BRYCE CANYON WATER WORLD: Hoodoos, tropical storms, E. coli and flash floods
As we near the end of the first leg of our journey to all 59 National Parks, we’ve realized that all the parks in Utah and Arizona have one thing in common – water. It’s what turns the layers of rock dumped into this area into incredible unique formations. Nowhere have we found this more true than in the water-sculpted, otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. However, beyond forming the crazy rock spires that are the center of the park, water played a role in our visit in a much more direct and unexpected way.
First, for our entire first day at Bryce it was raining. A tropical storm from the Pacific was moving inland and dumping tons of WATER all over Utah. The streak of good weather we enjoyed through our first 6 parks had just ended. What we didn’t expect coming down in elevation from Great Basin and re entering the red rocks and desert-like landscape of Utah was the biting cold. It never got above 70 during the day and dropped below 40 every night. So that first day we dug out our layers sooner than we wanted and waited out the rain since we had 4 more days scheduled at the park. We busied ourselves with the Visitors Center, museum, ranger programs and setting up camp. The rangers said the rain might continue for our entire second day, but luckily it only drizzled through the morning and we finally got to explore the hoodoos!
Speaking of hoodoos… We learned all about how these little devils are formed in 3 of the 4 ranger programs and the numerous exhibits we read. So I better be able to explain it by now! And I also think it’s pretty cool, so I’m going to share (but if you think cool stuff is boring, you can skip to the next part :P).
Basically it happens like this…
- Rock layers are deposited over millions of years. The area around Bryce Canyon used to be the fluctuating coastline of prehistoric sea and later was covered by a huge lake. This laid down sediments for plenty of layers like sandstone and limestone (made of dead sea creatures).
- About 20 million years ago, a huge area of UT, AZ and CO were lifted 7-10K feet to create the Colorado Plateau. The plateau broke in 7 different places and is eroded deeper as you go south, so it creates what is called the Grand Staircase. And Bryce Canyon sits on the higher northern edge with a max elevation of over 9K feet. One factoid I found particularly cool is that the oldest rocks showing at Bryce Canyon are the newest rock at Zion and the oldest rocks at Zion are the newest rocks at at Grand Canyon.
- WATER erodes the rock layers. Most of the erosion occurs when snow falls, it melts during the day and water seeps into rock cracks, it freezes and expands (around 7%) to enlarge the cracks, then heavy rains in the monsoon season of spring and summer come to wash away the loosened rock. Because of Bryce Canyon’s perfect elevation it gets over 200 freeze-thaw cycles a year. So the rock starts as the plateau edge, is eroded into rock find that stick out as lines coming out of the plateau, weak rock in the middle of the fins is eroded until it creates “windows” and the windows are enlarged until it separates the rock into rows of individual columns called hoodoos!
Based on different methods like measuring the exposure of tree roots, it’s estimated that the plateau is eroding at 1-4 feet per 100 years.
Fun Fact: Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon at all because it has no water flowing through it. Instead, it is an amphitheater. Or as the ranger eloquently put it, an erosion retreating plateau margin… or something like that.
During the second half of our visit, our problem turned from too much WATER to too little. The story starts at the Visitors Center where we picked up our backcountry permit to hike the 33-mile Under the Rim plus Riggs Spring Trails. Because the backcountry trails at Bryce are less frequented (<1% of the 1.5 million Bryce visitors hike either trail) and more primitive (without the facilities we enjoyed on our rim-to-rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon), we knew we had to bring our water filter and ask the ranger what sources were flowing. Two different rangers we talked with said the Iron Springs at our first campsite 13-miles in would have water.
Fast forward to the next day when we get into camp. We pass the tent of the only other people we have seen on the trail as we go to fill our bottles and what do they tell us?… A ranger told them Iron Springs has been compromised by E. Coli from loose cows stomping not around and pooping in it. Bummer! No worries, they say. There’s a beautiful flowing stream that you’ll cross tomorrow about an hour in (they came from the opposite direction).
So we decide we can last until then and set to cooking dinner. On the menu was a choice of Rice Side and tuna or Ramen with sausage and dehydrated carrots. Now, someone had been craving Ramen all day and someone was afraid that meal would use up too much water. The Ramen advocate won out, the meal used up half the water we had left and the person immediately regretted winning (I won’t say who it was so I don’t embarrass her). Still if we get to the stream up ahead it’ll hopefully be water under the bridge.
The next day we hit the trail and are making good progress into our lengthy 14-mile day when we come across a spot exactly like our the people described… except it was definitely not beautiful and it definitely didn’t have water. Maybe it’s up a bit further we think. Six miles later and we stop for lunch still stream-less and just finishing the last of our water which we had planned to replenish yesterday. By some stroke of providence we had found a water bottle along the trail earlier, so the 6 oz. left in there was our last resort.
Luckily we never had to use it because right after lunch we ran across a healthy creek with no signs of cows. We were never extremely concerned because we knew where we could find water down the trail in an emergency, but I can’t say the episode didn’t give me some anxiety.
Finally, as most of us have probably heard over the past week, a lot of WATER in a short amount of time can cause some treacherous flash floods. We were very fortunate the tropical storm didn’t cause any serious flash floods in Bryce that we know of (maybe a few gulley-washers). But Zion wasn’t so lucky. Our hearts go out to the seven victims who died when the flash flood roared through Zion’s Keyhole Canyon. The scary personal perspective on this tragedy is not only that we were at Zion less than a week before the floods, but also that I had clipped out an article about canyon eerie in Keyhole Canyon to consider it for our itinerary. We opted not to do it because the technical skills required were beyond our comfort level, but even with the necessary skills any excursion can turn south fast. It’s a reminder that out here, Mother Nature is boss and we must always respect that.