Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bryce Canyon NP (Days 54-60)

Written 5/30/08

A regional storm system had moved into the area, and it looked like it planned on staying. From on top of the ridge above Willis Creek, we could see a massively sporatic system of storms hitting everywhere around us. The cliffs of Bryce disappeared behind a spotty curtain of sleet and rain, and Powell Point to the north glimmered with a fresh layer of fallen snow.

We followed a dirt road up the drainage of Willis Creek, and passed through a private inholding of land within the monument that had a conservation easement placed on it. Green grazing fields sat between sloped hills of the Grey Cliffs, a very secluded and pastoral ranch setting. On the other side of the property, we intersected the boundary line of the Dixie National Forest, a narrow strip of Forest Service land buffering the park. We walked through open stands of stately Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir, Oregon grape and manzanita. Hiking was easy on thickly padded mats of fallen needles. We scared off a mother turkey and a dozen of young turkey chicks. They scattered in all directions, hiding beneath bushes and cheeping like crazy.

Rainbow Point
Snow flurries passed through all afternoon as we hiked through the pine forest. We soon crossed over into Bryce Canyon NP, the fourth park of the trip. The silence was broken by the familiar whop-whop-whop of low flying helicopters. Every half-hour, we were buzzed by a dozen sight-seeing choppers flying along the rim of the canyon. We were shocked that they were allowed to fly so low and often into the reaches of a national park. While helicopters don't have the same destructive impact of ORVs, they sure impacted the serenity and seclusion of the canyon for miles around. We realized later that the helicopters were nearly inaudible from the paved roadway and highly frequented pullouts. But from a backcountry perspective, they were an offensive and gaudy intrusion of industrial tourism where the impacts of the steel-bound world should not tread.

We intersected the well-marked Under-the-Rim Trail that ran the length of the park. The trail climbed up into mixed stands of Ponderosa, White Fir, and Douglas Fir, while Oregon grape and mountain mahogany lined the ground. We climbed the Agua Canyon connector trail up the ridge, climbing over fallen trees, low-lying snowbanks, and up crumbly switchbacks through the Pink Cliffs, to the Ponderosa Canyon Overlook on the park highway. It was a bit surreal to be frontcountry again. I hadn't seen pavement since Highway 95 at Poison Spring, and had been deep in the backcountry for 6 weeks. We were looking pretty dirty and grimy compared to the immaculate park visitors.

Jeremy Cohen joins us on trail
We hitched a ride to the Sunset campground, where we met our good friend Jeremy Cohen, and his buddies Alex and Josh. The three of them were riding high off an action-packed week in Vegas and were stoked to visit us on the trail. Ben and I were dying for a hot meal, showers and laundry - all the amenities of the developed park concessions. It was completely disorienting being packed in crowds of people after a month-and-a-half of utter solitude. I stumbled through the menu at Ruby's Inn with complete tunnel vision, and ordered overpriced but delicious vegetables. Everything was an overwhelming sensory overload, and we couldn't get out fast enough.

In the morning, we woke to a landscape of snow covering everything. We were glad to temporarily be off the trail in this weather. Ben and I spent the morning running errands, and getting supplies at the General Store, while the guys slept in. We checked out the Bryce Ampitheater and its famous pink hoodoo formations for which the park is known. I could see why early cattlemen referred to Bryce as "a hell of a place to lose a cow."

We met back up with the guys and headed back out to the trailhead. Jeremy was planning on joining us for a few miles of the Hayduke Trail, and we made plans to meet up with his buddies at Rainbow Point the next day. The three of us headed back down the Agua Canyon trail and linked back up with the HDT. The afternoon was magnificent and sunny with great views below the rim. It was hard to believe that we woke to a blizzard. The trail dropped down into a forested basin, where we camped near Iron Spring. The rust-colored water was potable, but tasted very metallic. The spring was surrounded by a dense grove of leafy aspens and mahogany bushes. From above, the electric green canopy seemed out of place in the sprawling cove of pines and fir.

Snowfall in Bryce
The trail followed the base of the cliffs, offering unobstructed views to the rim above. The spires seemed to glow a spectrum of a thousand shades of pink. We looked up vertical eroded gullies and spotted several weathered arches - all inaccessible to exploration. Climbing the hogsback of the ridge, another blizzard descended upon us dropping a thick veil of falling flakes. The entire canyon vanished into the ether. Brief windows in the weather would open up, revealing the splendors of the canyon walls. By the time we reached Rainbow Point 9115 ft, the rim was fogged in and blowing snow. Tourists looked at us strangely as we apparated off the trail clad in shorts in freezing weather. Luckily, there was a shelter at the observation point where we hunkered down for lunch. Alex and Josh were waiting for us at the parking lot and were gracious enough to bring us some leftover steak and a bag of salad, which we promptly devoured. The beauty of trail magic. The storm began to break up revealing each point northward along the rim in succession, until you could see the entire winding ridge of the escarpment. The sun came out and burned off the clouds, illuminating the freshly cleansed world at our feet.

The guys needed to get going, and were going to stop in Zion on their way back to Vegas. It was great having some company on the trail for a while. We thanked them for their gifts - Jeremy had brought me a new pair of insoles - and they were on their way. On our way out, Ben and I stopped at Yovimpa Point where we had extraordinary views to the south where the trail was headed: Bullrush Gorge, Park Wash, Vermillion Cliffs, and the Kaibab Plateau. To the east, were the Cockscomb, Rock Springs Point, the Kaiparowits Plateau, 50-mile Mountain, Navajo Mountain, and beyond Canaan Peak, the distant Mt. Ellen - 90 miles by direct line of sight. It had taken me 5 weeks to get from the Henrys to Bryce, albeit via a very indirect route.
We left the droves of sight-seeing tourists and rejoined the trail. Along the rim, we walked through stands of limber pine and the grotesquely gnarled bristlecone pines. Bristlecone trees can withstand incredibly inhospitable environments, surviving drought, fire, and wind for thousands of years. The trail dropped down into a deep ampitheater, where we camped in a park-like grove of Ponderosa near the piped and fenced off Riggs Spring. The temperature plummeted over night, and while we lucked out on snow, our Nalgenes froze completely solid. Brrr!

