Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Fairyland Loop - Bryce Canyon

The Colorado Plateau and Utah in particular contain some of the most colorful and varied geology found anywhere in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than Bryce Canyon National Park, where Nature displays a gallery of work that surpasses the sublime and ventures into the fantastical.

With this post I will attempt the nearly impossible - that is to say I'll try to showcase in pictures some of what awaits those willing to explore Bryce Canyon beyond the overlooks. I know full well that I will fall short, for mere words and images can only offer a tantalizing glimpse, like looking through the window of an aircraft flying 30,000 feet above the ground. To really appreciate and understand Bryce Canyon, you have go see it for yourself.

First let's set the stage. Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all, but rather a series of amphitheaters carved into the eastern aspect of the Paunsagunt Plateau. Rising over 9000 feet above sea level, the plateau is forested with mixed conifers at the upper elevations, Ponderosa Pine in the transition zones, and a pygmy forest of pinon and juniper at the base nearly 2000 feet down. A cold winter climate with repeated freeze/thaw cycles is the master architect of much of the fascinating geography, unlike true canyons where rivers and streams shape the earth.

The geology on display here exhibits some of the youngest rock seen in the Grand Staircase, of which Bryce Canyon (incised in the Pink Cliffs) is the highest "step". Like many Colorado Plateau features, the Paunsagunt Plateau is the result of massive region-wide uplift about 16 millions years ago. This uplift resulted in vertical fractures which are subject to preferential erosion - basically softer rocks from the pink Claron formation erode easily into pinnacles and towers known as "hoodoos", while harder rocks in the White Cliffs form monoliths or blocks.

The end result is an astonishing wonderland of hoodoos, spires, and fins ranging in color from pink to cream, reddish orange to brown, and a variety of subtle gradations in between. Nearly 2 million people per year visit the Park, mostly in summer. Many never venture from the Rim trail or the established overlooks, content to view the spectacle from above, which in truth is pretty amazing.

But like many of the West's geological wonders, the real magic begins when you place yourself amongst the giants. Standing beneath majestic rock formations that not only tower above but around you provides the necessary humility and perspective to appreciate intricately wrought features, and to better grasp the scale of what is typically seen from above.

There are several trails that drop off the plateau and into the labyrinth below. Most of these feature significant elevation gains/losses, although none are overly steep, The paths are wide and smooth, almost absurdly so, but there is plenty of evidence of sudden and severe erosion from heavy rain, and mudslides and rockfalls are a common occurrence. For this introduction to the secret world of Bryce Canyon, a good place to start is the Fairyland Loop Trail.

At 8 miles round-trip and a net vertical change over 2300 feet, the Fairyland Loop trail is rated as strenuous, although as stated above the grade is generally moderate overall. There is a great deal of up and down as the trail winds through, around, and over the sharply eroded flanks of the plateau. Much of the trail exists under wide open sky, and in high summer temperatures could be a factor. There are widely scattered islands of Ponderosa that provide some relief from the midday sun, but in general expect lots of exposure - sunscreen and a wide brim hat are strongly recommended. This is also a place to avoid during lightning storms, as little to no cover exists, and at many times the hiker is among the tallest objects on the horizon.

As a loop, the Fairyland trail can be done in either direction, or if you have a car shuttle the hike can be shortened to 5.5 miles by eliminating the section that travels the rim. Starting points are located either near the Sunrise Point overlook or the Fairyland Point overlook. In this case, I began the journey near Sunrise Point, as it is in close proximity to North Campground where I spent the night.

The trail heads down and eastward. descending at a shallow angle and winding through a forested section near the top. Soon enough trees give way to open sky and unobscured views of the scenery ahead.

It's hard to exaggerate the delight and wonder I felt with each encounter of a new formation. Every twist and turn in the trail leads to a vista that inspires a sudden stop to marvel and admire what has been created here.

One of the first notable features on display is called China Wall. I'm not sure if the name is a reference to the immense man-made barrier in Asia, or if instead it recalls how the rock resembles the seemingly translucent appearance of fine porcelain in early morning light. Either way this fin is a great example of erosional progression at work. This slender wall of stone will evolve into a line of hoodoos as the hydraulic action of freezing water works its way into joints between the rock, chiseling away the bonds that connect the structure together.

Continuing beyond the Wall, the trail hugs the base of isolated fins, winding in and out between stone curtains. It's a good thing the trail is wide and relatively smooth, as I spent much of the time craning my neck upwards and swiveling my head from side to side in an effort to take in the spectacle all around me.

A quick descent leads to the floor of Campbell Canyon, where the dark greens of pine and manzanita provide a nice contrast to pinks and reds of the ravine. A junction appears after a short course along the wash bottom, with a 1/4 mile trail leading to a view of the next feature, the Tower Bridge.

This name of this landmark is derived from similarities to the iconic London structure, with a high trestle spanning the twin spires of the bridge.

Returning to the main trail, the path begins a long, gradual climb back towards the north. Looking back affords a different perspective on the Tower Bridge.

This section marks a lengthy traverse of a ridgeline dominated by spires, fins, and hoodoos. Excellent views out and across the surrounding country are constantly revealed as the trail weaves and bobs its way through gullies and over ridges.

There are not enough superlatives in the English language to properly describe the impressions I received walking amongst the splendor. There were many moments when I wished I could simply linger indefinitely in the presence of such sublime beauty.

I'm no stranger to the geological marvels found throughout the region, and I often find myself dumbstruck by amazing displays of natural wonder. But the exposition of erosion in form and color found in Bryce is on an altogether higher plane, as the landscape is at once both intimate and overpowering on a scale found nowhere else.

In the not-so-distant age of film photography, hiking this trail would have cost me a small fortune, with hundreds of pictures to develop. Fortunately the advent of digital cameras has allowed anyone to become a prolific shooter, and I am no exception. Here are a sampling of the many images I took while visiting this incredible place.

Walking through Fairyland Canyon in the second half of the hike continues to intensify the appreciation I feel for being able to experience this utterly unique environment. Unfortunately the trail begins to make a gradual ascent, leading inexorably to the rim. Climbing up the perspective once again shifts, and I am no longer a pygmy dwarfed by my surroundings. At first I am eye level with the hoodoos and fins, then finally I am once again able to survey all that unfolds beneath me.

At the rim, I still have 2.5 miles to return to the starting point. Fortunately there is plenty to see, as the trail stays near the edge offering panoramic views out over the amphitheaters.

I arrive at the end of the trail with hot feet and a head full of images that leave me feeling supremely satisfied. Like Everett Ruess, I have been a vagabond for beauty much of my adult life, and I would happily spend the rest of my days lost amid the canyons and mountains of the southwest as he did in his short life. He once wrote: "Here I wander in beauty and perfection". After this day I know just how he felt.

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