Bryce Canyon National Park is one of my favorite national parks in all of the United States. With narrow rock spires and hoodoos, Bryce creates a fairytale-like experience that must be experienced to understand. Like so many beautiful natural areas, pictures do not do it justice.
Not strictly a canyon, Bryce is a collection of giant natural amphitheaters along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. As you approach the edge, you are greeted with thousands of spires of stones, carved from soft sandstone for eons by water, ice and wind. These are called hoodoos, and some are as high as 150 feet. Many hoodoos create tiny windows (small arches) or take on interesting shapes like the aptly named Thor’s Hammer.
The colors of Bryce would fit in well at South Beach or Curacao, with gentle oranges and pinks streaked with white making for an idyllic environment. The terrain is very inviting, and fortunately, there are hiking trails crisscrossing amongst the hoodoos that are highly recommended. The elevation drops about 500 feet for most trails and will make for a moderately difficult hike that is worth it if you can manage it.
Southern Utah is canyon country and has some of the most striking terrain in all the world. Being a desert-like environment makes for a very hot experience in the summer, but Bryce rises above all of this. The park sits on a high plateau with elevation that varies between about 8,000 to 9,000 feet and is a welcome relief from the heat of most areas nearby. The forests filling much of the park are filled with Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir that can reach almost 200 feet in height. The canyon edge is dotted with a variety of smaller pinyon and pine trees, including the Bristlecone pine which is considered the longest living organisms on earth with ages of several thousand years being known.
There are also occasional grassy areas with wildflowers in season, and you will often see deer, pronghorn antelope and elk grazing there. There are also many smaller mammals and birds to keep an eye out for. Please do not feed the wildlife. The ground squirrels in particular are used to getting handouts from well-meaning but mislead visitors.
Crowds of Folks
Bryce can get busy, but usually not oppressively so. In peak season, they will run a free shuttle to major locations within the park. Since parking can get hard to find when busy, the shuttle is a nice convenience and is recommended. In non-peak seasons, you can readily find parking everywhere you go.
Most of Bryce Canyon is accessible from a single road that leads from the main amphitheater down to Rainbow Point. There are numerous places to stop along the way for viewpoints, but in general, the hoodoos get smaller and less numerous as you drive south. I usually only go as far south as the Natural Bridge before doubling back. There are hiking trails that are accessible from some of these viewpoints all along the drive. I find them less compelling than those in the main amphitheater but they will be less visited.
The whole drive is about 18 miles each way, but you will have to drive fairly slowly for much of it. Please watch for cars coming in and out of parking for viewpoints.
Just as Bryce Canyon is mislabeled as a canyon, Natural Bridge is technically an arch. It is 85 feet high and is viewable a few steps from the parking area along the rim drive south of the main amphitheater.
The Rim Trail follows along the edge of the canyon in the main amphitheater area – from Fairyland Point south to Bryce Point. The trail leads to the various overlooks like Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Inspiration Point. These overlooks can be driven to separately, but you are likely to just walk between some of them. The most popular hikes of the park are available from these overlooks. Note that Bryce Point and Fairyland Point are a good bit farther along, so you’ll need more time to hike to those from the main area.
Navajo Loop Trail
The most popular hiking trail at Bryce is the Navajo Loop Trail. This hike begins and ends at Sunset Point. If you go counter-clockwise on the trail, which is probably the easiest way to go, you begin the loop by descending through Wall Street – a switchback trail that descends between high walls of sandstone. Once past Wall Street, the trail mostly levels out for a more relaxed walk. From here, you’ll see the hoodoos from below, interspaced with the occasional tall tree that has managed to find a foothold amongst the hoodoos.
Once at the bottom, you have the option to go in different directions than completing the loop trail. The Peekaboo loop trail can be added to this hike, or you can divert to the Queens Garden Trail which I discuss below.
If you stay with the Navajo loop, the trail starts climbing gradually here but eventually more steeply, but never as steep as it was at Wall Street. You’ll pass by Two Bridges, which is a pair of small natural bridges along a side canyon. Near the top of the trail, you’ll see Thor’s Hammer on the right. The entire Navajo Loop trail is 1.3 miles, but the 550 feet down and back up makes it moderately difficult.
