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Located in the state of Utah, and solidly in our universe, Bryce Canyon is quite frankly – out of this world. While the Grand Canyon may take the prize for Miss Popularity, Bryce is a hands down winner for stunning, unique beauty. Sitting high on an 8,000ft plateau, repeated freeze and thaw cycles over thousands of years have eroded soft sandstone and limestone into a landscape of sandcastle spires – known as hoodoos, standing tall and proud among deep canyon narrows. Trails descend though 1,000ft amphitheaters of rust and coral pink pastel spires, into a maze of fragrant juniper and hardy Douglas fir trees – some 750 years old, clinging to life in the harsh conditions, defiantly towering between the canyon walls. It’s an experience quite like no other, to descend into this geological wonder, millions of years in the making.
Bryce Canyon in one day was the goal. Hitting this spectacular national park was one of my day trip hiking adventures, while based out of Hurricane, UT following a conference in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas has a way of chewing you up and spitting you out after a couple fun days. So what better recovery plan than several days of hiking in the open landscapes of Nevada, Arizona or Utah? The Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon are all within a rental car with tunes cranked road trip adventure away, rendering a couple days added to tour the Midwest, a Vegas trip must.
When to visit Bryce Canyon
While Bryce Canyon is open 365 days a year, due to its elevation, the park is covered in snow during the winter. Summers are spectacular, but busy and can present extreme heat and sun exposure at altitude which takes many visitors by surprise. The spring shoulder season is less crowded and more temperate, but visitors need to be mindful of flash flood dangers in canyons due to rain which pools in a landscape unable to absorb it. The autumn is an ideal time to visit, with moderate temperatures, generally clear weather, and fewer crowds. The day I visited in late September saw temperatures 70-80s Fahrenheit during the day, and a dip to the 40s overnight. By October, the park generally experiences overnight freezing conditions. Zion, by contrast, has a desert zone range of 3,000 – 5,000 ft of elevation with warmer conditions at a lower altitude.
How to get to Bryce Canyon
The park’s sole vehicle entrance is 3 miles south of Utah Hwy 12, via Hwy 63. The park gate is always open, but due to traffic challenges, they have implemented parking restrictions on RVs in high season (May-September).
To alleviate parking snarls, there is parking and a free shuttle service, with departures at Ruby’s Inn by the park entrance, every 15 minutes, from 8am – 8pm during peak season. The shuttle makes stops at the amphitheater entrances every 15 minutes. The day I was there in late September, I drove the entire road initially up to the Bryce Amphitheater by Bryce Point to get a feel for the place. Parking was a breeze at this furthest point in the early morning during, but with limited spots I can definitely see how it would fill in during peak season.
If you plan to also visit Zion before flying out of Vegas
I based myself out of Hurricane, UT a small town down from the plateau, with lots of economical accommodation and dining options. It was also an easy 2 hour drive up from Vegas, offering a convenient and safe destination to roll into early evening at sunset after a full day in the city. Hurricane also offered easy access the following day to Zion National Park, being only 30 minutes away, and was infinitely cheaper than staying in Springdale at the park entrance.
The drive from Hurricane to Bryce was 120 miles, and took 2 hours 15 minutes. I took the scenic route at sunrise, ambling along Hwy 59 to Colorado City, Hwy 389 through the Cave Beds, and then back road 237 that meandered north towards the Coral Park Sand Dunes, and finally Mr. Carmel Junction and Hwy 89 through Glendale and Red Canyon towards Bryce on Hwy 63.
I departed early, with very little traffic on back roads through rural Arizona and Utah, to ensure arrival at Bryce by 9:30am which allowed maximum time to hike numerous park trails.
Where to hike
There are numerous day hikes into the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, home to the highest concentration of hoodoos. Most hikes involve switch backs and packed-earth dusty trails. Because all trails descend into the canyon, you can count on some heart pumping exercise to climb back out, mixed with lots of ups and downs throughout the canyon, depending on the trails you select.
I linked the Navajo Loop with the Queen’s Garden Trail, and did part of the Peekaboo Loop the day I was there. Parking for accessing the Navajo Loop was at Sunset Point. Since this lot often fills early, even during shoulder season, many folks take the shuttle bus to access. There are however several back parking lots at Bryce Park Lodge which fewer people seem to know about. I left me car there, then it was only a short walk back to Sunset Pt through the trees.
