“The World’s Best Three-Mile Hike”

I woke up a little after 8:00 a.m., which was considerably later than I thought I would. My wife began to stir beside me at about the same time.  Once I realized what time it was I sprang out of bed and went to the window to check the weather.  Thankfully it wasn’t raining, but there was some snow sprinkled across the grass.  I never would have expected snow at that point in the year, but I was not about to let it keep me out of Bryce Amphitheater.

I arrived in the park the previous afternoon with my wife and in-laws. Four years had passed since my first visit to Bryce Canyon National Park and I was ecstatic to be back despite the uncooperative weather.  It was April 1st, which also happened to be the day Bryce Canyon Lodge opened for the year.  We had reservations for the night at the large rustic lodge.

Our visit to Bryce Canyon was near the end of our southwest vacation. The trip began with a cross-country flight from Buffalo to Las Vegas.  After a night in Vegas we hit the road in a rental car.  Our drive focused on several parks and highlights of the southwest.  We made a brief stop at the Hoover Dam, and then carried on to Sedona where we spent the night.  It appeared to be a very outdoorsy and artistic little community.  We loved it there and hope to eventually return.  From Sedona we drove north to the Grand Canyon.  I enjoyed showing my wife, Ashley, and her parents around the rim.  We spent a night in the Kachina Lodge in a room with a view of the canyon.  After leaving the Grand Canyon we shot northwest to Monument Valley.  After spending some time photographing the famous western landscape we moved on once more.

The last stop we made before arriving in Bryce Canyon National Park was a two-night stay in Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border. We spent some time in the sun beside the pool and got out to explore a pair of the most famous sights within the American Southwest.  We took a tour through the incredibly photogenic Antelope Canyon and made the short hike to Horseshoe Bend.  Each was only a few miles from our hotel and I highly recommend a visit to both.

Despite it being early spring, we enjoyed nice warm weather everywhere we had been. It was normally in the 70s, although it was a little colder at the Grand Canyon and some places got chilly at night.  Then we reached Bryce.  Bryce Canyon National Park ranges in elevation from about 7,900 feet to 9,100.  While the rim of the Grand Canyon isn’t much lower than that, our other stops were each at least a few thousand feet lower.  That translated to far colder temperatures in Bryce.  In fact, there were snow flurries under a sunny blue sky when we checked in at the Bryce Canyon Lodge.

It came as no surprise that it was very cold the next morning considering the snow the preceding day. I checked the temperature on my cell phone and it wasn’t even thirty degrees out.  There was also a chance of rain forecasted, but the morning sky looked welcoming.  I was glad to see that, because if it were raining when I woke up I would not have bothered hiking.  While there was no rain, there was some snow spread across the forested landscape surrounding the lodge.

Considering the cold temperature and our lack of heavy jackets I knew that if I went on a morning hike I would be alone. I was not surprised and definitely didn’t hold it against them.  There was a pretty strong breeze to accompany the cold temperature and it was still early.  I told them that while the hike I had planned would not be too difficult it would be steeper and more strenuous than any hike we had done so far on the trip.

I didn’t have many warm clothes so I had to layer up. I wore jeans with a light jacket over a hooded sweatshirt.  I brought some gloves along since it was snowing in Buffalo on our way to the airport.  I tossed a granola bar and a banana in my backpack and headed for the door.  Ashley asked how long the hike should take me.  I thought for a minute and said I should be back by 10:30.  That would give me just under two hours for the hike and a half hour to shower and change before checkout at 11:00.

After kissing my wife goodbye I left our room in Bryce Canyon Lodge. I walked down the hall and descended a flight of stairs before exiting the large wooden building.

It felt even colder out than I expected. It was probably about thirty degrees by then, which was quite chilly considering it wasn’t that sunny and it was fairly windy.  I almost reconsidered the hike.  It didn’t take long for me to be glad that I didn’t though.

A series of dirt pathways passed from the lodge buildings through a forest of pines to the rim trail. My plan was to follow the short trail out to the rim then proceed to Sunrise Point.  From there I would combine the Queens Garden Trail with the Navajo Loop Trail.  That would take me to Sunset Point where I would get back on the Rim Trail and then take the dirt path back through the woods to the lodge.  The hike would take me on what the park likes to call “The World’s Best Three-Mile Hike.”

I had combined the hike with the Peekaboo Loop on my previous trip to the park and absolutely loved it. So, I thought I would do the shorter, easier option on my return trip.  I knew how incredible it was to hike among the park’s magical hoodoos and impressive rock formations.  The amazing views from the vistas on the rim simply don’t compare.

I slowly began my hike on the soft dirt trail leading away from the lodge. The dirt was wet from the snow that fell overnight, but most had dissipated by the time I walked through.  Tall pines spread out before me on both sides of the pathway.  I could see that the forest didn’t go on for long, as the trees opened up to the sky at the amphitheater’s rim just a couple hundred feet away.

The large trees succeeded in barricading the forest from an otherwise harsh wind. That diminished the noise and the cold.  Aside from the light whistle of the wind there was pure silence.  It was a strangely comforting quiet.  There wasn’t another person in sight.  I had the entire peaceful forest to myself.  Well, almost to myself.

