There are also numerous hiking trails to experience this natural wonder by going down to the bottom of the canyon.