The Navajo Loop is the most popular day hike in the park, so you’re likely to be joined by lots of people at the beginning.
It’s a steep decent to the valley floor, passing Thor’s Hammer, the park’s most famous rock formation, and beneath that Two Bridges, a pair of small water-carved arches and then through to Wall Street – 100ft walls which block the sunlight.
The narrow canyon you slowly descend into has towering steep rock walls, which reveal a sliver of blue sky ever decreasing above.
Once on the canyon floor, the space opens up to a mix of hardy shrubs and ancient Douglas Fir. The Navajo Loop definitely packs the most scenic punch for viewing the parks named iconic rock formations.
Queen’s Garden Trail
The Queen’s Garden Connecting Trail also starts from Sunset Point and descends to the garden of spires, following the canyon floor. Doing the Navajo Loop & Queen’s Garden Combination Trail at 2.9miles, with an estimated time needed of 2-3 hours is likely the best route to hit Bryce’s signature features in a single hike.
Peekaboo Loop Trail
Hiking the entire Peekaboo Loop Trail covers 5.5 miles and takes 3-5 hours. The starting point is at Bryce Point, but it’s possible to get to it from the canyon floor after the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trail combo, which is what I did.
The Peekaboo Loop Trail rises and falls many times, so be prepared for a work out. And if you’re afraid of heights, there are places where you pass sheer drop offs. But this trail is also used for horses, so it is reasonably wide.
Just be on the lookout for horse droppings and mind your step! The jaw dropping scenery along the way, including the Wall of Windows, which juts above bright orange hoodoos atop a sheer vertical cliff face perpendicular to the canyon rim will leave you breathless. But so will some of the hiking ascents and descents. I was constantly grabbing for my camera, with every turn presenting a new spectacular angle.
Sunset Point, Sunrise Point & the Rim Trail Hike between them
If you are parked at either Sunset Point or Bryce Canyon Lodge, walking the Rim Hike trail to the viewpoint for both Sunset Point and Sunrise Point is a must. Plus it’s easy. As the names imply, each viewpoint offer particularly spectacular vistas as the sun rises and as it sets. If you can, plan your day to take at least one of these in, which is much easier if you’re staying close by overnight.
Park ranger Interpretive talks
After hiking for 4 hours, I joined a geology talk hosted by Park Ranger Zak to learn more about the history and formation of Bryce Canyon. While I had read about it, it was fascinating to hear a park ranger explain it, complete with sample rocks and other visuals. Interpretive talks are offered at Sunset Point lookout, 2pm daily, and well work planning your day hikes to take in.
Geological history of Bryce Canyon
Every year 2.5 million people visit the park. Because Bryce Canyon is on a plateau, it sits deceivingly high at 8,000 ft of elevation, so has less oxygen, and 30% more sun exposure. Remarkably, 30-50 million years ago the area was an underwater sea level lake. How sediment settled is evident today in the various color levels of the exposed rock formations. Later the underwater sea level lake area became the Paunsaugunt Plateau, which lies within the Colorado Plateau. This was caused by activity 30 million years ago when the Oceanic Plate below and the North American plate above began shifting and colliding. A piece of Oceanic Plate got underneath, and with thermal expansion pushing up, it created the Colorado Plateau. This is also how the Colorado Mountains were formed. Then 15 million years ago this area got pushed even higher due to lots of seismic activity, and the weaker rock (sandstone and limestone) originally the bottom of the underwater sea level lake, moved up with the shifts, to elevations of 8,000ft. The rise of the weaker rock also played a roll in how it has come tumbling down ever since. The fresh water algae built up calcium carbonate, causing layers of pink sandstone underneath, and white limestone layered on top. This is why white limestone can often be seen sitting on top of columns of hoodoos. Some of the fault shifts also caused river basins to form below, further adding to the erosion, creating the canyon. Since the Bryce Canyon area gets really cold in the winter, with lots of snow, over time the plateau has experienced mechanical weathering, where water freezes and wedges cracks open, taking advantage of weaker sandstone layers. Frost wedging, erosion and gravity, have over thousands of years, created the spires of rock called hoodoos. Erosion through weathering and gravity continues to happen every year, as cones of sandy soil attest, eventually marking where a hoodoo was once resided. Zion National Park, by contrast just 85 miles away, sits at half the elevation, a testament to the geological forces that formed this spectacular area millions of years ago.