Up-canyon to Bryce
We followed a dirt road out of the park, and continued on down Podunk Creek, and over a low saddle in the Grey Cliffs into Bullrush Hollow. The drainage cut down through the top of the Navajo formation into Bullrush Gorge. Flowing spring water made the going difficult, making thick with mud that stuck like wet cement to the soles of our boots. Hundreds of trees grew out of the slickrock like matchsticks, covering the walls with greenery. The canyon opened up into Park Wash, where we found ourselves at the foot of the White Cliffs. We made a short trip and climbed up a steep goat trail to the top of No Man's Mesa, one of the few inaccessable tracts of rimtop left ungrazed by livestock. Ben set off two midget faded rattlesnakes that were hiding beneath a ledge, and jumped nearly two feet when they started rattling. The mesatop had incredible views of the surrounding area and back up to the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon.

We continued on down sandy Park Wash as it cut its way south back through the formations of the Staircase. Further on, we climbed a low lying ridge and were astonished at what we found. Scores of potsherds littered the ground everywhere, of all shapes and sizes, from the size of a fingernail to an entire palm. Broken mug handles, smoothed edges of a bowl, the curved neck of a pot or vase. The fragments we found came from nearly a dozen different styles. Once on top, we realized we were only combing through the base of a massive trash heap. We found the remains of an entire settlement that had once covered the whole knoll. A whole community of people once thrived here. The canyon was abundant with springs, and the fertile valley bottoms would have been great places to grow crops. The site was perfectly situated along an easily traveled corridor between the different trading regions, and could have been a hub of commerce for miles around. Unfortunately, the site had been heavily looted, indicated by deep holes dug all over the ground. Pothunters had dug up rooms and left the masonry piled in heaps as they searched for valuables. At one point, this site must have yielded some incredible artifacts.

We followed a well-graded road past the still operational Kitchen Corral and Burch Ranches. As we were hiking, a local rancher and his son stopped to talk to us. He turned out to be Mr. Johnson of the historic Johnson clan, and ran the local ranches in the canyon. Their family were some of the original settlers in the region, and had been ranching out here "since forever." Along the Paria drainages, we had seen several cowboy etchings made by distant Johnson family members. They were interested in where we were hiking to and offered us a ride to the highway, but we politely declined. The Johnsons wished us luck on our trip and we parted ways.

We made it to Highway 89 and the race of bustling traffic going by. At the junction, there were several official signs warning tourists that despite what their GPS units might indicate, this road was NOT the best way to Bryce, and was an almost impassible 4WD route. Enough visitors must get lost or stuck to prompt the BLM to put up signs like that. During a short break, we saw two vehicles drive up, read the sign, turn around, and get back on the highway towards Kanab. I've heard stories of semi-trucks following their GPS units down Cottonwood Road, another rough road, to cut through the monument, only to get stuck in mudholes. The fallacy of technological innovation.

We dodged traffic and crossed the highway into the head of Kaibab Gulch. The canyon cut down into the blocky pale Kaibab Limestone. Upon close inspection, the rock was filled with well-preserved fossils dating back to the Permian Era. The ledges were composed of layer upon layer of crushed seashells. I found fossilized remains of tubeworms, corals, scallops, and clams. It was a literal cross-section into the bed of an ancient seafloor. Some incredible stuff.

The gorge cut right through the heart of Buckskin Mountain. We found a peculiar number of cattle bones in the wash, possibly from unlucky cows caught unaware by flash floods. Overhead, the massive powerlines running from Glen Canyon Dam spanned the chasm, carrying the collective fruits of hydroelectric power to God-knows where. The formations began began sinking underground as we neared the uplift of the Cockscomb. The Kaibab limestone disappeared as we reentered the Moenkopi beds and exposed Shinarump member of House Rock Valley road. Looking back over the low ridge of Buckskin Mountain, we could see the progression of transformers and cables marching across the forested plateau.

The wash turned into Buckskin Gulch as we cut back through the angled rise of the Chinle, Kayenta, and deeply layered Navajo formations. We walked through rusty orange colored fins broken by vertical parallel cracks. The sandstone took on a number of different shapes and forms: swirled teepees, hexagonal-cracked domes, slanted tables and arches. Sacred datura flowers grew among mounded coral dunes. The drainage tightened up into a narrow slot cutting its way through the stone. The afternoon light refracted off the canyon walls in an amazing array of subtle colors.

Wire Pass
Further down the slot, I heard a strange noise like an electrical hum hovering above me. Looking up, I saw a dense cloud of swarming bees, madly assembled in the upper reaches of the canyon. The swarm buzzed from wall to wall, pulsing as if alive. A bird flying through the narrows saw the mass of bees and immediately turned back the way it came. It was strangely frightening, since there was no where to run if they decided to follow. But I was intrigued by the beauty and eerieness of the experience.

We left Buckskin at the junction with Wire Pass, an easily accessible drainage with the main canyon. We encountered a number of day hikers who were out exploring the narrows, and followed the route out to the trailhead just off the stateline. Digging up the caches, we refilled our packs and readied to leave Utah for the hotter climes of Arizona.
Section mileage: ~69 miles

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