Queen’s Garden Trail
Queen’s Garden Trail begins at Sunrise Point. Apart from the Navajo Loop trail, Queen’s Garden is my favorite trail. It is a bit longer, but does a much more gradual descent/ascent into the canyon. You can take the trail down and back to the Queen Victoria formation, or do what I recommend, which is combine Queen’s Garden with half of the Navajo Loop for a whole hike of about 2.7 miles. Note that you will have to hike along the Rim Trail between Sunset and Sunrise Points but this is a pleasant walk.
Queens Garden is more open, with farther views than the closed-in Navajo Loop but still having a nice collection of hoodoos to explore. I like this trail more than the Navajo Loop for portrait photography.
Mossy Cave Trail
One other trail I want to highlight is the Mossy Cave Trail. This trail is not accessible from the main part of the park, but is found off of highway 12 a bit further north. The hoodoos here are shorter than the main area of the park, but there will be a lot fewer visitors here and the setting is quaint. The trail is a short one of 0.4 miles each way that climbs gradually next to a nice stream. The trail forks near the end, with the left side leading to Mossy Cave, which is not a real cave but a deep recess in the rock. Do not enter the cave itself as the moss is delicate. Note that in winter, the cave develops interesting icicles that do not completely melt until mid-summer. The right branch leads to a nice 15-foot waterfall that is very scenic when there has been enough rain to make it interesting. You can see all of it in about 30 minutes.
The Grand Staircase
Bryce Canyon is considered the top step of the Grand Staircase, a geological wonder in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Layers of sandstone create distinct layers of different colors of stone and varying hardness that is the building material of most of the irresistible scenery of the area. Starting at Bryce and ending at the floor of the Grand Canyon, the eroded sandstone layers feature prominently in many nearby locales, including Zion National Park, Monument Valley, Natural Bridges National Monument and hundreds of slot canyons.
Bryce in Winter
Bryce is a great place to visit in winter. The hoodoos are even more scenic when covered with snow, and the view is a very memorable one. Snow piles pretty deep here, so plan on trudging through the snow if hiking, making the trails harder to navigate. There is also cross-country skiing and you can rent snow shoes at Ruby’s Inn if you want to try them out. There is a winter festival at Ruby’s in February each year. Ice Skating and sleigh rides are also available.
The road to Bryce is kept open during winter, but recent snowfalls can close them for a while. Check on recent conditions and I recommend a high clearance vehicle as well as bringing along snow chains for tires.
Be a Careful Adventurer
Bryce Canyon is a pretty safe place to visit. The heat of the surrounding areas of Utah and Arizona is lessoned to a great extent by Bryce’s high elevation. It still gets warm, but not oppressively hot. Still, take enough water with you in the summer months. Also, the hiking trails do not stray as far into the wilderness so risk of getting in trouble far from help is minimal. There is also still the possibility of snakes and other biting things, although the risk is likely lessoned compared to some areas in the southwest. I’d recommend you not put your hands or feet into tight areas.
The main concern is drop offs as there are cliffs along the bowl of the hoodoos. These cliffs are not as high as many others in the area, but it is still best to be wary.
Winter in Bryce offers some new risks. Cold can be oppressive so bundle up appropriately. Also, stay farther away from cliff edges to remove risk of slippage.
Lodging and Food
There are not as many options near the park for lodging and food as I would like. The main complex is Ruby’s Inn right outside the entrance. They have several lodging options and a couple of restaurants as well some shops and a few purely tourist experiences. They offer horseback rides into the canyon as well which can be a nice way to see it. The lodging at Ruby’s is a little on the high side, but its location and availability of services is a big plus.
Bryce Canyon National park also has a nice lodge where you can stay right inside the park, but be aware that it fills up early and you’ll need to plan ahead to get lodging in busier seasons. The lodge offers some nice meal options as well.
There are a few other motels and restaurants scattered about the area, including a few in the nearby small town of Tropic. Ruby’s has a pretty large camping area including full hookups for RVs and you can camp in Bryce as well.
In wintertime, prices in general are cheaper due to far fewer visitors.
Park Pass Needed
Visitors to Bryce Canyon have to get a park pass at the entrance station. An annual pass for all national parks is a good deal if you are visiting several parks during a 12-month period. There are a lot of great national park options nearby such as Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon.
A gallery of pictures from Bryce Canyon National Park can be seen here.
To read about other National Parks, go here.
Utah is full of things to do, learn about a bunch of them here.