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Shortly after 1900, visitors were coming to see the colorful geologic sights, and the first accommodations were built along the Paunsaugunt Plateau rim above Bryce's Canyon. By 1920 efforts were started to set aside these scenic wonders. In 1923 President Warren G. Harding proclaimed part of the area as Bryce Canyon National Monument under the Powell (now Dixie) National Forest. In 1924 legislation was passed to establish the area as Utah National Park, but provisions of this legislation were not met until 1928. Legislation was passed that year to change the name to the new park to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Congress created Bryce National Monument in 1923. In 1928, Bryce Canyon was designated Bryce Canyon National Park.
Size and Visitation
Bryce Canyon National Park consists of 37,277 acres of scenic colorful rock formations and desert wonderland. The majority of park visitors come during June to September and are lowest in December through February. Each year the park is visited by more than 1.5 million visitors from all over the world. Languages as varied as the shapes and colors of the hoodoos express pleasure in the sights.
Early Native Americans left little to tell us of their use of the plateaus. We know that people have been in the Colorado Plateau region for about 12,000 years, but only random fragments of worked stone tell of their presence near Bryce Canyon. Artifacts tell a more detailed story of use at lower elevations beyond the park's boundary. Both Anasazi and Fremont influences are found near the park. The people of each culture left bits of a puzzle to be pieced together by present and future archaeologists. Paiutes lived in the region when Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. Paiutes explained the colorful hoodoos as "Legend People" who were turned to stone by Coyote.
The Paiutes were living throughout the area when Captain Clarence E. Dutton explored here with John Wesley Powell in the 1870's. Many of today's place names come from this time. Dutton's report gave the name Pink Cliffs to the Claron Formation. Other names - Paunsaugunt, place or home of the beavers; Paria, muddy water of elk water; Panguitch, water or fish; and Yovimpa, point of pines - were derived from the Paiute language.
The Paiutes were displaced by emissaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who developed the many small communities throughout Utah. Ebenezer Bryce aided in the settlement of southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. In 1875 he came to the Paria Valley to live and harvest timber from the plateau. Neighbors call the canyon behind his home Bryce's Canyon. Today it remains the name not only of one canyon but also of a national park.
Bryce Canyon National Park is named for one of a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters carved from the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah. Erosion has shaped colorful Claron limestones, sandstones and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles and mazes. Collectively called "hoodoos," these unique formations are whimsically arranged and tinted with colors too numerous and subtle to name.
Hoodoo is a pillar of rock, usually of fantastic shape, left by erosion. Hoodoo is to cast a spell. At Bryce Canyon National Park erosion forms an array of fantastic shapes we know as hoodoos. Surrounded by the beauty of southern Utah, these hoodoos cast their spell on all who visit. Geologists say that 10 million years ago forces within the Earth created and then moved the massive blocks we know as the Table Cliffs and Paunsaugunt Plateaus. Rock layers on the Table Cliffs now tower 2,000 feet above the same layers on the Paunsaugunt. Ancient rivers carved the tops and exposed edges of these blocks, removing some layers and sculpting intricate formations in others. The Paria Valley was created and later widened between the plateaus.
The Paria River and its many tributaries continue to carve the plateau edges. Rushing waters, carrying dirt and gravel, gully the edges and steep slopes of the Paunsaugunt Plateau on which Bryce Canyon National Park lies. With time, tall thin ridges called fins emerge. Fins further erode into pinnacles and spires called hoodoos. These in turn weaken and fall, adding their bright colors to the hills below.
Our dynamic planet is constantly being shaped and reshaped by dramatic events, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mudslides. Other changes may not be detected in a human lifetime. Geological timespans or Periods cover millions of years. The Cretaceous Period began some 144 million years ago and lasted until about 63 million years ago. The rock formations you see exposed at Bryce Canyon began to develop during this time. For 60 million years a great seaway extended northward into this area, depositing sediments of varying thickness and composition as it repeatedly invaded, retreated, then re-invaded the region. Retreating to the southwest, it left sediments thousands of feet thick. Their remnants form the oldest, lowest, gray-brown rocks at Bryce Canyon.
