Bryce Canyon
Historic Resource Study
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Small by National Park standards, the 56.2 square miles of Bryce Canyon National Park (BRCA) occupy the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in south-central Utah. The park is not a canyon. Rather, it is a spectacular series of 14 huge amphitheaters, each of which is carved at least 1,000 feet into the chromatic limestone of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Thus, the geological features of Bryce Canyon represent the park's principal distinction. In fact, Bryce properly presents one of the world's best sites for an appreciation of the inexorable, titanic forces which have shaped the globe's surface. Each of the park's amphitheaters is crowded with protean rock sculptures. Domes, pinnacles, windows, natural bridges, arches, and temples accent an ethereal landscape. The color of these rock formations, augmented by a rising or setting sun, is delicate and often extraordinarily beautiful. Reds, yellows, and whites are predominant, and at least 60 tints of these basic colors have been recognized. In southern Utah this rock is referred to as the Wasatch Formation or Pink Cliffs.


Due to its outstanding geomorphic qualities, this area of the State has been studied intensively by geologists for more than a century. In the aggregate their research has conclusively demonstrated the reasons for the resultant fairyland of Bryce Canyon. About 60,000,000 years ago, during the Eocene Epoch of the Tertiary Period, most of southern Utah was covered by water. Inland seas and lakes deposited silt, sand, and lime in beds as deep as 2,000 feet thick. Minerals cemented rock particles together. The weight of overlying deposits and incomprehensible lengths of time completed the transition from sediment to sedimentary rock. Subsequently, about 13,000,000 years ago, near the beginning of the Pliocene Period, diastrophic pressure from within the earth caused the entire area to rise slowly. Beds of rock formerly located at sea level were pushed to heights of several thousand feet or more. These beds cracked along fault lines and separated into the seven major tables located in southwestern Utah. Two of these plateaus, exclusive of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, are located within a few miles of the park. The Aquarius Plateau lies to the east. To the west, the Markagunt Plateau is visible across the Sevier Fault.

Because of this homologous regional development, the geological story of Bryce Canyon is inseparable from that of other scenic attractions in southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona. The sedimentary foundations of Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks National Monument, 65 miles to the northeast, rest on what would be the summit of Zion National Park. Zion, in turn, has its foundation on what would be the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is well known that the Grand Canyon clearly reveals the story of ancient geological time (Paleozoic). Some of its exposed rock in the Inner Gorge dates back approximately 1,750,000,000 years. Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Cedar Breaks dramatically complement this record. The former displays the events of medieval geological time (Mesozoic). Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks present a graphic record of modern geology (Cenozoic).

The Paunsaugunt Plateau has had its sides exposed to the elements. Full of fractures, these sides are extremely vulnerable to the forces of erosion—particularly weathering. Both physical weathering (disintegration) and chemical weathering (decomposition) are prominent in widening Bryce Canyon's amphitheaters. Disintegrative agents, such as frost action, principally weakens rocks that were fractured in the faulting process. Organic elements, too, such as the pressure from plant roots and burrowing animals, serve to loosen rock material.

Streams and their myriad tributaries, which form from rain and melting snow, do drain off the Paunsaugunt Plateau but flow opposite the amphitheaters. Rather, it is the rain and snow that fall directly into the amphitheaters—and intermittent streams formed from these sources—that are responsible for down-cutting. [1] The park's deepest and most precipitous amphitheaters are carved by the most active intermittent streams at work for the longest time. Naturally, periodic floods greatly accelerate this process. Amphitheater wails on the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau have been receding in a northwesterly direction at the approximate rate of 1 foot per 50 years. It has probably taken over a million years for the plateau rim to erode back from the original fault escarpment, some 2-1/2 miles to its present location. [2]

Protean rock formations in Bryce Canyon are basically determined by the hardness of the rocks themselves. Since rock strata exhibit different degrees of hardness, they erode at different rates. More resilient limestones tend to form shelves and ledges. When eroded, softer shales and sands leave grooves, recesses, and small caves.

The brilliant coloration of rock formations in Bryce Canyon results from the presence of specific minerals originally present in the sedimentary rock. Once exposed these minerals oxidize. Hydrous iron oxide compounds, such as hematite and limonite, produce gradations of red and yellow respectively. Purplish or lavender rock likely contain manganese oxides. White sections of rock—and to a lesser extent, cream—have had most of the mineral content leached out of them. In places within the park's amphitheaters, the whiter limestones and siltstones of the Wasatch Formation are coated with a thin layer of reddish sediment. This phenomenon results from a once higher mineral deposit left by rain or snow-melt. Evaporation often leaves the colorful residue plastered to a much lighter surface.


