Bryce – Solo Winter Adventures in Utah: Day 2

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The colorful pre-dawn light at Sunrise Point, showing the stark difference between the snowy Northern slopes, and the orange and red rocks and sands of the Southern slopes (Bryce Canyon National Park, January 28, 2020)

Watching the sunrise from the rim at Bryce Canyon National Park should be on your bucket list. I caught the sunrise both from the rim (Inspiration Point on Day 1) and below the rim among the hoodoos (Queen’s Garden Trail on Day 2). I recommend doing both.

Trip Report: Bryce Canyon National Park (Day 2)

  • Date: January 28, 2020
  • Activity: Winter Hiking, 2 separate day hikes
  • Weather: 3℉ at start; 17℉ at finish
  • Trail Name(s):
    1. Queen’s Garden Trail and Navajo Loop Combination (2.4 mile loop) including:
      • Queen’s Garden Trail (0.8 miles): I descended 320 feet and 0.6 miles on this trail, and then another 0.1 miles each way, out-and-back (0.2 miles) to the ‘Queen Victoria’ hoodoo; packed powder and ice, zero people
      • Queen’s Garden Trail to Navajo Loop (0.7 miles): snowier trail with less evidence of traffic, zero people
      • Navajo Trail to Sunset Point via 2 Bridges (0.4 miles): very crowded (dozens of people); icy; mountain lion tracks
      • Rim Trail: Sunset Point to Sunrise Point (0.5 miles) snowy; less crowded
    2. Mossy Cave Trail (1.0 mile): lightly trafficked trail with packed snow and ice; less crowded than the Navajo Loop Trail, fewer hoodoos, lots of history
  • Trail Conditions: Packed powder and  ice. Light traction (microspikes) recommended; mountain lion tracks on the Navajo Loop Trail and Mossy Cave Trail
  • Parking/Access: Roads and parking lots were plowed, but Rainbow Gate remained closed while I was there. Parking was easy.
  • Background about Bryce: For information about the history, geology, and terms used when discussing Bryce, see my previous post: What is Bryce Canyon? Hoodoo?
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The sunrise from the snowy Queen’s Garden Trail, Bryce (camera: Sony α6000)

Sunrise Point

I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm went off, excited about getting up and out to Bryce to catch the sunrise despite the frigid temperature (3℉ / -16C). It was so cold that I didn’t expect much company at Sunrise Point. I was wrong. The overlook was jam-packed with folks with tripods waiting for a perfect sunrise shot of Bryce’s Amphitheater. It was too crowded for my taste, so I decided to hike down the trail just for a sec… to get away from the crowds… maybe just down to the first hoodoos?

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The first rays of the sun hitting the hoodoos on the Queen’s Garden Trail (Sony α6000)

Queen’s Garden Trail

Sunrise below the rim was beautiful, and I had the trail to all to myself as I wended my way through the hoodoos, each one turning to gold as soon as it was hit by the rays of the sun. I was struck by the mythical beauty of it, imagining that I was walking through a valley of petrified giants, turned to gold by the Midas Touch of the sun. As I hiked, I tried to sort through the mash-up of folklore and stories that all seemed applicable, but it didn’t quite sum up to a coherent picture:

  • Petrified Giants: the Scottish and Cornish lore of my ancestors includes stories of landmarks formed by the petrification of giants who were turned to stone as punishment for their misdeeds (e.g. the giants that refused “to become Christians” that became The Stone Circle at Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Scotland and The Merry Maidens and The Pipers of Cornwall who were “turned into stone as punishment for dancing on a Sunday.”
  • Trolls: the modern lore of my geek culture includes stories of trolls that are turned to stone, petrified by sunlight (e.g. stone-trolls in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and the Netflix show Trollhunters)
  • King Midas and the Golden Touch: an ancient Greek myth about King Midas, who was blessed/cursed so that everything he touched turned to gold, including his daughter, as well as any food he tried to eat… so an example of golden petrification
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Wandering through the golden castles of the Queen’s Garden Trail at Sunrise

At any rate, my cultural heritage strongly biased my imagination towards seeing petrified giants and cautionary tales. I was surprised when I later learned that the origin story of the area (attributed to the Paiute people, who lived in the area from ~1200s onward), shared a lot of similarities (see previous post for origin story).

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Enjoying the golden rays of the rising sun as I descended into the Queen’s Garden.

With all of my expedition gear on (including my gigantic orange expedition jacket), I was unperturbed by the cold. However, the icy trail conditions slowed me down. My microspikes should have been on my feet, but they were in my car because I wasn’t planning on doing a hike. In theory, I was going to return to my car as soon as the sun came up…

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The eroded giants and spires of the Queen’s Garden Trail, with the golden light of the sunrise glowing on the far walls of the Bryce Amphitheater.

Surprising absolutely no one, after the sun came up I decided to keep hiking instead of returning to my car… I figured I’d keep going, but just until I reached the ‘Queen Victoria’ hoodoo ;)

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The Queen’s Garden Trail winding down through the snow, tunnels, walls, and hoodoos.

