The older I get, the stronger my urge to travel grows. There are so many places in the world I want to see: the fjords of Scandinavia, Antrim Island in Ireland (and, frankly, all of Ireland), more of Italy and England and the Netherlands. I want to hike to Machu Picchu and the peaks of the Alps and the crags of the Cairngorms. I want to wander the New Zealand landscape, see Mayan ruins, walk along the Great Wall, go running on a trail in South Africa. Closer to home, there’s still a huge list of places in the states I haven’t seen: Sequoia, Acadia, Glacier, (honestly, I would like to visit every national park), Mount Rushmore, the monuments and museums of Washington D.C., the Midwest, the great plains, the Montana mountains, the Knife Edge Trail on Katahdin. The Appalachians.
The list of places I’ve been is relatively small, as I’ve only really traveled very much over the past ten years or so. I’ve got to see Rome, Venice, and entirely too little of Florence, Italy. Bits of London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Niagara Falls and some of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
A few beaches in Mexico, the Green Sands beach in Hawaii, the grey coast of South Carolina. A few cities: New York, San Francisco, Seattle. A few national parks: Yosemite (where I hiked Half Dome), Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Congaree, Rocky Mountain. All of Utah’s, of course.
And it’s there that my favorite place in the world is. Yep, right in the state I’ve lived my entire life: Bryce National Park.
In May, I had some unexpected time off of work, so Kendell managed his schedule so that he and I could go hiking. Southern Utah in May sounds perfect, right? Warm-ish, definitely not too hot (Bryce is at 8000 feet, so it is never as hot as the other parks anyway), blue skies, maybe some wildflowers. We planned on hiking our favorite trail, the Fairyland Loop.
As we drove east from the interstate on the smaller winding roads that lead to Bryce, we felt the wind pick up and could see clouds gathering. It started raining, small off-and-on bursts of fast water and bits of hail. When we stopped to stretch our legs, we opened the car door to chilly air. It was undeniable: we were arriving at Bryce at the same time as a late-spring storm. In fact, just as we pulled into the entrance later that afternoon (after a rainy hike at Kodachrome state park), it started snowing. We just wanted to drive to the top of the canyon that afternoon, stopping at overlooks here and there, but there was so much snow we decided our little Corolla might not be the safest.
But we were there. We had our gear—the spikes were still in our packs from our winter hiking, we both had brought long sleeves just in case, and our hiking boots are waterproof. So the next morning we hit the trail.
Hit the trail in another snow storm.
My favorite way to hike the Fairyland Loop trail is to start at the Fairyland parking trail and hike counterclockwise. This way, you get the rim part of the trail out of the way first. Not that the rim trail is bad. If that is all you hiked in Bryce, its rolling hills and amazing views would cause you to fall in love with Bryce yourself. But the thrilliest thrill (at least, for me) is being down in the actual canyon. Hiking along the rim trail first gives you an overlook of the beauty you’re about to descend into. (And it also gives you one last bathroom stop, at Sunset Point before you start down into the canyon.)
Well, usually you get an overlook. For us on that snowy day in May, we couldn’t see much into the canyon because it was snowing so hard. This made Kendell grumble, as mud is one of his least favorite things. So I picked up my pace a bit and hiked where I couldn’t hear him. Because for me the mud—and it was super muddy mud, sticky and orange and sucking at my feet where ever I couldn’t walk on snow—didn’t matter.
It was so beautiful.
The pearly-white mist of the storm filling the canyon, the orange cliffs at my left and the deep-green pine trees and manzanita bushes at my right, all topped with white, white snow. It was silent, the storm muffling the sound of traffic you can sometimes hear on the rim trail, the snow a cushion under my feet. It was cold, but not bitterly, and my jacket and gloves were enough.
Then, about half a mile before the turn into the canyon, the snow abruptly stopped falling. The clouds thinned into white bunches so there were wide expanses of clean blue sky. The snow in the sudden sunlight glimmered, and the addition of blue to the color scheme nature was making was just perfect: orange-pink stone, green trees, blue sky, white snow.
“Beautiful” hardly describes it.
Kendell was hopeful that the trail conditions would be better once we got down off the rim and into the canyon. His hopes were woefully misplaced, however. Unlike on the rim, not much snow had built up on the trail inside the canyon. It was all just sticky mud. More grumbling on his part, but again, I chose to not care about the mud, because really: I was right there. The air was perfectly cool and fresh, utterly clean, and the canyon was dripping, the snow melting off of trees and dropping from the tops of hoodoos, filling the space with a dreamy sort of rhythm. The sun came and went around the clouds, and when I trailed my fingers against the canyon walls they came back wet.
The descent into the canyon here is fairly gentle, the trail winding around the cliffs and spires. At the bottom, you get to hike through trees again, the twisted forms that heat and drought and wind make a sort of echoing repetition of the shapes of the stones. A few purple wildflowers were blooming, and the usually-dry places were like tiny little meadows, lush for a moment with the plants that grow so quickly when the desert gets water. After a while, you come to a wash that clearly sometimes has water in it, but which I’ve never witnessed. This was my fifth time hiking this trail, but the redundancy hardly mattered because when we got to the wash we discovered not just the evidence of water, but actual water, rushing down it. We got to cross the wash several times and had to pick our way through the water with rocks and balance, trying to keep our feet dry.
At one spot, as I was crossing the water again, I stopped and just listened. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a…a waterfall? In Bryce Canyon? So instead of finding the trail, I walked along the side of the wash, following the sound, until I found it. A very small waterfall, yes, but, in fact: a waterfall. In Bryce!
I know I’m prone to over exaggeration. Of gushing about the beauty of nature. But that moment of finding the little waterfall was one of my life’s most magical. The sun was glimmering on the moisture still in the air, little yellow flowers waved in the breeze, and the water gurgled over stone that when wet turns from orange to a glowing, deep pink. Words like “beautiful” or “amazing” or “unforgettable” can’t quite capture that feeling of a dry place suddenly given water.
Maybe “joy” is the right word. Not mine, mind you, but the canyon’s. It was joyful with all that water.
When we were on the uphill part of the trail, hiking out of the canyon, we met a park ranger who was hiking down. She talked to us for a minute, asking if this was our first time at Bryce. I said “this is my fifth time hiking this trail and I don’t think I have ever loved it quite so much as with the snow.”
“I’ve probably hiked this trail fifty times,” she said, “and I think you are right. The snow and the water make it magical.”
And so, while I haven’t seen all of the world, Bryce Canyon continues to be my favorite place on this globe we call home.