When most people think of a southern Utah hiking vacation, most of the images conjured up are of the sheer, towering walls of Zion National Park. But no visit to canyon country would be complete without a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park to stroll among its fairyland world of vermillion, orange, and tangerine towers known as hoodoos. No, I’m not talking about the folk magic conjured deep in the Louisiana swamps, rather, the pillars of rock that hold a magic of their own. Let’s explore their mysteries a little further.
What is a Hoodoo?
Where can I find Hoodoos?
Hoodoos can be found scattered throughout the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and the Badlands region of the Northern Great Plains, but Bryce Canyon National Park hosts the highest concentration of them anywhere in the world. Hoodoos can also be found in other countries around the world. In the south of France, hoodoos are known as demoiselles coiffées (“ladies with hairdos”) or cheminées de fées (“fairy chimneys”). They are one of the primary tourist attractions in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, and are as far flung as Serbia, Taiwan, and Alberta. Wherever they are found throughout the world, hoodoos inspire awe and tourists flock to see these pillars of wonder.
How do Hoodoos form?
Hoodoos tend to form in arid badlands with sporadic, heavy rainfall where differential weathering and erosion of horizontal rock strata carve out these magnificent towers. But let’s roll back the clock a little. Eons ago, layers of mud, sand, and silt were deposited by wind and water. In the case of Bryce Canyon, sediments were deposited at the bottom of a huge ancient lake. These softer layers were then covered by more erosion resistant layers such as limestone. Now that the ingredients are in place, the magic can begin. Over time, tiny cracks in the protective caprock (limestone) layer are penetrated by water, allowing the primary erosional process of frost wedging to take place. As water infiltrates the underlying rock layer, it freezes, expanding as much as 10%. This can generate as much as 2000 pounds of pressure per square inch(psi). For comparison, limestone has a tensile strength somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 psi.
Bryce Canyon National Park is located on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau and experiences over 200 days of freeze/thaw cycle per year, lending to its propensity for hoodoo formation. As the plateau edge erodes away, it leaves projections or fins. These fins continue to erode beneath the caprock and, eventually, a window forms. As the window continues to open, eventually the weight of the caprock can no longer be supported and the window collapses. This leaves the isolated towers that we know as hoodoos.
The Paiute Story
The Paiute people who have inhabited the area for centuries have their own origin story for the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. As the story goes, long before the Paiute people lived there, the land was inhabited by the To-when-an-ung-wa, or The Legend People. The To-when-an-ung-wa lived too heavily upon the land. They would drink up all of the streams and rivers in spring, leaving no water for the other creatures during the summer and eat up all the pine nuts in the fall, leaving no food in winter. Eventually, the other creatures appealed to Sinawava, the Coyote, a very powerful spirit. Coyote, being a notorious trickster, invited the To-when-an-ung-wa to a lavish feast and of course, they all came dressed in their finest with elaborately painted faces. When they sat down to eat, he began turning them to stone. They fled in terror, scrambling over the edge of the plateau and toppling over one another, making the many different sizes and shapes of hoodoos that we see today. The Paiute people call them Angka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces), referring to the many colors of the hoodoos.
However they got here, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park are a wondrous sight to see. Come and walk among them on your next Utah hiking vacation. Maybe you will see the faces and hear the whispers of the To-when-an-ung-wa.