Utah's Bryce Canyon's hoodoos and arches are an amazing natural spectacle that has been exquisitely carved over the millennia by the power of natural forces
We have been able to visit Bryce Canyon National Park a couple of times over many years. The first time we visited Bryce was about 10 years ago with our children, who have now grown-up and flown the nest. That time our visit was in late spring, this go we headed to Bryce in December between the Christmas and New Year holidays. And it was pretty chilly in the Park, which varies in altitude from 8000 to 9000 feet.
The nice thing about Bryce Canyon is that it is very compact and can be easily explored in a day. Below are some of the highlights of Park to plan a day around.
If you approach Bryce Canyon from the west you will likely be travelling along Utah SR12, which turns of Highway 89 between the towns of Panguitch and Hatch. The Red Canyon is about 15 miles west of Bryce Canyon. There is a Visitor Center just off the highway which is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It is well worth the stop here, even just to takes some photos. There are several trails that will give you a good perspective of the canyon including the Birdseye Trail is a moderate .8-mile hike offering spectacular close-up views of the red rock formations. The 3-mile Losee Canyon Trail provides a more rugged look at some of the Red Canyon area “crown jewels”
Despite its name Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon, strictly speaking, as these have to be carved by the cutting action of a running river. Bryce is a set of very special and delicate rock structures carved by the action of wind, rain and ice.
The park is set at a high altitude, the top end is at 9,100 feet. There is a road that runs from the Visitor Centre 18 miles to the end of the park – this is the highest point and is a promontory, that gives a 270-degree view down on the valleys below. Bryce Canyon’s distance from any major conurbation provides some of the clearest visibility in the United States and today we are able to clearly see Mount Navajo, some 82 miles away. From this point we head back down the road towards the entrance of the park, stopping every mile or two at viewpoints. The main features of the park are the delicate structures known as “Hoodoos”. These hoodoos have been formed over thousands of years by the erosive forces of water, ice and gravity. Ice is the most efficient form of erosion for breaking the rock into smaller pieces. The Park gets approximately 100 inches of snowfall a year and also experiences about 200 days of freeze/thaw. These three erosive forces coupled with the differential erosion of the four rock types found in the Park’s formation create the wonderful sculptured structures we see today. The most spectacular formations are in the canyon known as Bryce Canyon – the park is actually made up of several “canyons”. The late afternoon sun’s mellow colours bring out the best of the hoodoos and arches that can be seen from the viewpoints.
There is a lot to see in Bryce Canyon, but it is possible to see the highlights in a day, including:
1. SUNRISE & SUNSET POINTS
Sunrise Point is close to the Bryce Canyon Lodge and main parking areas. It is also the starting off point for the easy to moderate Queen’s Garden Trail. The view to the northeast from Sunrise Point captures Boat Mesa and the Sinking Ship, set against the stark Pink Cliffs of the Aquarius Plateau.
If you travel a few hundred yards along the paved Rim Trail path you will reach Sunset Point, offering a slightly different perspective. This is the starting off point for the Navajo Loop Trail.
2. INSPIRATION AND BRYCE POINTS
Leaving the Lodge area parking lot and heading along the park road you will soon come to the intersection for Inspiration and Bryce Points.
The first turnoff is Inspiration Point. The viewpoint at Inspiration Point consists of three levels that provide varied spectacular perspectives of the main amphitheatre. From here, visitors look toward the Silent City (near Sunset Point) with its many rows of seemingly frozen hoodoos set against the backdrop of Boat Mesa.
A mile further down this road is Bryce Point. From here, you haveone of the most scenic vistas of the full amphitheater and all its wonders amaze the visitor. Bryce Point is famous for its extraordinary sunrises. From here you can watch the tops of hoodoos set alight as if by fire from the first rays of the rising sun. Like fire, the orange light quickly spreads driving shadows from all but the deepest recesses of the amphitheatre.
3. NATURAL BRIDGE
About half way along the Bryce Canyon park road is the Natural Bridge viewpoint. Though the name tends to be misleading, Natural Bridge is one of several natural arches in Bryce Canyon and creates a beautiful scene at this viewpoint. This arch, sculpted from some of the reddest rock of the Claron Formation (rich in iron oxide minerals), poses a stark contrast to the dark green of the Ponderosa forest that peeks through the arch from the canyon below.
4. RAINBOW & YOVIMPA POINT
Driving to the end of the Park road, which is about 18-miles long will bring you to the southern end of Bryce Canyon, and its highest point.
From here at Rainbow Point the entirety of the park stretches out before you back to the north.
Before you leave the area make sure you walk to the southern overlook — Yovimpa Point. Here is one of the places you can get a good look at the sequence of rock layers called the Grand Staircase.
1. QUEEN’S GARDEN TRAIL
The Queens Garden Trail beginning at Sunrise Point is considered the least difficult trail entering the canyon from the rim. Travelling this trail you will see many hoodoos, representative of garden-like features. The trail is wide and not very steep so it is very easy. The drop-offs are not too bad – so if like me you suffer from vertigo – it is still okay. We went in the winter and there had been some snow, so there were some icy sections – but they were easily negotiable.
The trail is about 1.8 miles out and back – or you can return along the Navajo Trail. The decline from the rim to the Queen’s Garden is about 320 feet.
