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Wandering the West

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of those national parks where too many people drive, get out at viewpoints, say, "Oh, wow," snap a few pictures, and leave.

It’s a small park by Utah National Park standards (just 56 square miles), and a lot of Utahns just go there the one time, do the windshield tourism thing, and leave never to return.

Southern Utah’s share of the Colorado Plateau is spectacular for its red-rock scenery, but in Bryce Canyon the red rocks are shaped like nowhere else. Bryce is not a canyon at all. It is a high plateau with its sides eroded in a series of amphitheater shapes. Each amphitheater is a crazy quilt of eroded rocks. There are slot canyons, sandstone fins, eroded "windows" through rock walls, and most spectacularly, thousands maybe millions of spindly rock spires called "hoodoos." All the shapes were formed by the actions of water, either through erosion, the freeze-and-thaw process, or the dissolving power of small creeks that form after gully-washing summer thunderstorms.

When Mormon pioneer settler Ebenezer Bryce rode in looking for strays, legend has it he cast his eyes on the hoodoo-covered amphitheaters and proclaimed, "Hell of a place to lose a cow." The area remained inaccessible to the general public until the 1920s when the railroad ran a line in to feed its now-landmark Bryce Canyon Lodge, and the 1930s when FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps recruits improved trails into roads.

The lodge is one of those grand, rustic national park hotels with rock-and-log architecture, but it’s closed in the winter, opening April 1 for the season. This time of year, smaller motels outside the park cater to guests. The granddaddy of private lodging is Ruby’s Inn near the park entrance.

The park has become a must-see stop for foreign tourists on the grand tour of southwestern national parks, and the small park can feel a bit overrun in the peak summer travel periods. One and a half million people come each year, and most of them come then. Very few are around this time of year, and Bryce under a coat of snow is really something to see. In the summer there’s almost too much red rock. Everything is a shade of red or pink as far as the eye can see. Go in winter and the snow blanket on the rocks softens everything.

Ruby’s is the center of winter activity. The simple log building of the 1920s has morphed into a big commercial complex that is its own legal Utah city, complete with a post office that stamps outgoing mail "Ruby’s Inn, Utah." You’ll find guided horseback trips all winter long from short jaunts to all-day-long hard rides through portions of the bordering Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There are cross-country ski trails set through rolling meadows and ponderosa-pine forests, and snowmobile trails, and you can snowshoe anywhere you want. Inside the park, rangers lead snowshoe hikes through forested trails with canyon overlooks. An 18-mile (one way) road is open through part of the park (weather permitting) for vehicle access.

Each winter over President’s Day, Ruby’s hosts the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival, with cross-country ski races, demonstrations, snowshoe tours, and free clinics on several winter sports as well as photography.

In my book, a winter trip is worth it just for the chance to stand alone, or nearly so, at an overlook and look out a hundred miles and see absolutely no hand of man. When you stand on the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau of Bryce looking east, there is not a single sign of civilization as far as you can see. And scientists have declared the air here the clearest, most unpolluted in the United States. That literally makes the view a hundred miles plus, and at night the stars are unbelievable. One of the Bryce Web sites says the average rural sky has 2,500 visible stars but the air is so crisp and clear at Bryce that you can see 7,500 of them. I haven’t counted them, but there are amazing night skies up on the canyon rim.

I once stood on the rim with a coal-mine developer who envisioned a strip mine four miles out into the eastern "view shed." He argued that America was desperate for coal energy, and that visitors would enjoy seeing some mining activity in the view since "there’s nothing out there." He lost. The mine wasn’t approved. But he was right. There is nothing out there nothing but a million hoodoos and 7,500 stars.

THE VITALS:

Park City to Bryce Canyon: 271 miles

Web sites: http://www.nps.gov/brca http://www.rubysinn.com/winter

Insider tip: This is southern Utah, but there’s nothing "southern" about the temperatures. It’s subfreezing most days at this altitude through the winter months. Dress in warm layers.


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