Travel: A hell of a place to lose a cow 

The unearthly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park create a surreal labyrinth of stone cut into southwestern Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau

"It's a hell of a place to lose a cow!"

Ebenezer Bryce, Scottish immigrant and early settler of Utah's Paria Valley, uttered these infamous words of the canyon that now bears his name. And although the 10 families that settled at the foot of what is now Bryce Canyon National Park in the mid-1870s had one of the world's most unusual and stunning natural features as their backyard, they were mostly indifferent to its ethereal beauty.

Concerned instead with matters such as farming the land, negotiating rough paths in ill-equipped wagons and generally surviving in the harsh climate of south central Utah's high Paunsaugunt Plateau, these hardy Mormon settlers had little use for Mother Nature's colourful limestone maze so near to their newly acquired land.

The short drive from Zion up to Bryce took us through the brilliantly coloured Red Canyon. Parts of Bryce Canyon National Park sit at over 9,000 feet elevation, and as it was only April the weather promised to be chilly. As we paid the entrance fee of $25 and entered the park, my mood was bleak. Snow still covered much of the ground making most of the hiking trails inaccessible and the scenery at the park's entrance was uninspiring. The campsite was set among the pine trees and had not much to distinguish it from those in B.C. Paying the additional $15 camping fee, I set my tent up next to a dirty snow bank while wondering if it had been worth coming at all. I had not, after all, just driven south for three solid days to camp in the snow!

Bryce Canyon is, in fact, not a canyon at all but a series of 14 massive amphitheatres cut into the limestone to depths of over 1,000 feet. Entering the small national park, one could be excused for assuming that there was nothing remarkable about the landscape at all. After all, it was only a high, tree-clad plateau, much like anywhere else.

In 1916, the Syrett family made just that oversight. After the birth of their first child, the couple selected a remote quarter section on which to homestead and start a ranch. Unbeknownst to them, they were a mere three and a half miles from the canyon rim. It was six weeks before a rancher took them to the spot where the world drops away into an ethereal labyrinth of hoodoos and slot canyons, soaring fins of stone and naturally formed windows that glowed in unlikely hues of pink and orange. The Syretts were spellbound and soon began inviting their friends to witness Mother Nature's unusual creation.

Meanwhile, back in the 1870s, homesteaders were making a go of it at the canyon's base, building irrigation ditches in order that their crops and livestock might drink. Ebenezer was a key figure in the construction of a road that terminated at one of the canyon's amphitheatres and thus came to be known as "Bryce's Canyon." The family soon departed for Arizona's warmer climes, but their name remains with the canyon today.

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