Bryce Canyon’s 100th birthday a boon for business and stories about fairies, outlaws and lovers

Bryce Canyon National Monument was established on June 8, 1923, then became Utah National Park and was finally changed to Bryce Canyon National Park.

(Ruby's Inn/Lance Syrett) The overlook of Bryce Canyon National Park in an undated photograph.

A month into the yearlong celebration of its centennial anniversary, Bryce Canyon National Park continues to put on its best birthday face for the throngs of visitors there to celebrate its scenic splendors and geologic wonders.

On June 8, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox joined musical group The Piano Guys, members of his cabinet, park officials and Paiute tribal leaders to commemorate the 100 anniversary of President Warren Harding’s declaration making Bryce Canyon a national monument.

In his remarks, Cox credited a visit to the park during the pandemic in 2020 with “literally” saving his life.

“I came back renewed, I came back inspired, came back with energy knowing that we could do what we needed to do to move forward,” he said.

Party on!

A month later, the yearlong party continues with a host of events, including geology and astronomy festivals, a Utah Symphony Concert and an annular eclipse — a solar eclipse in which the moon blocks the sun but leaves a disc of light — this autumn.

Park buses featuring decorative wraps celebrating “100 Years of Awe and Inspiration” add to the festive air. So do all the visitors, who pack Bryce Canyon Lodge to peruse the historic photo exhibit that highlights some signature moments, including the park’s establishment in 1923, the monument’s official designation as Utah National Park in June 1924 and its renaming in February 1928 as Bryce Canyon National Park.

“There’s a general feeling of wanting to be a part of a historic moment for a park that is beloved by Utah residents and people from around the world,” said Bryce Canyon spokesperson Peter Densmore.

There’s plenty of history, natural and otherwise, to catch up on as tourists experience what is known as a “Bryce Moment,” their first glimpse of the park’s hoodoos and other geologic attractions in the natural amphitheaters along the east side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

For example, according to park literature, Bryce Amphitheater has retreated, on average, about 22 inches over the past century due to erosion. That said, as park visitation numbers attest, it doesn’t take a geology degree for visitors to fully appreciate its scenic splendor.

Foreign visits down; domestic visits up

In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 2.1 million tourists visited Bryce Canyon and spent about $195 million, which led to the creation of nearly 23,000 jobs, according to Headwaters Economics and the National Park Service.

“Businesses throughout the county have received a boost,” Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollack said about the park’s centennial. “It’s been a big lift to us and a huge celebration. There’s no other way to put it.”

Lance Syrett, general manager of historic Ruby’s Inn, founded in 1916 by his great-grandparents, Reuben “Ruby” and Minnie Syrett, said the number of foreign tourists visiting Bryce Canyon is increasing but still falls short of pre-pandemic normals. He said that shortfall has been offset by more domestic tourists.

Syrett, a fourth-generation family member overseeing the Syrett’s businesses, said the tourism trade has its lighter moments – like the times when a busload of Mennonites roll into Ruby’s and someone inevitably asks if they are Mormons. Others, unfamiliar with Ruby’s Inn founder Reuben Syrett, try to wax familial with staff.

“To this day, some people will still call the hotel and say, ‘Hey, Ruby was my aunt. Can I get a discount?’ Syrett said.

(Ruby's Inn/Lance Syrett) Ruby's Inn near Bryce Canyon National Park in an undated photograph.

Fairies and elves, Butch Cassidy and lovers’ trysts

Bryce Canyon’s striking scenery is complemented by its storied past. One of the best-known anecdotes is about Ebenezer Bryce, a homesteader in 1874 after whom the national park was named, who purportedly described the Bryce Canyon labyrinth as a “hell of a place to lose a cow.”

Sometimes fairies were easier found than cows. That was certainly true on June 1, 1925, when Utah Gov. George Dern led a 315-car motorcade to the Red Canyon tunnels to celebrate the opening of then-Utah National Park.

As recounted in the Utah Daughters of the Pioneer book “Golden Nuggets of Pioneer Days: A History of Garfield County,” a closed gate festooned with flowers barred the entrance to the second tunnel in Red Canyon.

“One little [girl dressed as a] fairy hopped up on the running board and asked Governor Dern if he believed in fairies” the book relates. " ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Then,’ said she, ‘enter into Fairyland.’ "

At that point, the gate was opened and children dressed as fairies and elves assisted men push the governor’s vehicle through the tunnel.

Storied outlaws also contribute to the area’s allure. Merrilee Mecham, who helps run a hotel, pizzeria and coffee shop in Tropic about 7 miles from the turnoff to Bryce Canyon, recounts the adventures of Wilford Halladay, her great-great-great grandfather who was best friends with Butch Cassidy. The famed outlaw supposedly had a hideout in Red Canyon west of Bryce.

