Friday, November 18, 2011

Hiking fantasyland in Utah's Bryce Canyon

Navajo Loop and Queens Garden trails.
Photo courtesy Bryce Canyon NPS.

Scenic 2.2-mile loop heads
through hoodoo wonderland

Fairyland really does exist – it’s smack dab in southcentral in Utah, where a maze of totem pole-like rock formations called hoodoos grace Bryce Canyon National Park.

Hoodoos are unusual landforms in which a hard caprock slows the erosion of the softer mineral beneath it. The result is a variety of fantastical shapes. Children will delight in the chimerical scenery encircling Bryce Canyon’s Queens Garden.

Because of the Queens Garden’s high altitude – some 8000 feet elevation – May to September marks the best time to visit. In the winter, expect snow, which can arrive in early fall and last through late spring. Regardless of the season, you’ll need sunscreen, water, and probably a brimmed hat as the trail is fully exposed to the sun.

You can reach the Queens Garden by taking Utah Hwy. 63 into Bryce Canyon. Park at the nature center and general store north of the Lodge. The trailhead is southeast of the nature center heading toward Sunrise Point.

Queen Victoria
To ensure you see the most fanciful and dramatic scenery that Bryce Canyon offers, we’ll combine a couple of trails for a 2.2-mile scenic loop through the hoodoos. Be forewarned: As Queens Garden probably is the park’s most popular trail, don’t expect a quiet escape into the wilderness.

Though Queens Garden is the easiest of the park’s trails, it still is moderately difficult to traverse. The surface is a wide and sandy.

Begin by following the Rim Trail south, turning onto the intersecting Queens Garden Trail, which is marked with a sign. From there, you’ll make a steep descent into a fantasyland of hoodoos. If you hike it during the early morning, sunrise’s orange glow magically lights the trail’s contours.

You’ll soon arrive at the Queen’s Garden, an impressive forest of hoodoos that fires the imagination. These hoodoos consist of sandstone that was compressed then twisted as the earth’s plates shifted. When cracks formed in the sandstone, the combined power of water, ice and wind eroded away the edges, leaving these spires.

Following the garden is the Queen Victoria Hoodoo. It does indeed look like the 19th century monarch – the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts – sitting atop her throne.

The trail also crosses several man-made bridges and includes small tunnels cut through large hoodoos.

Thor's Hammer
Rocks aren't the only scenery to watch for. Ground squirrels, bobcats, ringtail cats, foxes, hawks and golden eagle also can be spotted. You may be lucky enough to see a Utah prairie dog peeking at you. The California condor and peregrine falcons also live here but are rare sights.

At the Navajo Loop Trail intersection, take it to the left so that you head west. The section passing Thor’s Hammer was closed due to a rock slides, as of this writing. Indeed, whenever at Bryce Canyon, be mindful of loose rocks that can roll onto the trail from cliffs above you.

The trail back up to the rim is a steady climb but offers great views of the hoodoo forest falling beneath you.

On the rim, you’ll walk beneath the Sunset Point viewing area. You can clamber up to it for some fantastic views of where you just walked. In the distance is the Aquarius Plateau, North America’s highest plateau, and The Sinking Ship rock formation.

From there, head back to the lodge and then the nature center where you parked.

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.