August 22, 2012

How Bryce Canyon Was Formed

Every year, 1.5 million people are drawn to the unique landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park in Southern Utah. Ironically, though, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all but, instead, a series of amphitheaters carved into the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Through a process known as frost-wedging, the plateau’s limestone breaks down, first into thin walls or fins, then into arches and finally into perpetually deteriorating geological formations called hoodoos.

Hoodoos are the tall, skinny rock spires that the 56.2-square mile park is known for. Rising from the floor below, they range in size from that of an average person to as high as a 10-story building.  Although you can find them throughout the world, hoodoos are most prominent in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains. Nowhere in the world, however, are they more prevalent than in Bryce Canyon.

This is due, in part, to the region’s climate. Bryce Canyon gets approximately 200 days per year where the temperature rises above freezing only to dip back below freezing at night. Melt water seeps into fractures during the day, then freezes at night, expanding by nearly 10 percent. The ice exerts tremendous force (2,000 to 20,000 pounds per square inch) on the rock and pries it apart. Additionally, naturally acidic rain water dissolves the limestone, rounding off its edges and washing away debris.

As a result, plateau fins develop. Windows or arches form in these wedges along the fin’s cracks and weak sports. Further erosion causes the arch to expand to a point where it breaks into individual hoodoos, which erode at a rate of 2 to 4 feet every 100 years. The Bryce Canyon we know will not always exist.

While it is beautiful, the region is not the most hospitable. Humans have inhabited Bryce Canyon, beginning with the Paleo Indians that hunted huge mammals here, for at least 10,000 years, but most just passed through; the winters were too harsh for year-round habitation. Ancestral puebloans hunted game in the high elevation meadows and ponderosa pine, fir, and spruce forests that border the rim.

Paiutes began to frequent the area around 1200 A.D. to harvest pine nuts and hunt rabbits. They believed the hoodoos were Legend People that had been turned to rocks as a punishment by Coyote.

Mormons, including Ebenezer Bryce and his family, arrived in the 1870s. Finding the valley below the plateau too dry to farm, they dug irrigation ditches through the forest and rocky cliffs to what would eventually become the town of Tropic. It was while Bryce helped complete the 7-mile irrigation ditch from Paria Creek that people began calling the area Bryce Canyon, a name that stuck even though Bryce moved to Arizona in 1880. As an interesting side note, though, Bryce allegedly described his canyon as a “hell of a place to lose a cow.”

Bryce Canyon today can be explored by a 37-mile roundtrip scenic drive along the rim. The National Park Service encourages visitors to park their vehicle outside the park and ride shuttles to the various stops. If you want to get a different perspective, hike into the canyon along trails that weave through the maze of hoodoos. Or, take a guided horseback ride.

Image Credit: kojihirano / Shutterstock

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