Hoodoo Time: Exploring Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks

September 2015

After the stunning landscapes and natural formations of Arches National Park we headed south to Bryce and Zion. On route, a flying visit to Capitol Reef National Park.

Capitol Reef, as well as having the obligatory multicoloured rock structures, giant domes and yes more arches, throws up a new opportunity, fruit picking. On the drive through the canyon, we spotted the Fruita area. This was once a Mormon settlement and many of the building from the late 1800’s have been restored and the accompanying orchards opened. When in season you can pick apples, peaches, cherries, pears and apricots. We stopped at an apple orchard, grabbed a fruit picker and a ladder and wandered from tree to tree. Once you filled your bag, you weigh your harvest and pay just $1 per pound of fruit, what a bargain. The last time I went scrumping I didn’t have permission and had to run away from a large barking dog.

We cruised the scenic drive through Capitol Reef as far as the RV would let us, stopping for lunch where the tarmac turned into a dirt track. We admired the petroglyphs left by the American Indians over 800 years ago. There was also the opportunity to take photos of impressive rock formations such as The Castle.

The Castle

Our overnight stay was another bargain. Just $10 for a site at Singletree, complete with flushing loos and dump facilities. A gem of a campground in the middle of the Dixie Forest. The following morning we continued along Scenic Route 12 to Bryce National Park, rounding every corner we were met by either mule deer or cattle in the middle of the road. The downside of early morning starts.

We arrived at Bryce and managed to bag a site in the first campground.  Yes there was some site envy that meant that we moved to a better location once the occupants had departed. We spent the afternoon cruising to the end of Bryce’s 18 mile scenic drive, stopping to check out the many viewpoints overlooking the canyon amphitheatre. The stars of the show are the extraordinary rock towers known as hoodoos. They stand like brightly coloured sentries worn away by years of erosion.  Now if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will know that it’s compulsory to say ‘hoodoo’ in the same way Hodor says’ Hodor’. If you are not a fan, Google and you will see what we mean.

Natural beauty

To really appreciate this amazing park you have to get down to the canyon floor via the Queen’s Garden trail. This, in turn, leads you to the Peek-a-Boo and Navajo trails for a more challenging hike. Like an army of faceless warriors, the hoodoos wait to be called forth from the canyon. Some have worn away into well know shapes, like The Poodle. We wandered the trails for several hours finally emerging at Wall St for our rapid scale back to the top.

Sunrise is best seen not from Sunrise Point but Bryce Point. It’s here that crazy photographers climb out of bed at a ridiculous hour to catch the sun striking the army of hoodoos signaling a new day. And of course we had to take part in this tradition. Armed with tripod and camera I joined a small band of hardy souls whilst still dark. An hour later as the sun started to break through, the lazy arsed latecomers tried to push their way into the best positions. With elbows spread wide, the early birds kept the enemy at bay.

The early birds

Dawn at Hoodoo Town

We managed to get a peek at how the other half travel. Bemoaning the fact we couldn't buy a bottle of wine (those pesky Mormons), saw us invited by a lovely Dutch couple to join them in the biggest RV’s we had seen. This mansion on wheels, complete with his and hers lazy-boy chairs. Quite an insight, great conversation, and some lovely wine to boot.

Just 70 odd miles west of Bryce is Zion National Park. Again, an early start meant that we arrived in Zion with most of the day ahead of us and allowed us to claim a campsite inside the park. The east entrance to Zion takes you through a mile long claustrophobic tunnel. Being an RV we had to pay $15 for an escort. This basically means that they stop the traffic at the other end so you can drive down the middle of tunnel. Emerging back into daylight you then take a switchback road to the canyon floor.  All quite dramatic.

Tunnel vision

Cars are banned from the majority of park roads and an excellent shuttle service ferries visitors. Our first ride took us to Zion Lodge, the trail head to the Emerald Pools. A short walk, all up hill that provided views across the top end of the park. The only snag being the amount of grumpy hikers who thought it was their God given right to march on through instead of waiting for the path to clear. This midday fraternity not quite having the same level of etiquette as the early morning brigade.

A big draw at Zion is the Narrows hike, an eight mile walk up and through the Virgin River. This hike can only be completed when the weather forecast is good, not only for the park but also 50-100 miles further up the valley. Just a week prior a flash flood in another part of Zion swept seven experienced hikers to their deaths.  A great tragedy that weighed heavily on the park staff. A timely reminder that Mother Nature can strike with great force at any moment.

To make the walk you need to hire rubber boots and a walking stick. We started out early with a view of hiking half way in and returning. The farthest part of the trek would mean wading up to waist height in cold water. Waist height for me would mean chest height for Julie. The walks starts off at the Temple of Sinawava at the far end of Zion. The riverside walk stops after a mile and then it’s padding time. Stepping into the river for the first time sends shocks waves from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. The cold is soon forgotten as you scout the sides of the canyon looking for a suitable escape route in case of flash flood. As the walls of the canyon narrow a peaceful silence engulfs you. Sitting on a rock munching down on lunch we are totally in awe of landscape around us.

Heading back down the river we feel once again justified for the early start by the hordes of people heading into the Narrows. After returning our kinky boots we chilled for a couple of hours before taking the bikes for a bus ride back to Sinawava. We then biked the 11 kilometres back to camp stopping off at various spots trying to capture the stunning beauty of this park as the sun sets.

There was one hike that we would like to have done but ran out of time and that’s Angel’s Landing. The guidebook states that this walk is not for the faint of heart with sheer drops to the canyon floor. There have been several deaths over recent years from people falling from the top.  A challenge for our next visit.

Angel's Landing

Our next port of call, the Grand Canyon North Rim.  But we would have to take the long way around as the tunnel we entered through was blocked by a rockfall. Thankfully it happened in the middle of the night, and nobody was injured.

We loved the contrast between Bryce and Zion. Although Bryce can be enjoyed from the canyon floor, it is most stunning from the top looking down at the hoodoos. Whilst Zion is best experienced from the bottom of the canyon looking up. Both offer majestic landscapes. You would have thought that after half a dozen parks the walks would be very much the same. Instead, each walk throws up different challenges, different landscapes and different opportunities to understand the complex nature of the National Parks.