Escape The Summer Heat In Bryce Canyon Country

Travel Features Utah
Escape The Summer Heat In Bryce Canyon Country

It was August in Texas, and fatigue had set in from seeing triple-digit numbers taunt me from the weather forecast every day for the last few months. A notification arrived in my inbox with an invite to Bryce Canyon Country in Utah. I quickly looked up the temperature forecast and was pleased to see two numbers where there had previously been three. Even better, the first number was a five. Sold.

Of course, escapes from the annual summer inferno are hardly the only reason to visit Bryce Canyon Country. Alien-looking rock formations, honky tonks, live country music, slot canyons, rock climbing, astonishing sunsets, secluded hikes, and incredible silence are also yours to discover in this spectacular stretch of the desert. Bryce Canyon Country occupies a stretch of southern Utah that is so isolated and sparsely populated that until the mid-19th century, local maps of the area were essentially a giant question mark. The Henry Mountains, the last mountain range in the United States to receive a name, are located here, and the explorers who did ultimately map the terrain deemed the countryside so rugged that “no animal without wings should ever cross.” If you’re looking for a place to truly immerse yourself in the wonder of the wilderness without worrying about crowds or lines, then you can’t do better than Bryce Canyon Country.

Given the isolation, it should come as no surprise that there is no simple way to get here. I arrived in Salt Lake City, and after meeting my group at the airport, we all piled into a shuttle provided by Southwest Adventure Tours and commenced the four-hour drive south down I-15 toward the park. I found myself getting pulled into the mystique of this slice of Utah as hints of the city began to fade into endless trees and wild peaks while we learned some backstory behind the name “Grand Staircase.” 

The Grand Staircase is a series of cliffs that span vast stretches of Utah and Arizona, beginning with the Grand Canyon, the first of the “steps.” Many of these steps form part of famous parks—from the top of the Grand Canyon, the staircase ascends and leads to the bottom of Zion National Park. The upper tier of Zion then leads to the beginnings of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and from here, the climb continues to the bottom of Bryce Canyon National Park, whose cliffs then form the top of the staircase.

We arrived in the sleepy town of Escalante at sunset, grabbing a tasty burger in the inviting, casual atmosphere of the 4th West Pub. Afterward, we headed to the Canyon Country Lodge, a cozy little hotel that also doubles as a great place to base in-depth trips of the region. The night would pass quickly—we awoke at 6 a.m. the next day for our first canyoneering adventure.

We met Rick at the offices of Excursions of Escalante, a gregarious and endlessly quotable local whose love for the Grand Staircase had transformed itself into a tour company over the last quarter-century. Rick was the very best kind of guide one could ask for on a trip like this; his knowledge of the area was unmatched, and some of the group’s reticence towards canyoneering was quickly put at ease with his warmth, humor, and emphasis on safety. His passion for the Grand Staircase was infectious to the point of setting the tone of inspiring teamwork and the very best of everyone on the trip, regardless of experience level. “I have canyons for everyone,” he said as we received our backpacks and walked out back for the safety demo.

We found a small table filled with esoteric gadgets, varying in complexity from electronic handheld radios to long pieces of rope. After picking up the walkie-talkie and giving us some phone numbers for emergency services, he turned into what he claimed was the most important gadget of the trip—the satellite G.P.S. radio. He showed us how, with one flick of a button, anywhere in the world, stranded travelers could summon help. It didn’t take much to motivate us—the next words spoken were, “You’re the most important person in the world to somebody out there, and this can save your life.”

Ultimately, we learned that the most essential and versatile tool would be ourselves. Everyone would have a role according to height and size—tall, short, heavy, light—everyone had a part to play, whether scouting, rappelling work, or rope setup. As the tallest member of the group, I learned that I was the “dipstick,” and my role would be measuring water depth if need be or using myself as a baseline for fitting into the various nooks we’d be encountering. The “meat”—typically the lightest person in the group—would act as a human anchor for jobs requiring tethering and rappelling. As Rick explained these roles, he approached me, foot extended, with the instructions to “please step on my foot.” I reluctantly obliged, and he repeated the exercise with the rest of the group, demonstrating how to use ourselves to create makeshift holds and balance points for each other. “The best canyoneers aren’t the ones with the most, best, or fanciest equipment; they’re the ones always pushing, pulling, and using one another as leverage,” Rick noted. After we all took turns flattening Rick’s poor foot, we piled into the vehicles that would take us to our loadout point.

