The Coyote and the Legend People of Bryce Canyon National Park

ribbons of color along the cliffsides of Bryce Canyon National Park

Photograph by Nathan


Bryce Canyon is not, technically, a canyon.

The details are best left to scientific explanations about the means behind erosion, the flow of water, and other wonderfully intricate details about how a particular gash in the Earth’s floor is carved. Such details are of little consequence to a human eyeball, though, and Bryce Canyon National Park’s history is thick with mystery that can be easily solved with few technical explanations, but falls considerably short of doing the final result justice.

While one might be able to use technical terms to explain the pigment of every shade of paint used, the reasoning behind the artist’s selection of subject matter and why the composition is so particularly pleasing when defining some great work of art like the Sistine Chapel, one glance at the work itself is vastly more impressive than an encyclopedia’s worth of all the knowledge those technical terms could provide the viewer.

Named for Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish man disowned by his father for converting to Mormonism, who lived in the area as far back as the 1860s.

Though protected as a national park today, even that status cannot afford a visitor the same type of experience Bryce must have had back then, one of a rare few humans outside of a long line of native peoples to have lived in the area. Surrounded by the hoodoos, towering stacks of colorful stone that widen and narrow at various points as they reach into the sky like natural totem poles, he would have surely been inspired in a godly way by his very backyard.

That same beauty would have brought with it a price though, as winter temperatures can dip as low as -30°F. Men were built with thicker skin and more resolve in those days, perhaps, before the comforts of modern day technology pulled us so far away from our natural world.

But neither the technical means of how Bryce Canyon was created nor the man for whom the park is named are the focus of this national park. Vistas overlooking layers of colorful desert for a hundred miles or more can be seen, but these are not the heroes of this tale. Ancient Bristlecone Pine trees live here, thousands of years old and surviving the same frigid winters and high elevation Ebenezer would have, but again, they are not the focal point.

Everyone comes to Bryce to see the hoodoos.

Forgive again a lack of desire to explain them away with the doldrums of their being via scientific terms. They are not science, they are legend.

orange, tan and yellow hoodoos rise into the air
The hoodoos, like a city skyline of sandstone. Photograph by Nathan

Or more accurately, they are the Legend People.

The Legend People lived in this area long, long before any Europeans came, before even the native people who were found here. They lived in a time of gods, when Coyote oversaw this land. Coyote was said to be a trickster god, generally benevolent but always with a sense of humor.

The Legend People might be likened to modern day Americans. They took more than they needed, used the resources of the land beyond what it could sustain. They consumed all of the water, ate all of the pine nuts, and left nothing behind for the rest of the animals to survive the harsh winters.

So Coyote, feigning admiration of the Legend People, invited them to a great feast. They showed up in their finest, most colorful clothing, covered in elaborate warpaint. The feast was set before them, but before any of them could lift a morsel, Coyote cast a curse on them that would turn them to stone.

orange cliffs with rock towers like totem poles, the hoodoos
Hoodoos. Photograph by Nathan

They fled the canyon floor, desperate to escape with their lives, and as they trampled one another, climbing over the petrifying bodies of their fellows one after another, like heaps of zombies stomping on and disfiguring one another to escape, they were turned to stone.

Thus the hoodoos cling to the sides of cliffs, vibrant and colorful as the Legend People were that day, forever cast in stone and the lands surrounding left to live on peacefully for the rest of the plants and animals in the area.

These are the tales of Bryce Canyon National Park, and just as science can do it little justice, so should these words serve as but an inspiration to discover the land for yourself.

pine needles on the branch, looking similar to a baby bottle cleaner
Ancient Bristlecone Pine needles. Photograph by Nathan
orange towers of sandstone
Photograph by Nathan
dead-looking trees eek out an existence at the edges of cliffs, 9000 feet in elevation
A mother and her son feel the smooth bark of a thousands-year old Ancient Bristlecone Pine. Photograph by Nathan
a medium sized tree does well in the harsh environment of Bryce Canyon
A ponderosa pine snakes into the Utah sky. Photograph by Nathan
endless views of southern utah carpeted by junipers, pinyons and bristlecone pine
Photograph by Nathan