The majestic peaks, desert blooms, and geological wonders of the United States’ national parks have beckoned to billions since Yellowstone was established in 1872. Nearly 312 million people visited last year (2022) signaling a return to pre-pandemic levels.
Spring and summer months are particularly packed at the hundreds of sites managed by the National Park Service.
To prepare for peak season at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah—essentially, an island of crimson rock spires perched at about 8,000 feet—rangers begin restoring trails and training staff before the snows even melt.
This summer may be the busiest yet for Bryce Canyon which is celebrating its centennial this year.
Conservation is a key part of the National Park Service’s mission and Bryce has played an important role for one species in particular: the Utah prairie dog.
The park celebrated prairie dogs May 11 with rangers donning costumes, leading sightseeing walks, and judging a calling competition. Contestants try to mimic the animal’s distinctive sounds (some akin to a staccato squeak) which make up a complex vocabulary that can alert the colony to a predator’s size, shape, color, and speed.
Families met Petey the Prairie Dog, the park’s mascot, and observed the prairie dogs in their natural habitat.
Petey’s costume can get stuffy and rangers trade off wearing the suit which comes with a small fan at the back of the head.
Endemic to the state and considered crucial to its ecosystem, the Utah prairie dog was once abundant but habitat loss, intentional poisoning, and disease put it on track for extinction by 2000.
Establishing colonies in the meadows of Bryce Canyon helped preserve the population and today more than 600 prairie dogs call the park home.
The day lent biologists and rangers the opportunity to teach young wildlife enthusiasts about the conservation history of the species—inspiring some to become junior rangers.
The park’s 78 miles of hiking trails offer an up-close view of its rock spires. After months of snow and rain, rangers focus on clearing the way for visitors.
Every fall and winter, rain and snow saturate the soft-limestone formations at Bryce causing rockslides and degrading the trails. Every spring, crew members remove debris from hiking paths on the Navajo Loop Trail—an iconic 1.4-mile trek between the park’s colorful hoodoos, the name for the eroded towers of rock that date back tens of millions of years.
Unusually heavy storms and a wet winter last year wrought severe damage delaying the loop’s opening. One side of the trail remains closed as crews continue repairs, digging out the surface of the route and installing wire baskets filled with large rocks along the perimeter to divert water and facilitate drainage.
One sunny day, crew members picked up fallen bricks from a retaining wall by hand then excavated areas of trail and removed debris with pickaxes, rock bars, and shovels, and used rakes to smooth it out. This crew had five people—four working by hand and one driving a small bulldozer.
Rangers anticipate that the entire Navajo Loop Trail will be ready for visitors in June.
Rangers make sure humans stay safe learning to navigate the steep cliffs and towering pillars of the park when visitors run into trouble.
Bryce averages about 40 search-and-rescue operations a year with many emergencies arising because of the high elevation.
Park employees are taught to perform basic first aid such as CPR. In addition, some staff members are specifically trained as emergency medical workers and focus on prevention by monitoring hikers to make sure they are wearing proper footwear and are adequately hydrated.
Rangers and local volunteers undergo basic technical training, learning to use ropes, harnesses and other high-angle equipment needed for more complicated rescues.
To join the firefighting team, participants must complete a fitness test in which they have to carry 45 pounds over three miles in less than 45 minutes.
During one session for rescue training, some participants assembled at the canyon rim, a more remote area free of visitors. Outfitted with helmets and safety equipment, they tied lines to the trees to practice rescues and rappelling into the canyon to assist victims.
Some situations call for solo missions while others require teams and the use of a stretcher.
Last summer, a visitor could not complete the Fairyland Loop trail, a strenuous eight-mile hike. She tried to take a shortcut to return to the starting point and became separated from her grandchildren. Hours later, rangers found her clinging to a precipitous slope, unable to move. Securing ropes, they descended and lifted her to safety.
Rangers hope to prevent such incidents by encouraging would-be visitors to be aware of trail conditions and the risks of altitude sickness.
Horseback riding is a popular draw for tourists and one family has guided people through the canyon for years.
Like all national parks, Bryce Canyon contracts with private companies to run concession stands, lodges and guided tours.
One such company, family-owned Canyon Trail Rides has provided horse and mule rides into the canyon for a half-century.
From April to October, cowboys arrive at the stables at 5:45 a.m. to feed and groom the horses. Crystal Mortensen, whose parents started the business in 1973, loves summer days in the park particularly “when you can smell the pine trees and hear the locusts chirping in the manzanita bushes on the rim.”
In the winter, horses are put out to pasture while a few employees oil and repair stirrups and other equipment and make their own saddles. Heavy snowfall delayed the rides by two weeks this year. Because the company has to maintain its own trails, employees manually cleared two miles of snow—piled 7 feet high in some sections.
The corral is a short distance from the park lodge. Horses are tied together and travel in groups.
Visitors are assigned a horse based on experience (many have never ridden) before sloping down into the canyon. On early mornings, rays of sunshine peek over the hoodoos.
The horses are trained to walk near the edge to provide clearer views of the spires, inspiring the rule “Don’t lean and don’t scream.” The proximity can be thrilling or terrifying.
Simply looking up adds a whole new dimension to the park’s vistas.
At night, less than 1 percent of Bryce Canyon is lit by artificial light resulting in one of the darkest skies connected to a paved road in North America. In 2019, Bryce was designated a dark sky park meant to preserve the quality of the night sky.
Astronomy has always featured prominently at Bryce where rangers say the darkness is celebrated almost as much as the geology. Nocturnal views attract far more visitors during peak season so the park hires staff to meet the demand.
The park’s annual Astronomy Festival is scheduled from Wednesday, June 14 through Saturday, June 17. As always, the festival is free with park admission. This year’s festival will feature family-friendly daytime activities and ranger-led evening programs and constellation tours.
Kevin Poe, a ranger and astronomer at Bryce teaches employees how to operate the telescopes and identify constellations, planets and stars as part of a long-running astronomy program.
The park’s centennial also coincides with a morning solar eclipse in October where a ring of fire will encircle the moon against a backdrop of vivid red and gold rock spires.
When lighted by the morning sun the gorgeous chasm is an immense bowl of lace and filigree work in stone, colored with the white of frost and the pinks of glowing embers. To those who have not forgotten the story books of childhood it suggests a playground for fairies. In another aspect it seems a smoldering inferno where goblins and demons might dwell among flames and embers.
—The Union Pacific System, 1929