Select images courtesy of Luke Daniel Photo
Our first day of hiking in Bryce National Park was a butt-kicker, so we’re taking it a bit easier on day two. After stopping for breakfast in a diner that’s housed in a doublewide, we get to the park well after the main lots are full. This only slightly alters our plans for the day, which include driving from the southernmost to the northernmost points of the park (the reverse pattern of typical park traffic), then take an easy three-mile stroll along the Queen’s Garden Loop Trail.
Driving through the park is a unique experience unto itself. Flanked between the Dixie National Forest and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the landscape shifts from the spires of the amphitheater to intermittent prairie and woodland. Every once in a while, we’ll catch small breaks in the trees and see that we’re actually driving on a spine of land high above the ground with tall rock faces visible in the far distance.
Park road 63 ends at Rainbow Point – the parking lot for the Bristlecone Pine and Riggs Spring loop trails, as well as the ambitious Under-the-Rim Trail. We go with the one-mile Bristlecone Loop in hopes of getting to see a few of its namesake dinosaurs.
The trail meanders through protected forest, then skirts the edge of rocky cliffs. The ground falls away very suddenly and very steeply into ripples of vibrantly colored rock and sand. The wind whips up the side of the cliff with alarming ferocity, threatening to pull those whom dare to get too close over the edge.
Here, at the highest point in the park, a grove of Bristlecone Pines choose to live where few other plants dare. Some are up to 1,800 years old and are still sporting their distinctive fox tails. Others appear to be clinging to their last breath with bare, twisted bones that reach out arthritically over the majestic valley below.
All around are rippled rock walls painted in a gradient that changes from white, to yellow, to orange, to deep red. They are beautiful and their scale is humbling. It brings me back to that whole, “tiny person in a giant world,” thing.
The crowds are starting to arrive in this end of the park, so we get in the car and head north, passing a steady stream of traffic driving in the opposite direction (always a good sign). We make a few stops at pullouts along the way. One includes scrambling to the top of a large hill so we can see the full length of Bryce Canyon. Getting to see the backcountry in addition to the amphitheater offers two totally different perspectives on the park.
Before we leave Bryce for Kanab, we want one more hike with the hoodoos. We manage to snag a parking spot at the Bryce Canyon Lodge and hike about a half-mile over to Sunset Point to pick up the Queens Garden Trail via the Navajo. We didn’t realize we could have saved ourselves some hassle by dropping in at Sunrise Point, which is the gentlest descent into the amphitheater and a straight shot to our trail. Like the Bristlecone Pines, we, too are gluttons for punishment.
Regardless, the trail is easy going, the day is warm and the sky is navy blue. The sun reflects off the orange rock, casting this amazing glow all around us. In Luke’s words, “You can’t buy this kind of light,” and we stop often to take pictures. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow we go today. The loop is short and we’ve got the rest of the afternoon to explore.
The Queen’s Garden is one of the most popular trails in the park, but it manages to rarely feel crowded. As we near the trail’s namesake – a rock that resembles a statue of Queen Victoria – the hoodoos get funkier and more colorful.
I get the sense this is where the inspiration for Lava Lamps was born.