Moonlight over Bryce Canyon National Park.
Many words and photos have been published in honor of the majestic Bryce Canyon, a strong contender in the Grand Circle’s showcase of nature. We wanted to do something different with our time at Bryce and our guidebook suggested a moonlit stroll among the hoodoos. We like life a little bit creepy, and our visit coincided with a full moon – too good an opportunity to miss.
Bryce Amphitheater by day.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Bryce Canyon is all about hoodoos: strange little stacks of red rock that have been eroded into rickety spires by wind, rain and time. Some of the hoodoos stand alone like statues, others crowd together in armies of petrified warriors and form an eerie, disorientating landscape like the horizon of a desert moon. At the Bryce Amphitheater, it's hard to gauge perspective and what look like small piles of rock suddenly appear as towering skyscrapers in comparison to the miniature hikers moving among them.
Compared to some of the neighboring parks, Bryce is an easy place to explore. The scenic drive runs along the rim of the canyon with multiple overlook stops, and just like every other national park on the circle, a few steps away from the choked parking areas and you'll find yourself on an almost empty trail.
After ticking off the viewpoints, we parked up at Sunset Point and descended into the canyon. The sandy red switchbacks and high canyon walls could have come from an Indiana Jones movie, and the opening view of the canyon is quite exciting. We started our hike with the half-mile Navajo Loop trail and connected to the three-mile Peek-a-Boo Loop trail, through the dramatic Wall of Windows outcrops. The trail was fairly strenuous and our hiking poles were a necessity on the undulating terrain. Even though we started late in the day to last until moonrise, few others had strayed from the trailhead and we couldn’t blame them – the hoodoos are pretty creepy, even in bright sunshine.
In the Queen's Garden.
After connecting back to the Navajo Loop, we took a break among the chattering ravens to wait out the worst of the heat; even in late September, the high temperatures still lingered at the canyon floor. Dusk was starting to settle when we picked up the hike again and as we took the Queen’s Garden Trail through the canyon, we noticed a couple of little manmade rock piles along the path. Suddenly there were hundreds, up in the trees, hiding among the foliage and in the fading light, these ‘offerings’ added a Blair Witch Project–vibe to the hike. We also noticed that we were the only hikers left on the trail at this point, alone in the darkening canyon.
The deeper we went, the higher the hoodoos rose up on either side. Some of the formations are named for their supposed resemblances - Queen Victoria and her court, Thor’s Hammer - but as the sun started to set, the landscape took on a monstrous, more threatening shape. Perhaps it was a touch of sunstroke but in the low light, the hoodoos seemed to shift and flicker in our peripheral vision; it was like walking through Medusa’s garden, among the souls of previous hikers forever trapped in stone.
Without the comforting chatter of other tourists or watchful ravens, we felt like the last people on earth marching through the gloomy canyon.
We had packed torches for safety but I didn’t like the idea of any lurking nasties being able to spot us so easily in that dark, alien landscape. Ridiculous, I know, but when you are walking among those silent monoliths, like the ancient monuments of Mars or some deep, subterranean cavern, it is hard not to feel a little bit on edge.
The evening grew very dark very quickly and a breathtaking array of stars opened up overhead; I have never seen so many stars or a night sky so clear. The hoodoos reached up towards the luminous, rising moon like grasping hands. The canyon was absolutely silent, eerie and beautiful at the same time, lit by the silver moonlight and nothing else.
For me, the ascent out of the canyon was the most nerve-racking part of the hike. What would have been an easy, winding trail in daylight became a knife-edge drop into the black, and we took our steps very deliberately. A fall would probably have been just a brief stumble or twisted ankle at worst, but in the low light the trail seemed to end in a perilous abyss over nothing. We were followed out of the canyon by moon shadows – it hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing could exist.
On our way out we were startled by a group of descending hikers. The leading ranger informed us that they were a stargazing group, and he suggested we join them. It was tempting, but we were exhausted. We watched them disappear into the darkness with their poles and head-torches, a wagon train from some fantastical, post-apocalyptic novel.
Back at the car, we paused to look over the canyon. The hump-backed, extraterrestrial landscape was almost invisible in the gathering dark, but we could vaguely make out the tiny lights of the stargazing troupe as they strolled among the hoodoos. Despite our tiredness, I found myself wanting to get back on the trail and join them for a few more hours under the graceful moon and mystical shapes. The dark emptiness of the canyon was a world away from the busy overlooks and crowded trailheads of our arrival, and definitely the way to experience Bryce.
The guidebook suggestion turned out to be an incredible experience and highly recommended for anyone who would like to see the hoodoos at their most majestic, most solitary, and most sinister.