When I reached the ‘Queen Victoria’ hoodoo, I had trouble finding the Queen. I’d biased my imagination to see giants, with feet rooted to the valley floor and heads towering 50 to 150 feet above me. It turns out scale matters, and the queen was more of a cake topper than a giant. Eventually, after comparing the photo on the Queen’s Garden Benchmark with the hoodoos in front of me, I was able to imagine the vague resemblance of a Queen on top of a nearby hoodoo, but I’m not 100% sure I was looking at the right hoodoo. Regardless, I was thoroughly enchanted by the hoodoos and the landscape around me.

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Hoodoos in the early morning light at the Queen’s Garden Benchmark in Bryce. Is ‘Queen Victoria’ in this photo? Was I looking the wrong direction? Hmmm…

The gorgeous golden light of the early morning kept enticing me further and further into the maze of hoodoos, so after checking out “Queen Victoria” hoodoo I decided to keep going and loop back to my car via The Navajo Loop and Sunset Point (instead of returning the way I came)… Besides, it wasn’t that much further…

Navajo Loop to Sunset Point

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Muddy red tracks in the fresh white snow at the base of the Navajo Loop Trail

The first thing I noticed as I approached the Navajo Loop Trail were a set of tracks; muddy red paw prints in the bright white snow. From a distance I couldn’t see their shape clearly, and I assumed they were dog tracks (most tracks on trails with lots of human footprints are), but when I got close enough to see the shape clearly, I stopped in my tracks… mountain lion tracks?! As soon as I thought it, I began surveilling the area, checking to make sure there were no mountain lions on nearby cliffs, ledges, or in nearby trees. Once I was certain I was still alone, I leaned down to get a better look…

The palm of the print had three lobes to it, which I associate with mountain lion tracks, and the palm of the print was large (and wide) relative to the toes. It definitely looked like mountain lion tracks to me, but… claw marks? That’s unusual for mountain lion prints. I looked at a few more prints, at where they came from (the woods), their relationship to human prints (there was none), and I reviewed the possible critters with paws that size. Bear? Absolutely not, so then the question was canine or feline. Wolf? Nope. Coyote? No. Dog? Naw…. The overwhelming conclusion that I kept coming to was that the tracks were feline… Bobcat? No, the prints were too big. My final conclusion? Probably a young mountain lion.

So, what were the claw marks all about? *shrug* Probably for the same reason that the human prints in the area had, or should have had, “claw” marks; for extra traction in the deep muddy/slushy/icy/snowy conditions on the steep slope.

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Switchbacks on the Two Bridges (Navajo Loop Trail) looking up towards the rim

I hiked up towards the rim with a heightened awareness of my surroundings. The mountain lion tracks were from the night before (after the last human traffic of the day, but before the overnight temperatures had completely frozen the red muddy mess on the southwestern slopes). However, they were recent enough that I wasn’t 100% sure it wasn’t still in the area somewhere. I have to admit, when I started to hear human voices echoing through the hoodoos, I was a bit relieved. By the sound of it, there were crowds of people on the trail above me, hidden from sight by the towering walls and hoodoos… Undoubtedly they would have scared any nearby mountain lions away… either that or they would have scared them in my direction…

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The fin of rock towering over the switchbacks of the Navajo Loop Trail.

As I rounded the next corner, I was met with a shriek… There was a woman in a magenta pink hat frozen in her tracks in front of me, followed half a second later by her hiking partner (pale as a ghost). I looked at them quizzically as I scanned the area, trying to figure out what had terrified them, but didn’t see anything startle worthy.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “It’s just…”

“We thought you were a cougar,” the guy with her continued.

“Ummm,” I hesitated, partially confused because I was wearing my gigantic fluorescent orange jacket and incredibly hard to miss, and partially because my friends occasionally tease me about being a cougar.

“It’s just you’re the first person we’ve seen all day,” she continued quickly, “and we’ve been following the tracks and …” she trailed off, pointing to the tracks.

“Oh yeah,” I nodded, realizing that though I’d heard them coming from a mile away, they hadn’t had any warning of my approach… It’s a lot easier to be stealthy when you’re hiking solo. As their heart rates returned to normal, we chatted a bit about the tracks. They’d figured that they were bobcat tracks, but I was pretty sure they were too big to be bobcat. Either way, we were all happy to encounter humans going the opposite direction, since we were less liking to meet a mountain lion lurking around the next corner.

Thor's Hammer at Bryce

The ~150 foot tall hoodoo referred to as Thor’s Hammer. Having trouble seeing the hammer? Imagine a mallet, and then ignore the bottom 120 feet of the hoodoo, that might help.

The famous hoodoo Thor’s Hammer dominated the view as I ascended the final leg of the trail. Did it look like a hammer? Ummm… well… not to me… not at first. My first impression was of a petrified giant with shoes in the snow, a big pink rounded belly, lighter colored shoulders, thin neck, and a head perched on top (complete with eyes and a funny hairdo/hat)… My second impression? The profile of a turkey, upended and waiting to be basted?  It wasn’t until I remembered the Queen Victoria hoodoo and the ‘cake topper’ theory of hoodoo naming that I was able to imagine the hammer… The rock balanced at the very top looks like the head of a mallet… Thor’s Hammer… sure… at least this time I knew I was looking at the right landmark ;)

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The 150 foot hoodoo topped with Thor’s Hammer towering above me as I ascended the Navajo Trail at Bryce.