We went down a few county routes, passing Grand Sheffield Road, an excellent camping spot for adventures into the canyon. We arrived at a clearing where we hopped out of the trucks and into the silence and awe-inspiring sights of the Grand Staircase. We grabbed our backpacks, and before beginning our descent, we did a quick “circle of trust,” touching knuckles in the middle before breaking with a “Let’s go to work!”

Bryce Canyon Country

The walls came with various holds, mainly taking the form of cracks, roots, or trees. As we used these and others to begin our initial descent, the utility of the foot flattening tutorial became apparent as we pressed and pulled on one another to maneuver safely down the rocks with minimal holds. Each level we accomplished seemed to reveal new depths to be explored, and we learned that using the body as leverage was just the bare surface of the techniques needed to traverse the walls. Each canyon was less of a physical challenge than a mental puzzle to be analyzed and solved using these tools at our disposal; it was simply a matter of working out the best path, using our assigned roles and strengths to our advantage, and then working together to conquer obstacles. Among other tricks, I learned the “foot bridge”—using my feet as a literal bridge to straddle small openings in the rocks, or the “body bridge”—literally bracing myself with hands and feet across two surfaces and then moving across gaps one limb at a time like Spider-Man. At times, we were invited to “donate some fabric”—coming to a seat and sliding down butt-first in our hiking pants down steeper rock faces where applicable. 

At our first rappelling wall, Rick hilariously retrieved a rope hidden in the bushes from a previously charted route, the first of many such occurrences. “The Europeans figured this one out,” he said as he took a steel carabiner and a few gadgets and fashioned a system with two ropes in each hand (and noting the importance of never crossing them), one for descending and another for releasing additional slack needed to reach the bottom.

We amassed at the bottom, where we found a trickling stream and pools of water. As the group’s “dipstick,” it was my turn to say goodbye to my dry feet and immerse myself in the puddle to measure depth. I was surprised to learn that canyon flooding is a very genuine and immediate danger in the event of rain storms. Although lightning is rare, the risk of getting stranded is high as the funneling nature of the canyons causes water levels to rise immediately, with as little as 10 minutes available to find high ground.

Working through the base, we eventually found our way to the slot canyon. With only so much space for falling rocks to go, the narrow size belied the importance of our helmets. We squeezed through the path to a small, luminous clearing several meters in, where one could see clouds speeding past blue skies out of a narrow gap above. The lines on the canyon walls, which seemed to converge within the narrow interior space to create a surreal motion-like effect, offered some thrilling photographs as we enjoyed the peace of the serene alcove.

From here, we began our exit. We returned to the steep rappelling wall, where the “meat” came into play by taking a path up the side and holding position at the top. Rick summoned a big yellow rope about 15 feet long and threw it upwards. “Grab onto Big Bird,” he said as he demonstrated the anchoring process. After the “meat” moored themselves, we each ascended to the top, where we arrived at the initial large puddle, but passage was inaccessible by normal means given the steepness of the rocks from this direction. Using our now-experienced trail ingenuity, two others and I amassed in the water to form a “hand bridge,” where we braced ourselves and, making cradles with our palms, invited the others to step into them one boot at a time. Working in tandem, those of us in the “hand bridge” group moved back-to-front to fashion new “steps” to complete the bridge until each person had made it to the other side.

These little bits of camaraderie were, without a doubt, my favorite part of canyoneering. Tackling slot canyons and climbing walls is fun in and of itself, but the back-to-basics feeling of using nothing but ourselves and our wits to decipher the terrain together was a satisfying take on the outdoors that I couldn’t get enough of. After grabbing some delicious vegan lemon ice cream back at the office to cap our adventure, we headed to our accommodations.

We would be staying at Under Canvas for the evening, a comfy glamping experience with locations popping up around many of America’s national parks. We pulled into the main tent, a large, white pointed structure set up against the backdrop of a dazzling mountain landscape, with cozy fire pits lining the perimeter surrounded by illuminated gravel paths that led into the woods concealing our tents. I admired the wooden aesthetic of my room, perched on a short hilltop, and noted the pile of chopped timber next to my wood-burning fireplace before dropping off my things to join the group for dinner.