After the talk I drove back towards Hurricane, through Zion National Park, which took a couple hours via Hwy 89 to Mt Carmel Junction and then Hwy 9 to the Eastern entrance of Zion. I wanted to drive the park and the Mt Carmel Tunnel under late afternoon sun to capture the golden hour lighting on the spectacular rock formations, with time for viewing stops along the way, including the Checkerboard Mesa. Revisiting this drive by car, which we had done on a previous trip by motorbike, was a real treat. I then did the Watchman’s Trail lookout for a spectacular sunset over Zion – a 1.5hr hike from the park entrance, and a perfect, but exhausting, end to the day. From there it was a 30minute drive back to the hotel in Hurricane where I arrived tired, sweaty, dusty and hungry – but very happy. And once cleaned up, refueled and rested, I was ready to take on more day hikes at Zion the following day.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to also check out Is Angels Landing Really That Scary? – including a run down of other Zion National Park day hikes. And if you’ve ever dreamed of riding a motor bike through the area, you’ll love this post: Route 66, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park by Motorbike.
Where to stay
There are numerous accommodation options close to Bryce Canyon entrance. Search here on Expedia or check out VRBO for additional options in the area. This map link might also be helpful when searching. Hurricane UT is about 2hrs 15 minutes from Bryce Canyon. It’s hardly close by, but a solid option if you plan to also visit Zion National Park and return via Las Vegas. Hurricane offers lots of economical accommodation and dining options to choose from. That is where I stayed, and made the day trip to Bryce from there.
Camping reservations may be made up to 6 months in advance for the North Campground and Sunset Campground for a limited number of RV and camping sites. Otherwise it’s on a first come first served basis. If you’re looking to rent an RV to tour the area, be sure to check out RV Share RV Rental from RV Shareor Outdoorsy.com who also rent RVs in the Utah area.
What to wear & Pack
It really depends on the season you plan to visit, but keep in mind that temperatures will be cooler at elevation, while the sun is more intense. A hat, sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, as is ample water if you are hiking in the canyon. Solid running shoes will do for most terrain, but to save yourself a turned ankle, hiking boots might be a consideration. Plan on getting dusty while kicking up all the rust colored terrain.
While I did not have hiking poles, many folks did, which would no doubt be handy for steadying yourself, particularly on the descents through loose gravel terrain. Light weight and collapsible is key – check out options here. I’ve used poles in the past while hiking in Peru and they definitely made a difference in saving your knees. A backpack to carry items like your water bottle, sunscreen, additional clothing, cell phone and a snack is a must. See my personal recommendation below. Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) is a great resource for outdoor gear, as is Altitude-Sports.com for hiking gear and apparel. Altitude-Sports carries leading brands such as Pantagonia, Columbia, North Face, Arc’teryx, and Canada Goose. And they also sell my new favorite thing – A 3-way backpack/tote carry bag by Lako which I absolutely love.
It served as a great backpack on this trip (with separate wet/dry compartments), but doubled as a tote on the plane, plus with its padded laptop sleeve, quick access phone compartment and sleek professional looking design it became a briefcase tote for the business meetings portion of my trip. I believe in packing light (as you know) but also maximizing space – so since this bag can double as your “purse” on flights ladies, you can still bring along that carry-on bag for the overhead. “Man purse” fellas? Why not! Cabelas is another option you might want to check. Sometimes they have deals on their outdoor gear online. Because temperatures dip lower overnight, the shoulder season can actually go below freezing, so early morning hikers will likely want a fleece or warm hat and gloves until the sun warms things up. Of course if you’re visiting in the winter, plan for full on snow and cold temperatures.
Zion & Bryce Canyon by Lonely Planet is an fantastic planning guide. It contains maps and descriptions of all hikes noted in this post. Best Easy Day Hikes Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks by Falcon Guides is another handy guide with extremely detailed descriptions of all hikes in both of these parks. Both books are small enough to pack along on your trip and have as an easy reference while hiking. You can get both at Barnes and Noble or at Indigo online to patronize your national bookseller, or go the Amazon route!