Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks, Dixie National Forest

Bryce has been recommended to visit by several good friends, so it was high on our must-see list. The place surpassed all expectations – a canyon with the highest concentration of vertical rock formations (hoodoos) on Earth absolutely defies imagination.

After setting up our dispersed camp in nearby Dixie forest, we got to the park late afternoon. We decided to explore the scenic route and get a glimpse of the classic views. The low sun made the landscapes look even more dramatic. We also managed to make friends with a friendly Mr. Crow, who was virtually a domesticated wild bird. 

The scenic drive ended with a loop at Rainbow point. As we were getting in we saw a group of astronomers unpacking and rolling out some huge telescopes.

As we learned later, Bryce Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park, which means that it’s one of the few places left on Earth where the light pollution of the night sky is minimal. Here on a moonless night you can see the entire Milky Way, along with countless stars, galaxies and planets. 

The friendly gentlemen we encountered were the members of Salt Lake Astronomical Society. Apparently we were lucky to hit it right on the first day of annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival. In a regular non-COVID year thousands of people would gather in Bryce and look at the stars through the lenses of more than a hundred telescopes. This time it was 10 astronomy aficionados with only 4, but still quite impressive, telescopes. 

Despite being such a small group this year, they were so enthusiastic, so in love with the night sky, that we instantly got swept off our feet by their passion. Incredible storytellers, they kept us mesmerized well past midnight. 

They would point their laser beams to the sky and tell us about the Ursa Mayor, and how she was a polar bear guarding her baby Ursa Minor. They showed us distant clusters and galaxies, clouds and flickering remote stars. We saw Saturn with his defined rings through a reflector. It was so clear it looked like some company’s logo! I learned how to locate the northern star Polaris and how the entire sky spins around it over the course of a night.

This whole experience was absolutely fascinating. It’s very rare that you come across someone who is so passionate and consumed by something so great as the night sky. Their fascination was contagious! It was hard to tear ourselves away, but eventually we headed back to the camp, to get some rest and prepare for the big hike the next day. 

Backcountry camping was closed in Bryce due to COVID19, so we had day hikes only at our disposal. One of the stargazers the previous night highly recommended the Fairyland Loop trail and that’s what we’ve decided to do. 

The trail starts at the canyon rim and goes all the way down into the alien world. You hike around 8 miles (13km) and eventually climb back on the rim (elevation change ~1700ft (520m)). The rim trail takes you back to the start of this big loop.

The landscape we saw on this trail was something else. Strange orange, red and beige formations reached for the sky. Twisted trunks of withered trees were placed around like landmarks on a mythical map.

Hiking Fairyland Loop took us the major part of the day; the sun was scorching and merciless. Every time we slowed the pace or stopped, numerous little flies would appear out of nowhere and tirelessly try to get under the skin, in the eyes, mouth, nose and ears. There was almost no wind, so we had to just keep going, despite thirst, hot air and fatigue. 

The intense desert environment dehydrates you pretty quickly, so it’s advised to drink 1 liter of water every 2-3 hours. There were three creeks marked on the trail map. We had a vague plan to refill some of our water from them… However, as we reached those magical blue lines on the map, the only thing we saw were dry valleys filled with rocks.

Phew, it was a good idea to bring some extra water! Luckily, there were warning signs everywhere in Bryce about dehydration and we followed them.

I wish we could stay a little longer, but the road was calling. The approximate dates by which we would have to be back in NYC started to form. The next stop was a legendary park with a great name: Zion. 

Zion National Park

For Zion we had high hopes, the dissipation of which was painful. In contrast with every other park we visited on this trip, Zion was absolutely packed.

Here in short is how our visit went. We got up in the morning, and were at the park’s gate around 9am. By that time a line of cars has already formed: something we’ve seen on the first day in Yellowstone, so we didn’t give it any second thought. We had to wait for about 15min, and then drove up to the entrance booth. 

Here, to our surprise, a snappy ranger lady inquired: “What is your park visit plan today?”. Mhm… The park plan visit… Not really a workable concept for us – we have no plan, that’s the whole point! 

So we go: “Well, we were just thinking of driving up the scenic route, looking at some landmarks from the car, maybe doing a small hike later today…”. She cuts us off immediately with a teacher-like inquest: “So you didn’t do your research, I see? No research AT ALL?!”. Wow, okay, excuse US… I guess we came back to school without homework. And so the lecture continued: “Well, the scenic drive is CLOSED for private cars, shuttle buses aren’t operating. We’re only letting 50 cars in a day and the capacity has been reached this morning by 6:30am. So, if you want to get in to see the drive, come back tomorrow, we open at 7am, but I won’t guarantee you’d get in. People get in line as early as 2am-4am. You can drive South to the Visitor Center, and back, so good luck and arrivederci!”

Wow! We were absolutely out of luck with this one! We drove in the park for 30 min and if felt like the 5th Ave in NYC during the rush hour, cars dragging by in 1 lane, all parking spots taken, tunnels full of cars, cars, cars… A never ending nightmare! 

We bailed after 30 min of this madness – turned around and headed to Grand Canyon instead. Adiós Zion with your fancy name and crowds. There are plenty of other beautiful places in the area to be. 

I strongly believe the name was the problem: if only they changed it to “Mr. Poopy Butthole National Park” for example, the crowds problem would quickly be solved.

We had a wonderful sunset dinner at a rustic Zion Mountain Ranch nearby and headed to Grand Canyon. Our front right tire kept losing air…

NEXT: GRAND CANYON & KAIBAB NATIONAL FOREST

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