As December storms paint Bryce Canyon National Park with fresh snow, you won't find a more beautiful winter landscape anywhere in the world.
Big words to be sure. But for some of us, catching this park in south-central Utah on the perfect winter morning is an annual and urgent quest. I'm looking for those days when the snow still hangs heavy on the ponderosa pines, when a new layer of white intensifies the canyon's red-orange turrets and towers.
Some guys search for big waves. I'm searching for Bryce on ice.
Not that it's always easy.
Inveterate weather watchers that we are, a friend and I have been tracking Bryce's snowfall for weeks. We're hoping to get out just ahead of a storm and then catch the immediate aftermath, when Bryce is at its best. Bryce typically receives about 7 feet of snow each year; in a normal winter, the park, which tops out at 9,115 feet, gets its first big hit in late fall. But so far this season, the winter storms have lacked oomph.
The snow's not building, but our impatience is. And so, with a tentative, kinda-maybe-sorta forecast for a storm, we throw caution to the jet stream and head for Utah.
Passing through Zion National Park, about 80 miles southwest of Bryce, we get the first signs that we may have lucked out. What is it about a good winter storm? Nothing is happening yet, but the chill in the air has an extra heft, and I can practically taste the coming snow: dry, with lingering hints of Alaska.
Two hours later along Bryce's Rim Trail, dark clouds are building like an overture above the fabled Bryce Amphitheater, where the circular contours and clusters of tentacle-shaped hoodoos give it the improbable look of an enormous red sea anemone.
Higher up in the park, the snow swirls in wispy cyclones across the road. A mule deer and her fawns move through the forest, apparently attempting to reach lower elevations as the storm crashes into the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
Sitting atop the Natural Bridge turnout sign, a pair of ravens appear unintimidated by the weather. Catching flakes of snow, their coal black feathers ruffle in the wind, and as we pass, the ravens grudgingly shuffle a few inches sideways along the sign, as welcoming as grumpy old dudes making room for new arrivals on a park bench.
Beyond the ravens, we get our first real taste of Bryce in winter. With a crenellated top that gives it the appearance of a giant rook, Natural Bridge seems to shiver under its frosting of snow. Snowflakes whirl up through the arched opening like ocean spray through a blowhole, obscuring the forest in the canyon below.
Our timing seems perfect, except that we notice a car shimmying down the rapidly icing road. We're about to get snowed out, at least for this afternoon. Trying to get beneath the weather, we head down toward Mossy Cave, a hidden spot that many Bryce visitors miss. In winter, its name does this frozen grotto no justice. Water seeps from cracks in the ceiling, drip by drip, adding to pillars of ice that rise from a glacierlike base. They resemble the canyon's hoodoos but cast in opaque blues, not limestone reds. A cluster of smaller columns is reminiscent of goblins, or of gowned figures in a shimmering choir. We are in a small but intensely beautiful palace of ice.