It would be hard to overstate how impressive the view of Bryce Canyon is from the rim the first time you see it. Our reaction was similar to when we first saw the Grand Canyon: stunned silence. Standing at the rim, watching the shadows of puffy clouds race across thousands of reddish-brown hoodoos in the canyon’s amphitheater, you quickly understand why Bryce is so popular.
This long, thin park looks as if it was a planner’s afterthought when studying a map of the public lands in southern Utah. But at ground level, it’s clear that the park’s landscape is nearly singular in its uniqueness and worthy of national park status; Cedar Breaks National Monument, about 60 miles to the west, is the only place we know of with a similar-looking canyon and a sizeable number of hoodoos. Whether you go to Bryce to stand on the edge of the canyon and take in the view or to walk amongst the hoodoos and lose yourself in the park’s maze of trails, you’ll leave thankful that a place like this exists, and it belongs to all of us.
Where is it?
Bryce Canyon NP is in south-central Utah about 75 miles northeast of Zion National Park and about 50 miles west of the town of Escalante, Utah. The park entrance on State Route 63 is a few miles south of its intersection with State Route 12. People often combine a visit to Bryce with a visit to the other national parks in southern Utah. If that’s part of your plan, you’ll be interested to know that, in addition to Zion NP in the west, Capitol Reef National Park is about 120 miles to the east. Most of the drive to Capitol Reef from Bryce is along State Route 12, which is a National Scenic Byway. Please note that SR 12 can be impassable at times in the winter due to snow, especially where it goes up and over Boulder Mountain north of Boulder, Utah.
It’s a Popular Place
The world has found the US National Parks, and it shows in the visitation statistics. In 2017, Bryce Canyon NP had 2.57 million visitors; that’s double the number of people who visited in 2010. The park charges an entrance fee of $35 (at the time of this writing) and is open 24 hours, every day of the year. The Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day (unless the US government is shut down).
Free Shuttle Bus
A free shuttle runs every day from mid-April to late October to help reduce traffic in the park. The first bus leaves the shuttle station outside the park at 8:00 am and runs at least until 6:00 pm most nights. Click here for the most up-to-date information about exact shuttle times and dates of operation.
Free Bus Tour
In addition to the shuttle, the park offers a free, twice-daily (9:00 am and 1:30 pm) Rainbow Point Bus Tour that takes approximately three hours. Check with the Visitor Center first to verify the exact departure times and length of the tour as these details may have changed since we wrote this article. Please note that you cannot see into the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater from the tour bus; the only way to view it is by walking to the edge of the canyon.
Our favorite activity in the park is hiking. Whether you stay on the rim to view the panoramic vistas of Bryce Canyon from every angle or hike into the canyon to get an intimate and up-close look at the unusual rock formations, you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable sights; there are no dud trails in Bryce. Keep in mind that the elevation at the rim of the canyon is about 8,000 at the north end of the park by Sunrise and Sunset Points. At the south end of the park, the elevation at the rim is over 9,000 feet.
The most crowded trail is typically the Rim Trail. After walking to the edge of the canyon and gazing at the magnificent amphitheater for the first time, most visitors stroll the easiest portion of the Rim Trail from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point. This 1.1-mile section has very little elevation change, great photo opportunities, yet typically has the most people. Use extreme caution when turning your back to the canyon while taking selfies. Better yet, have someone else take the photo for you, there will be no shortage of visitors willing to oblige. If you want more views from above, consider walking the entire length of the Rim Trail; it’s 5.5 miles end to end with an elevation change of about 500 feet.
Ready for some exercise? Great, because you’ll get a bit of a cardio workout by hiking out of the canyon. First, you’ll need to get down there; our favorite route to the bottom is the Wall Street section of the Navajo Loop. The elevation change from the rim to the lowest point of the loop is 500 feet. The park often closes Wall Street in the winter due to rock fall danger, but otherwise, it’s a breath-taking trail—pun intended. Once in the canyon, you’ll have many options for extending your hike; there’s a maze of trails in the amphitheater. Tip: Stop at the Visitor Center before hiking in the park to talk with a ranger at the Information Desk. They can help you assess which trails are best for your level of fitness. We often take the Queen’s Garden Trail out of the canyon, which rejoins the Rim Trail at Sunrise Point; that route seems to be a more gradual of a climb out than either of the Navajo Loop arms. The loop just described: Start at Sunset Point, hike down Wall Street, over to Queen’s Garden, up to Sunrise Point, and back to Sunset Point along the Rim Trail, is a three-mile hike.
The Fairyland Loop Trail, just north of Sunrise Point (to your left if you’re standing at the rim looking into the canyon), is less crowded, more strenuous (it has an elevation change of about 1,500 feet), but just as spectacular as the other trails in the amphitheater. It’s an 8-mile loop, but you could reduce the distance by a couple of miles by riding the free park shuttle to Fairyland Point and exiting the canyon at Sunrise Point–then rejoin the shuttle. You could also do this shorter version in reverse; either way, make sure you know the shuttle schedule and give yourself plenty of time.
Another popular hike is Mossy Cave. To get to its trailhead, you must exit the main area of the park, drive a short distance east on State Route 12 where you’ll briefly re-enter the park. From the parking area adjacent to SR 12, the hike to the small waterfall at the end of the trail is an easy .8-mile roundtrip.