An authentic Western setting demands an authentic Western experience, which we found up the road at Ebenezer’s Bar and Grill. The rustic, no-frills restaurant offered fantastic options for comfort food, including steak, barbecue, mashed potatoes, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese. After some time conversing and dining, the lights dimmed, and the Bryce Canyon Wranglers, decked out in the flashiest cowboy finery, took center stage. I stuffed my face while watching the band play twangy originals and covers of country classics from artists like Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, and George Jones. After ending their set with a massive group singalong of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” we piled in our shuttle to return to our tents.

Bryce Canyon Country

The next day, we’d finally be venturing into Bryce Canyon. We drove into Tropic to meet our guides at Grand Staircase ATV, who would give us a tour of Bryce Canyon’s “back door.” We zipped up a few gravel trails to a lofty vantage point hidden in the trees, admiring the painterly blurring of verdant greens into the bright desert reds of Bryce. This view seemed to tease us more than anything to get a closer look at the famous park, and after grabbing a hearty lunch from I.D.K. Barbecue in town, we started our voyage into the canyon proper.

Ebenezer Bryce, the canyon’s namesake, once remarked that the canyon was a “hell of a place to lose a cow.” He’s certainly not wrong: with its craggy walls and alien-looking hoodoos, whose red color is the result of iron oxide, Bryce has an unmistakable enchantment that looks and feels completely different from any other park in the United States. Among numerous trails and camping options found here, the fiery hues of the walls and hoodoos have a hypnotic quality about them and paint a magical scene when joined with the colors painted in the sky when the sun is low, perhaps best experienced by being at Sunset and Sunrise Points at their corresponding times. Of course, the best way to be mesmerized by a canyon is right in the center, flanked on both sides by towering cliffs, which we’d soon be doing on horseback courtesy of Canyon Trail Rides, located right in the park.

A local cowboy assigned a small black steed named “Miss Piggy” to me, and after learning a few techniques for driving the horse—pulling left/right to steer, up to brake, and giving little kicks to go forward—we began our trek to the canyon floor. We rode through a wooded path, and light shining through the trees seemed to hint at the stunning view just beyond. We got closer, with trees slowly giving way with each step until we arrived at the rim, and the sudden, total breadth of Bryce created a forceful impact on the senses, where the vast, majestic expanse and detail were almost too much for the mind to take at once. As we descended the precariously narrow path, with Miss Piggy occasionally stopping for a bathroom break or to sample a bite from one of the many tasty branches on the trail, I found myself wrestling with the desire to take my focus off of the reins and snap as many photos as I could. Luckily, our tour guide, Landon, would frequently stop and point out some random fact about the scenery or crack a joke, thankfully providing me a window to do so.

We dined back at Under Canvas later that evening and, in true camping fashion, ended our adventure with s’mores around the fire pit. After some pleasant conversation with my group, we all retreated to our tents, but I wasn’t tired. I decided that the fresh air and wide open spaces here, as well as my wistfulness at leaving the next day, made conditions ripe for stargazing and a little reflection. I gleefully put on my jacket (in mid-August) and returned to the fire pits. I found an empty circle and seated myself, allowing a moment to absorb the moment and ambiance of the nature and stars surrounding me, and before too long, I found others making their way to my pit and asking to join me.

I’m of the belief that you encounter certain kinds of people sitting around a fire, so I happily obliged. Under the perfect Utah stars, I enjoyed meeting strangers from a surprisingly diverse set of destinations: A father/daughter duo from Italy on a road trip through the western states. Two couples from New York City and France experiencing parks in the high desert. A pair from Atlanta celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, emphasizing the importance of taking breaks from their busy medical practice to experience life. All of them, like myself, were enjoying their last night here, making the most of our final moments in the pristine scenery to meet and converse—adding yet another of those little moments that make traveling worth it. 

It’s that feeling—wanting to extend fleeting time, to sacrifice sleep, to create one more moment to take with you—that exemplifies the magic of Bryce Canyon Country. These kinds of experiences—your experiences, unique to each traveler—await those intrepid enough to brave the distance across Utah and discover these treasures found within these upper steps of the Grand Staircase. Come for the unmatched desert scenery, and stay for the memories that will remain long after you’ve seen your last hoodoo.

John Sizemore is a travel writer, photographer, yoga teacher, and visual entertainment developer based out of Austin, Texas. Follow him on Instagram at @sizemoves. In his downtime, John likes to learn foreign languages and get immersed in other worlds, particularly those of music, film, games, and books in addition to exploring the world.

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