It was pitch black inside the tent. The air was freezing – it had to – it was 14 degrees below zero degree Celsius. Almost like two soldiers on guard duty through the night, my legs and hands were alternately getting cold and numb. As if, the total warmth inside the tent could only be enough for one of the two sets of limbs at any given point in time. Somewhere towards the middle of the night, exhaustion from the flight, the drive and constant shivering took over and I could finally get some sleep. This was the end of November and the first of the two cold nights we were supposed to spend inside Bryce Canyon National Park over Thanksgiving.
When I reminisce about my Bryce Canyon winter trip from last year, three things come to mind the foremost. The cold, the colors and the sheer magnitude of the geological forces that are at play at that place. The cold was brutal, colors dynamic and magnitude astounding.
Visiting this canyon in winter had always been a vague idea lodged at the back of my head. The idea took further shape in the latter half of the last year; when I started looking for places to spend Thanksgiving weekend and the photographs of the snow-capped, bright orange hoodoos blew my mind away. Finding partners in crime was not that difficult, as my forever-ready-for-adventure-travel buddies Abhi (who also happens to be my boyfriend, aww), Namita and Bernardo were equally excited about experiencing Bryce under snowy conditions.
After going through the usual drill of landing at the airport, renting a car and driving ourselves inside the national park, we arrived at our reserved car camping spot at the North Campground. As expected, there were very few people who were camping, probably only 2 or 3 other groups. After spending some time deciding between hastily checking out the sunset from a nearby observation point and pitching the tents while we still had some daylight left, we opted for the latter. We had two tents between the four of us and with fingers going numb due to the cold every 10 mins, it took us more time than usual to get settled. Note to self – warm hand gloves that can be kept on even while doing dexterous activities are probably the most important piece of clothing that one should bring with themselves on trips to cold places. It was taking less than a minute or two for warm fingers to stop working after getting exposed to the cold air. The next most important item on the agenda was to get the fire going. It was dark already and we couldn’t even think of going inside our tents or having food without being treated to a blazing fire first.
Unfortunately, blazing fire remained a distant dream for us that night. Everything at the campsite was wet with snow and precipitation and we struggled to even get the fire to get started. We tried hard, picked up relatively dry twigs and fallen branches from around; but nothing seemed to work. After a feeble flicker, the fire would die away like a fish desperately trying to breathe his last, before ultimately giving up. Abhi was taking the lead with the fire-work while the rest of us focused on making food ready. Every time we go out for camping, Abhi turns into this person most adept at improvising and making things and tools work, lighting up the fire being one of them. But even he was rendered helpless that night and eventually, we had to ask the group camping closest to us for help. Fortunately, they had brought fire starters (a piece of flammable material used to help fire, as per Google) with them, which made the job easy and we could finally allow ourselves the luxury of a burning fire. Another note to self – prepare well, if your survival is going to depend on your ability to light a fire). The fire couldn’t last for long and with the dying embers in the fire pit, we bid farewell to the night.
Waking up early has its own perks. Not only can you witness the sublime rays of the rising sun, but also offer yourself some quiet solitude, something impossible in the mad rush of the rest of the day. A short walk from the campsite to the common restroom had me panting as it involved plodding through ankle-deep snow. Funnily enough, the restroom at this wild place was full equipped with electric lighting and even air conditioning. It became my happy place for the time being, owing to the controlled temperatures inside. I just did not want to get out of the comfortably warm restroom and face biting cold!
Day 2 was going to be the highlight of our Bryce Canyon stay, as we were going to hike through the canyon, through a maze of the enchanting hoodoos, throughout the day. After a quick breakfast that consisted of oatmeal and left over soup from the previous night, we drove up to ‘Sunset Point’. Sunset Point is the trail head for Navajo trail, which is further connected to the Peek-a-Boo trail, our chosen hike for the day.
We had to mentally prepare ourselves before shutting the doors to our SUV and going away from the warmth of its interior! But as we started walking with our day packs towards the Sunset point, the view started to open up and before we knew it, we were looking down at a vast amphitheater of hoodoos (a term given to skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins, NPS website). The valley floor is a maze of these tall structures of varying heights. At certain places, you can see trails going down the canyon and running across the floor, among the conifers and among the hoodoos. The amphitheater extends for quite some distance, the hoodoos and the fins forming what is rightly called the ‘Silent City’. Thor’s hammer, named so for its looks, is probably the most famous of the hoodoos at Sunset point, but pretty much every pinnacle seemed majestic to me. I had been here in the summer of the previous year and remembered being fascinated; but this time the beauty of the experience was enhanced due to the contrasting color combination of white snow and orange rock and red soil, against the backdrop of the blue sky. It was a spellbinding sight.