Walking along the path at a slow, leisurely pace I almost missed the deer standing right in front of me. There was a young doe less than fifty feet away, blending in with its surroundings.  I stopped and stared at it, and the deer stared back.  It didn’t move, but it didn’t look afraid either.  It just stood there looking me in the eye.  As corny as it may sound I felt like we had a brief moment there together.  I talked quietly to it as I slowly proceeded along the pathway toward it.  The deer was about five or ten feet to the left of the trail, which had wooden railings on each side.  As I moved closer the deer continued to stand still and turned its head so that it could continue to follow me with its eyes.

Then, when I was only about twenty feet away I heard something to my right. Three deer were quickly approaching the path in front of me.  Then just before they reached the wooden fence at the trail’s edge they gracefully leaped over the fence.  As soon as they landed on the path they hopped over the other fence.  They came to a halt next to the first doe that was already there.  The four of them then stood completely still as they watched me walk by.

It was an unbelievable scene to be a part of. I felt like I was interacting with the deer in their natural habitat and not simply watching them.  I had succeeded in having a memorable hike before I even reached the trailhead.  I wish I could’ve gotten a good photo of the deer, but my camera was still in my backpack and I thought I might frighten the deer if I stopped to take my backpack off.

The group of deer continued to cautiously watch me as I walked by. A couple minutes later I reached the Rim Trail at the end of the forest.  I turned left and headed toward Sunrise Point, which would be my starting point for the actual hike.

Within minutes I approached Sunrise Point. I walked up to the vista overlooking the whimsical amphitheater.  It was colder there as the point was fully exposed to the weather.  I no longer had a friendly forest of pines to protect me from the howling wind.  The outstanding view was worth withstanding the cold and wind for a few short minutes.

There was a sea of fantastic hoodoos extending down into Bryce Amphitheater and up the opposite canyon wall. They were intricately carved by erosion over millions of years.  The hoodoos glowed a radiant orange in the morning light.  Streaks of snow contrasted against the bright orange and pink of the natural landscape.  A deep blue sky added to the gorgeous color scheme before me.

After taking a few photos I started down the Queens Garden Trail into the mysterious depths of Bryce Amphitheater. Memories of my first hike into the amphitheater a few years earlier had me extremely excited to return to the land of hoodoos.  I have never hiked through an environment with such unique terrain and stunning beauty.

I followed the gravelly trail down from the rim and into the amphitheater. A middle-aged couple was about 100 feet down the trail in front of me, but they were the only others I could see when I began.  That came as no surprise considering how cold it was.  The strong winds died down as I descended below the rim, which I greatly appreciated.

A series of switchbacks lowered me into the canyon. They didn’t seem too steep while I walked down them, but once I looked back up after a few minutes I realized I had already descended a long way.  Soon I went through a couple of carved doorways in an orange rock fin and entered into an area flooded with spectacular hoodoos.

The hoodoos varied in color. Most were shades of orange, but others were pink, white, or cream colored.  They had a brittle texture, where they seemed like I could simply scrape part of it off or grab a handful of it.  I imagine they could be climbed if they didn’t appear so fragile and crumbly.

The disparity between the dark blue sky and the bright orange hoodoos and other rock formations made for some great photographs. The terrain itself varied in color just like the hoodoos above it.  It was normally orange or red, but sometimes was white or brown.

After the pathway led me through another sculpted doorway and around a few more curves I reached the canyon floor. Plenty of large pine and fir trees competed for space with the hoodoos there.  As impressive as the colorful hoodoos were, some of the trees were nearly as large.  The pines conveniently added a layer of pine needles to the path, making it softer and easier on my feet.

I had descended over 300 feet from the rim to the floor in a little over a mile, which was somewhat steep, but the climb up the Navajo Loop would be a little more strenuous. There is an elevation gain of over 500 feet up to Sunset Point along that trail.  I was pretty sure I would have to finish my hike on a different route than I took on my previous trip due to the time of year.

When I reached the junction for the Navajo Loop Trail I saw a sign that confirmed my suspicion. The Wall Street section of the trail was closed due to the increased possibility of rock falls during the colder temperatures.  That meant I would have to take the Two Bridges option instead.  That was alright since I would get to see something new, but I was a little annoyed by the Wall Street closure because it was my favorite part of my previous hike.  However, on the sign it said the trail remained open in that direction for a few hundred yards.  I figured I might as well follow it as far as I could to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Douglas firs that soar up through the slot canyon.

I decided to take a break beside the trail before continuing onto the Navajo Trail. I quickly ate my banana and granola bar and downed a lot of water.  The temperature had warmed up a bit over the past hour and I had gotten hot from hiking at a fast pace so I took off my sweatshirt and stuffed it in my backpack.  Before moving on I checked the time.  I had been moving quickly despite taking a lot of photos to make sure I would get back to our room when I said I would.  I hoped I would have enough time to head up the Wall Street section until it closed before going up the Two Bridges side.  I figured if I kept up my pace I should get back on time, so I proceeded toward the slender chasm.