As a result of elevation and precipitation, the plants of Bryce Canyon grow in three distinct but overlapping zones. At an altitude of 6,600 to 7,000 feet the Upper Sonoran Zone furnishes a habitable environment for sagebrush, the pinyon pine, and Utah juniper. These areas within the zone are often collectively referred to as the "pygmy forest." A Transition Zone from 7,000 to 8,500 feet displays a profusion of yellow pine, which constitutes approximately half of the park's trees. Above 8,500 feet, the Canadian Zone sports white pine and ancient bristlecone pine, white fir, blue spruce, and aspen clustered in groves or standing alone.

Mammals most frequently seen within the park include mule deer, porcupines, skunks, yellow bellied marmots, ground squirrels, pine squirrels, gray fox, picket gophers, a variety of mice, and the ubiquitous chipmunk. Red-tailed hawks, woodpeckers, owls, and ravens well represent larger members of the bird family. The park's smaller birds include flycatchers, swallows, jays, chickadees, wrens, thrushes, and a variety of sparrows. Only a few species of reptiles are able to exist in the high, cold forest of the Paunsaugunt region. These include the horned lizard, desert whiptail lizard, and three snakes—the gopher snake, garter snake, and Great Basin rattlesnake.


Scant information is available regarding the archeological resources of Bryce Canyon or its immediate environs. [3] There is, consequently, little to imply that the aboriginal inhabitants of Utah or adjoining states found the Bryce Canyon area an attractive place for large-scale settlement. Some fragmentary artifacts have been located in the canyons tributary to the Paria River south of the park. These are thought to identify the Basket Makers as the earliest known inhabitants of the region. Shortly after A.D. 1000, the Puebloans may have followed the Basket Makers into the region, occupying some sites along tributaries of the Paria and Sevier River. [4] If these were indeed Puebloans perhaps their archeological remains—best preserved in rock carvings and paintings on canyon walls—represent the outposts of the main Pueblo settlements in Arizona and New Mexico. A more recent theory holds that it was really Indians of the Desert Culture who migrated into the area and emulated a higher Puebloan civilization to the south and east. [5] Whether Puebloan or Desert Culture, post-Basket Maker activity in the Paunsaugunt region faded rapidly after A.D. 1200.

Thereafter, the Paiutes—a primitive, peaceful, seminomadic people—gradually filtered into the area. Paiute arrowheads and chipped obsidian tools have been found in relative abundance, implying that the region was used by them for hunting and gathering activities, but little else. At about the same time it is thought that Navajos from south of the Colorado River made periodic incursions into the Bryce Canyon region in search of animal pelts and readily available booty. [6] No native Americans of any kind now live in Garfield County, which is where Bryce Canyon is located, nor in adjoining Kane and Wayne Counties.

Paiute Place Names

Paiute legends and place names illustrate how these aborigines viewed Bryce Canyon. In 1936 "the legend of Bryce Canyon" was explained to the Zion-Bryce Park Naturalist by Indian Dick, an elderly Paiute who then lived on the Kaibab Reservation:

Before there were any Indians, the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. There were many of them. They were of many kinds—birds, animals, lizards, and such things—but they looked like people. They were not people; they had power to make themselves look that way. For some reason the Legend People in that place were bad; they did something that was not good, perhaps a fight, perhaps some stole something .... the tale is not clear at this point. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now, all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks. The name of that place is Angka-ku-wass-a-wits. This is the story the people tell.

Indian Johnnie, Dick's nephew, translated "Angka-ku-wass-a-wits" as "red painted faces." The Paiute name "Unka-timpe-wa-wince-pock-ich" has often been cited as the Paiute name for Bryce Canyon, supposedly meaning "red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped recess." [8] When asked by the Naturalist about this name, Indian Dick replied that the Paiutes never referred to Bryce Canyon that way. [9] The Paiute, Toney Tillohash, has explained that the phrase could be used as a descriptive term, but would literally mean "red-rocks-many-standing-holes." [10]

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Last Updated: 25-Aug-2004