The 1.6 miles long Navajo loop trail begins at Sunset point. We started our hike by walking down this trail, zigzagging along the sides of the canyon, careful not to slip on icy sections of the well maintained floor of the trail. It was easy enough to walk and we didn’t have to plod through heavy snow anywhere, as long as we stuck to the trail path. Navajo trail is an easy, family friendly trail, which takes you to the bottom of the canyon. Along the way, you feel dwarfed down as you walk past the base of the hoodoos and they overpower you with their height and shadows. You start feeling like photographing every passing corner and structure; before finally realizing that pictures would be unable to do justice to the grandeur of the place. As you reach the bottom of the valley, the floor widens out and you also start seeing some conifers along the way.
Interestingly, there’s a decorated Christmas tree standing by middle section of the trail, which adds to the happy spirit of this place.
After many picture stops on the way, we reached a fork to join the peek-a-boo trail, a 5.5 loop which goes up and down through the canyon. PeekAa-Boo is supposed to be a moderately rated hiking trail because of its constant ups and downs. We also thought that it stayed true to its name as it meandered its way through conifers, arches, pillars and opened up new views around every corner. From high points, we could get a nice view of the expanse of the valley. From low points, we could see the scale of the natural sculptures around us. The walk seemed longer in the snow and made us hungry enough to want to take a lunch break on the way. We took shelter under a big rock to prepare out humus and guacamole wraps and ate away in the silent glory of light snowfall around us. The number of hikers at that time of the year was significantly smaller than the peak summer seasons but we still passed by quite a few of them on our way.
We did have a brief encounter with some deer living in the valley; but didn’t really see much in terms of wildlife. Spotting a puma was high on Namita’s bucket list, but being the elusive cats that they are, there was no chance we could have got even a glimpse of them while hiking. I am quite sure in my heart though, that the cat was tracking us from some vantage point high on the cliffs, or from behind one of those bushes or conifers!
Hiking for close to 6 miles kept helped us keep warm for most of the day. We largely forgot about the cold and were able to soak in the surroundings enjoyably. It did start to get colder as the evening approached and having almost reached the end of the loop, we began tracing our steps back to the trail head at Sunset point. The last part of the hike was all uphill, as we had to hike up the same part of Navajo trail that we had climbed down in the beginning of the hike. We were hoping to go up by taking the Wall Street portion of Navajo trail but it was closed for winter.
There was a certain satisfaction to having completed the hike and now we were looking forward to having a sumptuous dinner at Ruby’s Inn, a rustic hotel just 4-5 miles before entering the park. In some corner of our minds, all of us were dreading the prospect of camping in the terrible cold again that night; but we decided to first refresh ourselves at the inn, get fire starters and some extra logs for the fire and then head out to the campsite only later in the night. The weather forecast was worse than the previous night and the min temperature was going to be about -16 degree Celsius. While we waited in a long queue for a spot at the restaurant inside the Inn, it started snowing heavily and we all looked at each other with uncertainty written across our faces. Once again, we postponed the decision to after dinner and focused on the food.
The snowfall had slowed down by the time we finished dinner and we decided to try our luck at the campsite. I am pretty sure that the decision to camp was only made because nobody was willing to admit defeat and say out loud that they would rather spend the night on a cozy bed at Ruby’s Inn! Being the so-called adventurers, we pretended to want to at least check out the campground conditions and started driving towards it through the ongoing snowfall.
The weather wasn’t looking very favorable as we drove by. Within 5 minutes of driving on tricky road conditions, we stopped behind a car which had got its wheels stuck in the snow. We got down and went to inquire about what was happening and the two guys in the car discouraged us from going ahead from that point onward, citing bad road conditions. I think we all guessed that these two guys were panicking and probably even exaggerating. After all, we were in a rugged SUV and could have gotten through that snow. But it was exactly the kind of discouragement that all of us wanted to hear so that we could finally decide against camping and embrace the comforts of the hotel!! I almost thanked my stars for the worsening weather, haha!
Without a lot of deliberation, we (happily) took the boys’ advice and turned around to go back to the hotel. After checking ourselves into a nice lodge-style room, we settled in for idle chatter and a warm night.
The next morning, we were to leave for hiking in Zion National Park..