2. NAVAJO LOOP TRAIL
The Navajo Loop Trail starts and ends at Sunset Point but can be combined with the Queen’s Garden Trail to form a 2.9 mile (4.6km) loop. The decent from Sunset Point travels down a set of switchbacks down a narrow canyon with colourful limestone walls.
The loop has two sides, the Two Bridges side (0.6 miles) and the Wall Street side (0.7 miles). The Two Bridges side is open year-round, however the Wall Street side is closed in the winter months.
3. MOSSY CAVE TRAIL
The Mossy Cave Trail is located outside the main park itself just off of SR 12. Parking is limited especially during the busy season – so getting a spot can be tricky. The trail itself is very easy and is only 0.4 miles long, one-way. There is almost no elevation gain – so it is largely flat, with just a small climb at the end up to Mossy Cave itself. We visited in the winter, when you’ll find icicles hanging from the ceiling of the cave. In spring and summer the icicles are replace with moss – hence the name! Anyway, not the most exciting hike but for something quick and for those who cannot do the more challenging trails in the Park this is ideal.
4. OTHER TRAILS
The Queen’s Garden and Navajo Trails and the Mossy Cave Trail are great options for a day visit, but if you plan to spend longer in the Park of fancy something different there are other hiking options.
The Fairyland loop is listed as a strenuous trail primarily due to its length, of 8-miles and the ups and downs along the route. The Fairyland Loop Trail begins at Fairyland Point, at the northern portion of the park, and takes you through spectacular hoodoos and scenery along the rim and into the canyon; including a spur trail to Tower Bridge.
The Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail begins at Bryce Point and drops quickly to the canyon floor. This 5.5 mile hike is listed as a strenuous hike due to the rapid elevation change and the length.
The Rim Trail as it suggests follows the rim around the Bryce Amphitheatre. The nice thing is that it is has a largely flat section between Sunset and Sunrise Points which is paved and accessible to wheelchairs. The entire Rim Trail extending from Fairyland Point to Bryce Point has several steep elevation changes and is 5.5 miles
Planning your visit to Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon is famous for its crimson-coloured hoodoos, which are spire-shaped rock formations. You’ll find hoodoos all around the world, but Bryce Canyon has the highest density of the formations anywhere. The park’s main road leads past the expansive Bryce Amphitheater, a hoodoo-filled depression lying below the Rim Trail hiking path.
Getting to Bryce Canyon
From the North:
Take I-15 south to UT-20 (exit 95). Travel east on UT-20 to US-89. Follow US-89 south to UT-12. Travel east on UT-12 to UT-63. Take UT-63 south to Bryce Canyon National Park. The visitor center sits 1 mile inside the park boundary.
From the South through Zion National Park:
Take I-15 north to UT-9 (exit 16). Follow UT-9 east through Zion National Park to US-89. Travel north on US-89 to UT-12. Go east on UT-12 to UT-63. Take UT-63 south to Bryce Canyon National Park. The visitor center sits 1 mile inside the park boundary.
Take I-15 north to exit 59. Go east on 200 north, then south on Main Street to Center Street/UT-14. Travel east on UT-14 to US-89. Go north on US-89 to UT-12. Follow UT-12 east to UT-63. Take UT-63 south to Bryce Canyon National Park. The visitor center sits 1 mile inside the park boundary. This is a very scenic route during the summer months and early fall.
From the South through Bear (Dog) Valley:
Take I-15 north to UT-20 (exit 95). Go east on UT-20 to US-89. Follow US-89 south to UT-12. Travel east on UT-12 to UT-63. Take UT-63 south to Bryce Canyon National Park. The visitor center sits 1 mile inside the park boundary.
Public transportation to the park is not available.
Best time to visit Bryce Canyon
The best time to visit Bryce National Park is May through September. Not only does this period offer the warmest weather of the year, it also yields plenty of ranger activities. October through April offers its own charms, too. There are fewer people, cooler temperatures and the fall foliage and wildflowers can be stunning. In the winter, the park is transformed by snow and visitors can go cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. But remember: Because of its high elevation, the weather at Bryce Canyon in the fall, winter and spring can be quite variable. It’s a good idea to check the current conditions on the National Weather Service website before your visit.
Note: Bryce National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round, but from October through May, some roads, campgrounds and other visitor facilities are closed or operate on reduced hours.
Where to stay?
1. THE LODGE AT BRYCE CANYON
The Lodge at Bryce Canyon is one of the park’s most iconic historic structures. The Lodge and its surrounding motel structures are located a short walk from the park’s iconic Bryce Amphitheater and offer 114 rooms including lodge suites, motel rooms, and cabins. Reservations are highly recommended. The dining room at Bryce Canyon Lodge is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A gift shop is available at the Lodge.
2. BRYCE CANYON VILLAS
Bryce Canyon Villas offers free parking, this motel is 20 minutes’ drive from Bryce Canyon National Park. Each room features a patio with mountain views.
All rooms include barbecue facilities at Bryce Canyon Villas. A microwave, a small refrigerator and coffee-making facilities are also available.
3. BEST WESTERN PLUS RUBY’S INN
Best Western PLUS Ruby’s Inn is located 1 mi from Bryce Canyon National Park. It is just minutes from Scenic Byway 12 and the Escalante national Monument.
Each room at this hotel is air-conditioned and comes with a TV. Superior rooms feature a spa bath or a hot tub.
Address: 26 South Main Street, Bryce Canyon, UT 84764.