Mecham said Halladay was caught rustling cattle and was sent to the Utah Territorial Penitentiary. When he got out, she continued, Butch gave him a bag of gold to help him get back on his feet. Alas, Halladay soon learned his wife had been cheating on him during his absence and shot and killed the man responsible.

“So he went back to the penitentiary for several years until his friends and neighbors successfully petitioned the judge to grant him a pardon,” said Mecham, who still has a copy of the judge’s handwritten pardon.

While in jail, Halladay studied law and later became Garfield County’s first attorney.

Lovers and locals of Bryce not only spun stories, but the canyon also sparked lovers’ trysts and marriages. In 1959, for instance, Utah Parks Company employee Elva Orton saw Steve while gazing out the window aboard a bus bound for Bryce.

Later, as the story on the Bryce Canyon website recounts, the two attended a fireside program and exchanged kisses. However, they waited until Steve Orton had served a two-year church mission before reuniting at Bryce to resume their courtship.

After 55 years of marriage, Steve passed away in 2017. In celebration of what would have been their 60th anniversary, Elva returned with her children and grandchildren to tour the park and found Steve Orton’s 1957 signature on the door of a cabin.

The following morning, her granddaughter Paige had her boyfriend propose to her on the rim and the couple recreated a 1959 photo of Elva and Steve that was taken at Bryce Point.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors enjoy the views from Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park on May 9, the first weekend day since reopening the Wednesday before. The rest of Utah's national parks have since open or are poised to reopen.

Tourism in Tropic and Escalante

As a little girl growing up in Tropic 36 years ago, Merrilee Mecham said the town didn’t have a single hotel room. Now the town of 600 has more hotel rooms than homes and tourism is its biggest industry. Her husband, Mclain, runs Mecham Outfitters and takes tourists on trail rides on mules. The couple also hosts Mule Days each May, which attracts mule aficionados from all over the country for trail rides and an auction.

All the proceeds from the event go to the Bryce Valley Cancer Fund to help locals who are afflicted with cancer and other diseases. Mclain lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 8 years old and a brother to melanoma several years ago, his wife explained.

Mecham and her sister, Kayce Brinkerhoff, are in charge of the family’s Bryce Canyon Inn and the Bryce Canyon Coffee Company, where they dish up java and dole out loaves of their famous banana bread. They also run the Pizza Place. When Tyson, Brinkerhoff’s husband, is not helping out with the business, he is teaching history and coaching basketball at Bryce Valley High School.

Billed as the quiet side of Bryce because it is more laid back and quieter than Bryce Canyon City, just outside the national park, Tropic draws tourists who travel Scenic Byway 12 from Bryce Canyon through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to Capitol Reef National Park.

Mecham said tourists like Tropic’s quiet, small-town feeling, seeing kids riding their horses and hearing cows and chickens. “They also have a view of Escalante Mountain and the Aquarius Plateau, and the sunsets are fabulous,” she said. “So are the stars because there is no light pollution.”

About 40 miles further east on Scenic Highway 12, Scott and Jan Roundy are also experiencing a welcome business bump from Bryce Canyon’s 100th birthday as well as from more visitors to Grand Staircase. After quitting their jobs in Heber City and selling everything they owned several years ago, the couple moved to Escalante where several generations of Scott’s family lived and opened Escalante Yurts on 30 acres.

Originally, the Roundys planned to open a resort with rustic log cabins but eventually decided to go with yurts because they were more exotic. They serve breakfast to the guests in their yurts each morning and have several Jeeps guests can rent to explore the area.

Jan says she also has become a “huge concierge,” steering guests to attractions they might otherwise miss such as hikes at Calf Creek Falls, the Hole-in-the-Rock Road and Peekaboo and Spooky Slot canyons.

“The scenery is breathtaking and absolutely mind-blowing to them,” Jan said. “They tell us, ‘This is so much more than we thought it was going to be. It is much more fun than a hotel.’ "

While Garfield County locals fully embrace the tourism Bryce Canyon National Park brings, reaction to the Grand Staircase is more lukewarm.

“Everyone is used to the idea that it’s here to stay, but everybody is really tired of the football getting passed back and forth, " Jan said, referring to attempts to shrink and enlarge the monument and disputes over whether to improve roads to provide easier access to area attractions.

Mecham said the size of the monument, nearly 1.9 million acres, is a sticking point for some locals who think it is too big. It also has brought a lot more people to recreational areas that were once known only to locals.

“Every little place that local people used to consider their own little playground has been [discovered] now,” she said. “But it has helped the economy.”

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