I followed a couple toward the towering trees within Wall Street. It was only a quarter-mile from the junction to the point where the path was blocked off.  The path was mostly level there so I moved quickly.  I could see ahead to the canyon walls closing in on each other.  I grew excited, thinking I should be able to get some nice pictures of the Douglas Firs growing up through the narrow gap.

Thankfully I was right. A couple minutes later I was at the beginning of the canyon, photographing the impressive trees that rose high between the steep canyon walls.  The round trunks were dark brown and the only tree branches were at the treetops, which were covered with bright green leaves.  The imposing orange walls hid the sky except for a thin sliver of blue above the trees.

I took a photo of the couple with their camera and they took one of me before I started back. Then I quickened my pace once more.  I wanted to get back to Ashley in the lodge by 10:30 a.m., which meant I was going to have to hike fast without any substantial breaks the rest of the way.

Wasting no time, I left that other couple in my dust as I power walked back to the Wall Street junction.  Then I turned toward the other end of the loop to head out and up the Two Bridges route.  That portion of the trail was the first part that I had not hiked on my previous visit to the park.

It began in similar fashion to the hike thus far. The trail passed between tall trees and vibrant hoodoos.  The entire area was amazing.  I felt like I could have stayed all day in the bottom of the amphitheater exploring amidst the sensational hoodoos.  In fact, I’m confident I could have spent days down there enjoying myself.  But that was not going to happen on this trip.  On the contrary I had less than an hour to climb out of the canyon to reunite with my wife before we had to checkout of the lodge.

I reluctantly stashed my camera and hurried up the trail. After a few minutes I reached the two bridges.  There was a narrow chasm beside the trail with tall, steep walls rising on both sides.  Linking those two walls together in two separate spots were two bridges.  The lower one was only a few feet from the bottom while the higher one had to be at least twenty feet up.  They were each several feet long, spanning the distance between the walls.  I have no idea how they formed and wonder how long they will survive before crashing to the canyon floor.

While the bridges were certainly intriguing they couldn’t compare to the Wall Street section on the other side of the Navajo Loop. Still, I was able to see a portion of Wall Street and the bridges so I couldn’t complain.

Soon after I passed the bridges the trail began to ascend toward the rim. It was gradual at first, but transitioned to steeper switchbacks.  I saw a lot of people making their way down into the canyon along the switchbacks.  It was a fairly strenuous climb due to the elevation gained in such a short distance.  I made it harder on myself than it should have been, because I continued my hike up the zigzagging trail as fast as I could.  I was almost done with my hike, but I was also running out of time.

I got pretty tired during my ascent since I had continued my fast pace. As a result I had to take a few short breaks to catch my breath and drink some water.  They also gave me a chance to take some parting photos before reaching the rim.

Just before I made it to Sunset Point I passed Thor’s Hammer, which is likely Bryce Canyon’s most famous hoodoo formation. It is a tall stone spire that gets especially skinny just before its top, which is a square-shaped block at least twice as large as the section just below it.  I guess you could say it resembles the top of a sledge hammer, but it’s a bit of a stretch.

A few minutes later I was atop the Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point. I walked up to the railing at the edge of the cliff and admired the scenic view.  I had even more appreciation for the seemingly endless maze of hoodoos after walking among them for a few miles.  I watched a number of hikers descend the trail into the colorful paradise, knowing they would soon share in my amazement for the place.  I was jealous that they were heading into the heart of the amphitheater, while I was about to leave the park for good.

My 500 foot climb up from the floor of Bryce Amphitheater warmed me right up, but once I was up at Sunset Point I quickly grew cold again. The temperature wasn’t as cold as when I began my hike, but the wind had returned with a vengeance.  So I didn’t stick around long before hopping on the Rim Trail back toward Sunrise Point.

After checking my watch I realized I had ascended the trail faster than I thought I would, meaning I no longer had to hurry to make it back to my room by 10:30. That was nice because it gave me a chance to cherish the final views of the canyon as I walked above it.  There was a great view of Silent City, perhaps the greatest concentration of hoodoos within the park.

Sunset Point and Sunrise Point are only a half-mile apart along the Rim Trail. The path that would take me back to Bryce Canyon Lodge would be somewhere along that stretch of the Rim Trail.  In less than ten minutes I reached the spur trail that led into the forest.  I quickly walked by the point where I had seen the deer almost two hours earlier and returned to the lodge.  I happily reunited with my wife about fifteen minutes ahead of my prediction.  I was pleased, because I tacked on the half-mile to make it to the entrance to Wall Street and still got back ahead of schedule.

After a quick shower I rejoined Ashley and her parents and we packed up our rental car. After stopping at a few points along the park’s scenic drive we left the park and headed southwest to Zion National Park.

 

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6 thoughts on ““The World’s Best Three-Mile Hike”

  1. Smart you for doing that hike in the morning! We spent hours in amongst the hoodoos in the afternoon in June, and I thought I would die of thirst and exhaustion coming back up to the rim. You got better photos, too, with the sun not directly overhead. Very nice.

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