In the Tertiary Period, between 63 and 40 million years ago, rivers and streams flowing from surrounding highlands deposited iron rich limy sediments into an ancient freshwater lake system. The sediment became the reddish-pink rocks that represent the Claron Formation from which the hoodoos are carved and for which the Pink Cliffs are named.
The Cretaceous Seaway moved northward from the Gulf of Mexico into this region of North America. Sediments deposited as the sea invaded and retreated became the brown and gray now exposed at the park's lowest elevations and across the Paria Valley.
Sediments come from debris eroded from the land. Water carries varying sizes of debris or dissolves it chemically. When water slows or cools, particles settle to the bottom of the waterway, sorted by size and weight. Rocks form when particles are cemented and bonded together. Water running over surfaces removes the softer layers below hard cap rock to form monoliths such as Thor's Hammer.
Deformation, Uplift, and the Grand Staircase
Horizontal compression related to the formation of the Rocky Mountains deformed these rocks. Then volcanic materials from the north and west covered parts of the region: black rocks at the mouth of nearby Red Canyon and on the Sevier Plateau to the north still protect softer underlying layers. About 10 million years ago the earth pulled apart, moving and tilting great blocks along the north south trending fault lines. Layers, once connected, were displaced vertically by several thousand feet, forming the high Plateaus of Utah.
Older Cretaceous layers rested side by side with younger Tertiary layers across fault lines. Streams began to move sediments deposited by their ancestors. Working on weakened edges of the upthrown blocks, water gradually removed the upmost Teriary layers and exposed Cretaceous rocks once again. Now these drab marine sediments lay on the surface of the land side by side with the brightly colored deposits of freshwater lakes and streams. Edges exposed by uplift are susceptible to erosion. In Utah the southern edges of the High Plateaus have eroded into the cliffs of the Grand staircase. On the Colorado Plateau, the high elevations and mountains create micro-climates where forests may grow surrounded by arid lowlands.
Water erodes rock mechanically and chemically. Scouring, abrading, and gullying occur when fast moving water scrapes its silt, gravel and rock debris against firmer bedrock. Slow moving or standing water enters minute rock pores and dissolves cements holding the rock together. This leaves loose grains to wash away. Softer Cretaceous rocks were loosened and carried away from the upthrown block by the Paria River. The resulting Paria Valley is carved out of rocks that lie deep beneath the Paunsaugunt Plateau, whose edge is now exposed to erosion. Along the plateau rim conditions are optimal for erosion. Its steep slopes increases water speed and energy. Faults and joints from ancient compressional forces influence erosion patterns. Freezing and thawing loosen slope surfaces. Debris, carried by runoff, scours softer rock and creates gullies; harder rocks remain as fins. As gullies widen to canyons, fins become exposed to further erosion along vertical cracks. In winter freezing water expands within the cracks to peel off layers and carve vertical columns.
Flora and Fauna
Ponderosa pines, high elevation meadows and fir-spruce forests border the rim of the plateau, while panoramic views of three states spread beyond the park's boundaries. This area boasts some of the nation's best air quality. This, coupled with the lack of nearby large light sources, creates unparalleled opportunities for star gazing.
Elevations ranging from 6,000 feet to 9,000 feet and diverse soil and moisture conditions influence the park's plant life. More than 400 species grow in the park. At the park's comparatively high elevations, many wildflowers that bloom in spring elsewhere may bloom late in summer here.
Here are the names of a few of the different wildflowers:
More than 160 species of birds visit the park yearly. Watch swifts and swallows perform aerobatics along cliff faces while feeding on insects in flight.
In winter, mule deer, mountain lions and coyotes migrate to lower elevations. Marmots and ground squirrels hibernate. Most bird species migrate to warmer climates, but jays, nuthatches, ravens, eagles and owls winter here. While humans have severely reduced the habitat available to wildlife, a scarcity of water in southern Utah restricts human developments, allowing for enhancement of wildlife diversity.
Utah prairie dogs live only in southwestern Utah and are listed as threatened species. Under the Endangered Species Act inhabiting park meadows, these small animals are actually members of the rodent family. Their living requirements include vegetation sparse enough to see through and low enough to see over and a diet consisting of moist, nutritious grasses and torbs.
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