Even though the trail was much more crowded above Thor’s Hammer, it wasn’t too bad. Most folks weren’t straying far from the overlooks (and their nice warm cars) because the temperatures were so low.

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Looking down at the crowds (one person) on the snowy, but well-trafficked Navajo Loop Trail

Despite my critical take on the ‘cake topper’ naming conventions, the scenery at Bryce (the spectacular spires, walls, and amphitheaters) was absolutely spectacular! Gorgeous. Awe-inspiring, and downright amazing. Yeah, I think I’m in love :)

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One final shot of Bryce Amphitheater as I hiked from Sunset Point back to Sunrise Point

When I got back to my car, I was planning on heading to Capitol Reef National Park, with a potential stop at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, but Bryce wasn’t done with me yet. As I was driving away, I saw the trailhead for Mossy Cave, and decided to check it out.

Mossy Cave Trail

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The Mossy Cave Trail crossing Tropic Ditch, an irrigation ditch created by 40 men in the 1890s

The first thing I noticed as I hiked the Mossy Cave Trail was the running water. Despite the early morning temperatures hovering in the single digits, by lunchtime the temperatures had risen by 30ºF, and were above freezing. Dramatic temperature changes like this are common at Bryce, which undergoes more than 200 freeze-thaw cycles each year. These freeze-thaw cycles drive the erosional forces (primarily frost wedging also known as ice wedging) that make Bryce’s fantastical landscape so unique. Since water expands by 9% when it freezes, 200 freeze-thaw cycles a year can have a big impact on the landscape.

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Ice formations, tucked within the shade of the Mossy Cave at Bryce.

Back to that running water… there’s a story there. The creatively named ‘Water Canyon’ was a bone-dry wash until an enterprising group of 40 Later Day Saints (Mormons) set to work with picks and shovels in 1890. Their nearby settlement, later named Tropic, needed water, and by the work of their own hands, they finished the 10-15 mile long irrigation ditch in 1892 that would provide it.  According to the history of the town of Tropic:

“It was on May 23, 1892 that the ten-mile canal brought the waters flowing from the East Fork of the Sevier River over the cliffs of Bryce Canyon into the Tropic Valley, a drop of 1,500 feet; the only stream so far known to have been diverted from the Great Inland Basin, and which would eventually find its way into the Gulf of California through the big Colorado River.” 

DiggingTropicDitch

Excavating new spillway of Tropic Dam. Lange, D., photographer. , Garfield County Garfield County. United States Utah, 1936. May. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017762899/.

As I read the quote, I fixated on the bit about the Great Inland Basin. Hiking through the Great Basin during my CDT thru-hike (2018), I had learned the one fundamental rule of the basin, “water that falls in the Basin, stays in the Basin,” flowing neither to the Atlantic nor the Pacific… yet here I was, standing next to Great Basin water that was breaking that fundamental rule, and flowing to the Pacific. The other thing I had learned about Great Basin water? At best, it was saltier and more alkali than I like my drinking water to be, at worst it was downright toxic… Earlier this year, I watched a documentary about Avocado’s and one of the California Growers complained about the salinity of the water he was getting from the Colorado River… Was this humble irrigation/drainage ditch partly to blame? I looked into it (Squirrel, What?! Did I find a rabbit hole?), and it IS a contributor to the problem. Seepage from Tropic Ditch “carries 1829 tons of salt per year to the Paria River,” which in turn, carries it to the Colorado River.

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Snow-covered trail following the snow-covered waters of the Tropic Ditch on the Mossy Cave Trail in Bryce

Regardless of how the water came to be flowing through the area, it was a beautiful place for a quick hike. Initially I’d hoped to head over to Tropic Waterfall before checking out Mossy Cave, but there were three little signs, spaced at undeniable intervals, declaring the trail to the waterfall closed. Despite my curiosity, and the enticing glimpses of waterfall beyond me, I respected the posted signs and opted to move on, heading straight to ‘Mossy Cave’.

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The trail up to Mossy Cave was very icy (microspikes highly recommended), but easy to follow. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and if I’m honest, I wasn’t super excited about a moss-covered overhang, but I was pleasantly surprised. The spring-fed ice formations at the grotto were interesting, especially the stalagmites rising up from the floor of the grotto, almost as if mirroring the rows of hoodoos in Bryce’s amphitheater just a couple of miles away.

All in all, I had a wonderful time at Bryce. Bryce was an awesome first stop on my Utah vacation. My only concern was that it set a high bar for vacation expectations, and would be hard match, never mind top…

Previous posts about Bryce:

Next Stop…

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

One thought on “Bryce – Solo Winter Adventures in Utah: Day 2

  1. Pingback: Escalante Petrified Forest – Solo Winter Adventures in Utah (Day 2) – Patches Thru

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