Bryce Canyon National Park, in southwestern Utah, is like being on another planet. The natural amphitheater has fantastical red, orange, pink, salmon and white geological formations. Canyon hiking is unique in that you get to do the fun part first -- hike down -- and the hard part -- climbing back out of the canyon -- when you are finished enjoying the journey.
My friend and I, both experienced Southwest hikers, arrived early one morning for our seventh or eighth hike down into Bryce Canyon. It was a perfect hiking day: temperature in the low 70s and not a wisp of a cloud anywhere. Weather is a very important factor in hiking, particularly in the Southwest. At the very first sign of a tiny cloud, it is time to start back. We knew that storms come up very quickly, move like a fast-forward movie, and can be deadly.
The hike to the canyon floor was just as we remembered it, glorious. We quickly reached the bottom and started what was to be a three- or four-mile hike. After about an hour, I chanced to turn around and look at the view behind ... and was astounded to see the sky was black and moving quickly in our direction.
Picture a perfect crystalline blue sky and an enormous black blob rapidly obliterating all of the blue. We scrambled to the nearest trail leading up. It suddenly got very dark and windy and the temperature dropped 30 degrees. We put the rain jackets on. The storm announced itself with deafening thunder, echoing through the canyon, and spectacular bursts of cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning (which would have been pretty if it was not so scary). And then it started to rain. Angry, strong, fat raindrops quickly turned the ground below our feet to a slippery surface and then to a running stream. We were getting close to the up trail when it suddenly started to hail.
The trail up was a virtual mud waterfall. There was no way we could climb it. The hail began in earnest. It was very painful. Other than a few scattered pine trees, shelter was nonexistent. A few feet from our trail was an old, blackened pine tree that had obviously once been struck by lightning.
The truisms were in opposition: Lightning never strikes twice in the same place vs. never get under a tree in a lightning storm. Meanwhile the pain of the beating from dime- to quarter-size balls of ice was becoming a nightmare. We hugged the tree, whose blackened branches deflected some of the hailstones.
We were cold, weighted down with wet clothes and backpacks, frightened and wondering whether we would get out alive. But if we had to pick a place to die, the spectacular Bryce Canyon was not a bad choice. The rain, wind and hail stopped, the sun came out and the storm moved on. We very slowly and gingerly skirted the edge of the trail, which was still a stream, and made our way back to the rim.
Lesson learned: Make it a habit to watch your back.