When something is called a mountain or a valley, we would expect it to really be a mountain or a valley. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. An example can be Bryce Canyon National Park in the southwestern tip of Utah. Even though it has the word “canyon” right in the title, it’s not a canyon.
At least not in the sense that this geological formation is defined by the renowned American dictionary Merriam-Webster: “a deep, narrow valley with steep side walls, through which a stream of water often winds.” Bryce Canyon (as you can see in the photos) is a much more complex creation of nature. In the words of geologists, “it was formed by differentiated water erosion”. During tectonic movements in the earth’s crust, some rocks were raised, while others sank, about 13 million years ago. Places in fractures and fissures were subsequently eroded and widened by the action of water, resulting in rock pillars and towers. If you’re not wise to such an interpretation, don’t worry about it. The experts almost have a recipe for how to bury the beauty they describe in an exact interpretation.
A natural amphitheater of stunning proportions
An amphitheater, i.e. a classic ancient theater under the open sky, can probably be remembered by every primary school graduate. And now imagine in front of you several such amphitheatres in a row. But giant ones, and especially those in which people do not sit as spectators, but in which hundreds and thousands of reddish sandstone towers and arches of various shapes, sizes and heights rise to the sky. And between them, pines, junipers and spruces grow in places. But almost exclusively alpine species of conifers, because this whole motionless but breathtaking theater is at an altitude of over two thousand meters above sea level, and you are also looking at it from the edges of those amphitheatres, which are between 2400 and 2700 meters above sea level. So you are standing roughly at the height of Gerlach in the Tatras, a thousand meters above Sněžka.
Ebenezer Bryce, the Scotsman who gave the “canyon” its name
Ebenezer Bryce was born in 1830 in Dunblane, Scotland. Not much is known about his childhood, but it is certain that he became a ship carpenter, converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He became a Mormon, as its members are called. He went to America as a young man, and in Salt Lake City, Utah, he married Mary Ann Parks, who bore him a total of twelve children. A skilled carpenter and organizer, he was sent by church leaders to Mormon settlements in the south of the state to help build them.
And so it happened that after 1870 he settled near today’s National Park, which bears his name. Of course, the purpose of Bryce’s efforts at that time was not to make the natural beauty of this corner of America accessible to the masses. The Mormons wanted to colonize the vast territories that had until then been inhabited by the Paiute Indian tribe. At the same time, the white settlers did not have many options when they tried to develop some meaningful economic activity that would allow them to obtain at least the basic means of living. They mostly attempted extensive cattle breeding, which they could let graze freely on the otherwise infertile land. The second alternative was to harvest and sell timber, which was in short supply in other parts of Utah and which of course they themselves also needed for the construction of dwellings and outbuildings.
Looking for a cow there is a hell of a job
Ebenezer Bryce tried to combine both. It probably goes without saying that felling trees and transporting logs in difficult, mountainous terrain was extremely physically demanding work. Although cattle grazed independently, they also required constant supervision and that meant long hours and days in the saddle. It often happened that the cows wandered off, and Ebenezer had to search for them at length in what is now the National Park. And that was not easy in this maze of sandstone formations of the strangest shapes. According to a generally accepted but unconfirmed story, someone asked him how he enjoyed shepherding in such a beautiful and interesting landscape. Bryce is said to have quipped that “it’s hell to look for a cow there.” Not that it was such a funny statement. But it apparently stuck in the minds of the people in the area and contributed to the fact that the place came to be called Bryce’s Canyon.
Railways as park developer
It is worth noting how influential private railroad companies were in the development of America’s national park system. In an effort to increase turnover and attract well-paying travelers, they promoted the natural beauty of the American West. But it wasn’t just about fares, the railways financed tourist infrastructure, built hotels and restaurants in and near National Parks.
In the 1920s, the Union Pacific Railroad created a special tourist circuit through southern Utah. According to existingcountries, Bryce Canyon has become a hugely popular and photogenic stop. Thanks to the creation of the federal National Park Service shortly before, however, it was possible to prevent the insensitive flood of tourists that damaged several other parks, including Yellowstone . And so we can enjoy the beauty of this “canyon – not a canyon” to this day. It remains one of the icons of the American Southwest.