A brief history of what many Utahns consider their favorite national park (don’t tell Zion or Arches):

  • 1874: Ebenezer Bryce, a Latter-day Saint convert from Scotland, homesteads with his wife Mary on land just below the spectacular reddish-hued cliffs in remote southern Utah. He’s only there six years, but long enough for settlers to call the place “Bryce’s Canyon” and for Ebenezer to describe the towering sandstone maze in his backyard thusly: “It’s a helluva of a place to lose a cow.”
  • 1915: J.W. Humphrey, a U.S. Forest Service supervisor, walks onto the rim above the Bryce amphitheater for the first time. Smitten like a schoolgirl, his description varies greatly from Ebenezer Bryce’s: “You can perhaps imagine my surprise at the indescribable beauty. … It was sundown before I could be dragged from the canyon view.” Humphrey publicizes Bryce by sending out photos and film to newspapers, magazines and TV stations and building roads and constructing trails. He establishes a campground on the rim, charging campers a one-dollar fee, fully refundable if they don’t think the view is worth it. He brags that he never had to return a single dollar.
  • 1923: President Warren G. Harding declares Bryce Canyon a national monument.
  • 1928: Bryce Canyon is upgraded to a national park.
Bryce Canyon National Park is pictured on Thursday, May 18, 2023. The park will celebrate its 100th anniversary in June. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

We’re bringing all this up now because this coming Thursday, June 8, Bryce Canyon will celebrate its centennial. The park has been in federal protection and preservation for 100 years, during which time more than 60 million visits have been logged by the National Park Service. Every year Bryce gets more popular, growing from around 20,000 annual visits in the first years, to over 500,000 in 1975, to over one million in 2002, to over two million in 2016.

In 2022, the park logged 2.4 million visits. This year, who knows how many the centennial will attract?

Peter Densmore, the park’s public information officer, has been helping prepare for the big birthday party all through the winter. The hundred-year commemoration will go on all season, but festivities on June 8 will kick things off in style. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is scheduled to open the celebration that day with a speech, followed by a concert that night featuring The Piano Guys and the popular resident country band, the Bryce Canyon Wranglers.

Reportedly, the show will include a song specially written for the centennial by the Wranglers’ lead singer, Tim Gates. (Gates knows his subject: he also recently wrote a song entitled “Helluva of a place to lose a cow”).

The speeches and concert will take place at various points along the vaunted Bryce Canyon rim, overlooking the thousands upon thousands of hoodoos (vertical sandstone pillars) that make up the park and for the past 100 years, and more, have inspired people to experience what Densmore and his fellow rangers refer to as the “Bryce Moment.”

Bryce Canyon National Park Public Information Officer Peter Densmore has spent a busy winter readying the park for its centennial celebration. Bryce Canyon turns 100 on June 8, 2023. | Lee Benson Deseret News

A Bryce Moment is when the park’s magnificent panorama suddenly comes into focus — the natural world equivalent of, say, looking up at the Empire State Building or seeing the Taj Mahal.

“It’s always happening,” Densmore says. “You can go out there and see it throughout the day. Even if they’ve seen photos of the place it’s a completely different experience to step out on the edge of that plateau and suddenly, all at once, it’s all there, this theatrical reveal. It’s sublime. You can go back to the very earliest written accounts of people seeing Bryce for the first time and the sentiment and the feeling and the impression is the same — even if so much else has changed over the last 100 years.”

Since February, on a social media campaign he’s entitled “Hoodoo you love?” Densmore has been encouraging people to post their Bryce Moments online, to “talk about how Bryce Canyon has brought more love in your life. We’re really looking at finding these little slices of life at Bryce Canyon, to help people experience the last 100 years in ways that are maybe forgotten.”

In August, an employee reunion is planned, open to anyone and everyone who has worked or volunteered at the park or vicinity in any capacity over the past 100 years.

The goal is to spend the summer celebrating Bryce Canyon turning 100 in a one-of-a-kind Bryce Canyon style.

“We’re told by lots of people that Bryce is their favorite national park,” says Densmore’s colleague, BJ Cluff, the park’s visitor services manager who has also been up to her eyeballs planning and preparing for the centennial. Why is that? She searches for the right answer. “It’s not as crowded as a couple of the others, it’s easier to find places where you can have solitude. And let’s face it, when you stand and look out over those hoodoos, when the sun is just right, it’s a place where you can feel a connection to the land that is completely unique. There is no place in the world like Bryce Canyon.”

What J.W. Humphrey said, in other words. And Ebenezer Bryce, in his own kinda way.