The most remote trails in the park are the ones used mostly by backpackers: the Under-the-Rim Trail and the Riggs Spring Loop Trail. These paths are further south in the park and higher in elevation by about 1,000 feet from the amphitheater area. The amount of backcountry in the park is limited, but for those who want to find more solitude, the 23-mile Under-the-Rim Trail provides them an opportunity. Backpacking (camping in the backcountry) requires a permit that you must get in person at the Visitor Center. The park stops issuing permits to visitors an hour before the Visitor Center’s closing time, but you can get one up to 48 hours in advance. Permits are not available online or by phone. You must camp at designated sites, and open fires are not allowed in the backcountry.
For a complete list of trails in the park, stop by the Visitor Center in the park or follow this link.
Driving the park’s Scenic Drive is a must-do activity. From the Visitor Center to the south end of the park is 18 miles one way. All told, there are 14 viewpoints along the park roads, some of which require you to take short side trips off the main road (State Route 63) to reach. The elevation increases as you drive south through the park. By the time you reach the end at Rainbow Point, you’ll be at 9,100 feet. When we visit Rainbow Point, we always hike the short Bristlecone Loop Trail. Bristlecone pines only grow at these altitudes, and some of the trees along the loop are well over 1,000 years old. It’s a thrill to see these ancient trees up close and think about all that’s happened in the world since they were saplings.
You have a couple of options for camping in the park: North Campground and Sunset Campground. North has four loops with 99 sites; 13 of which you can reserve for your RV. Sunset has three loops with 100 sites; 20 of those sites can be reserved in advance. There are no hookups at either campground, but there is a dump station ($5 fee) at North. For more information about camping in the park, go to the park’s camping webpage. To reserve a site, go to www.recreation.gov and enter the search term “Bryce Canyon National Park.”
Bryce Canyon Lodge
Be sure to save enough time to visit the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge, even if you’re not staying there. The lodge sits a hundred yards or so back from the rim and is an excellent example of the National Park Service Rustic style of architecture. Built in 1924-25, the lodge is a National Historic Landmark. It has a restaurant in the main lodge building as well as a meeting room where rangers often give talks. There are three types of rooms at the lodge: cabins, motel-style rooms in a building separate from the main lodge, and a few suites in the main lodge. The lodge closes in the winter and is very popular, so check this website for available dates and book as early as you can.
Other Places to Stay
If you can’t get a room at the lodge and want to stay close to the park, try booking a room at one of the Best Western hotels just north of the park entrance in Bryce Canyon City. We’ve stayed at both, and we have no complaints to report. The rooms and amenities are what you’d find in a typical motel, but you can’t beat the convenience of their locations if the lodge in the park is full.
The park allows visitors to ride bicycles in the park on all of the paved roads. Even so, the main road through the park is narrow in places, and in the summer the traffic can be heavy. Use caution when biking in the park.
The sky at Bryce is dark. How dark? They hold an Annual Astronomy Festival each summer—it’s an astrofest for amateur and professional stargazers so they can affix their eyes on the heavens and geek out together for four days. If you happen to visit the park when the moon is making it difficult to view the Milky Way, you’re still in luck; the park conducts ranger-led, full moon hikes. Check with the Visitor Center for dates, times, and details.
There are a couple of important things to remember about winter activities in Bryce Canyon NP:
- Within the park, it is illegal to ski or sled from the rim down into the canyon.
- Before beginning an outdoor winter activity in the park, visit the Visitor Center to learn about current conditions and restrictions.
Bryce is magical when covered in snow, and when the sun is out, there’s no better place to snowshoe. The park also allows visitors to cross-country ski, but there are fewer opportunities in the park for skiing than for snowshoeing. When there’s good snow coverage, and the moon is full, the park offers ranger-led snowshoe hikes after the sun goes down. Check out the park’s winter activities web page on their website for more details.
Animals in the Park
Everyone loves seeing wildlife, even Karen. Although, she instituted a two-pound rule years ago during our visit to all of the national parks because I would call her attention to every squirrel, chipmunk, and lizard that crossed our path. I reluctantly agreed to her rule: not to say, “Karen, look. Look! Karen! There’s a fill-in-the-blank,” unless the animal weighs more than two pounds. We don’t have this problem so much when we visit Bryce Canyon NP; it’s home to some plus-sized mammals. Mostly you’ll see mule deer and pronghorn antelope in the park, but there’s a chance of spotting fox, bobcat, or black bear. Don’t count on a mountain lion sighting, even though they live in the park; a ranger told us once that the only time you’ll see a mountain lion is when the mountain lion wants you to see him (or her).
The nights are always chilly at Bryce Canyon NP due to its high elevation: low to mid-40s even in July and August. The daily, high temperatures in summer are usually in the upper 70s or lower 80s; it’s rare to get days in the 90s. In the winter, the lows at night are typically below 20 degrees, but when the sun is out during the day, it’ll usually warm up to 40 or so. Bryce doesn’t get a lot of precipitation; August is the rainiest month with just over 2 inches of rain on average each year for the month.
- Click here for the NPS guide to Bryce Canyon National Park
- We always find the NPS map of the area around Grand Canyon helpful when planning trips in Southern Utah or Northern Arizona. You can find it here.