Established in 1928
They say big things come in small packages. When you get an idea of how much one-of-a-kind desert magic Bryce Canyon has to offer, despite being the smallest National Park in Utah, you’ll believe it. In a nutshell, Bryce is a forest of needle-thin spires, or hoodoos, formed in wide open amphitheaters. Descending from the top of the Paunsagunt Plateau above 9,000 feet, Bryce Canyon drops rapidly just over 2,000 feet. This is harsh country – steep slopes walled by mazelike channels through the multicolor dirt etch narrow paths down and around the plateau. Ponderosa pines grow tall in tiny crevices between skyward towers striped in brown, pink, red, yellow, orange, purple, and white.
Bryce Canyon is at its very best when taken in from a distance. Arguably, one of the best ways to visit the park is to drive the rim and take time to enjoy all of the scenic panoramas along the way. But for the adventurous, you can trek your way across just about all of the park. It’s a place to bask in, to just sit and be awestruck by. It’s enchanting, it’s captivating, it’s something that should be on everyone’s bucket list. In fact—
It’s worthy of more than a little praise. We got so carried away just thinking about Bryce Canyon that we decided to put together this guide to visiting the park. The reasons to go, what makes it so incredible, and the best ways to enjoy it. Consider this our love letter to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Compared to other parts of Southern Utah, we know very little about the ancient human history of Bryce Canyon National Park. Despite abundant evidence of humans living in the surrounding area as far back as 10,000 years ago, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence of prehistorical human habitation of Bryce. Presumably, Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont Native peoples lived in the area until their mysterious disappearance some 700 years ago.
Around this time, modern Southern Paiute Natives moved into the area surrounding Bryce Canyon. The Paiute people hunted and gathered, but also practiced some agriculture to supplement their diets. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon worked their way into Paiute stories and myths. The Paiute believed the hoodoos were Legend People, normal humans turned into stone by the trickster god Coyote.
Because of the area’s remoteness and the difficulty of the terrain, European settlers didn’t reach Bryce Canyon until the early 1800’s. The first major exploratory expedition into the area was headed up by Major John W. Powell, who surveyed the Sevier and Virgin Rivers on his second historical voyage down the Colorado River.
Later, the Mormon Settlers sent a Scottish immigrant named Ebenezer Bryce and his family to settle the Paria Valley. When Bryce arrived, he situated his homestead right underneath the Bryce Amphitheater. He dug an irrigation canal from Paria Creek to his home and made a road into the amphitheater above to ease the work of collecting timber. Settlers in the surrounding area began to refer to the amphitheater as “Bryce’s Canyon”, and the name stuck. Bryce, who was a originally a carpenter, grazed cattle in what would later become the park. He was quoted saying that the rugged amphitheaters above his homestead were a “helluva place to lose a cow”.
Interest in Bryce Canyon’s natural beauty began to spark in the early 1900’s. Visitation remained low for a time due to the effort required to get to Bryce Canyon, but was completely unsupervised by any governing body. Conservationists were becoming increasingly concerned about the impacts of unchecked grazing, timber harvest, and recreation on the fragile landscape. These issues were elevated quickly, and in 1923 President Warren G. Harding named Bryce Canyon a National Monument. Park status was gained a year later, with the name briefly changing to “Utah National Park”. In 1931, President Hoover increased the size of the park to its current 35,835 acres, and renamed the park Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon features many of the same geological marvels that can be seen around Utah: hoodoos, arches, and natural bridges all exist here. However, they form through different processes than those found in places like Arches National Park. The formations in the park are formed by headward erosion, and are essentially exaggerated badlands.
What this means is that the main action of erosion happens as groundwater seeps out of the plateau, pulling the loose soil of the underlying Claron Formation with it. As the soft earth falls away, it leaves behind the crumbly towers we see around the park. With the addition of further wind erosion, arches can form. The action of headward erosion pushes steadily back into the plateau, rather than cutting down through it. The park is made up of several different drainages along the plateau where water trickles down into creekbeds, and thus the name Bryce “Canyon” is actually a misnomer. On a larger scale, the park is made up of a chain of rounded amphitheaters that deepen with each passing year.
Zooming out even more, we can see that the park sits at the top of the Grand Staircase. This massive downward-trending geological stepladder that leads all the way into Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Staircase allows us to see all of the layers of sedimentary rock that make up the diversity of the southwest, stacked on top of each other. And Bryce Canyon represents the top layer of this red-orange cake of rock and dirt.
A Thriving Desert Ecosystem
The ecological diversity of Bryce Canyon National Park is astounding. There are over 400 species of plants found in the park, making up several distinct ecological niches and varying from desert-typical shrubs and trees to wetland plants and trees more commonly found in high elevation mountains. In fact, it’s the extreme gradient of elevation (as well as cryptobiotic soil) across the park that creates this diversity of plants and animals.
Bryce Canyon is divided into three different “life zones”. In the lowest elevations are plants you would expect to see in a desert – piñon pine, juniper, and shrubs. Near running water you may see leafy trees like aspen, cottonwood, and willows. Further up, the plant community transitions into one dominated by large ponderosa pines, along with blue spruce and some douglas firs. Higher still, the plants you’ll see resemble more of a mountainous ecosystem: douglas fir, white fir, and englemann spruce live on the slopes. In the most harsh corners of the park, hardy trees like limber pine and bristlecone pine cling to exposed outcroppings. Bristlecone pines are famously the longest living organisms on earth, and the ones found in Bryce are as old as 1,600 years.
Under this patchwork canopy of plants, a thriving community of animals crawls, hops, and slithers. Surprisingly, the ecological community of animals in Bryce Canyon is mostly dominated by mammals. You can commonly see mule deer, foxes, coyotes, badgers, porcupines, pronghorn, and even elk in the park. There are also black bears, bobcats, and cougars that do quite well in Bryce. This diverse community of mammals is due to the park’s elevation and the availability of water, which is much more here than in lower deserts.
California condors, woodpeckers, eagles, owls, swifts, swallows, and many more birds all find nooks and crannies to nest in among the cliffs and huge pines. The diversity of tree species, as well as the large cliff walls provide nesting sites for a wide variety of bird species. And of course, the image of arid desert hillsides would be incomplete without reptiles. Rattlesnakes, short-horned lizards, and whipsnakes are common in Bryce Canyon. Even some amphibians can be found in the wetter parts of the park, like the tiger salamander.
This huge diversity of plants and animals makes Bryce a hub for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. Walking through Bryce on any given day you can see most of the incredible natural diversity of the West all in one place.
As we’ve already mentioned, the main draw to visit Bryce Canyon National Park is the sweeping panoramic views of the large amphitheaters filled with hoodoos. Overlooks like Bryce Amphitheater, Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and the Swamp Canyon Overlook are not to be missed.
But there are also plenty of individual features you can hike up to that are worth every bit of your time. Notable formations like Thor’s Hammer; a tall freestanding hoodoo, Tower Bridge; an incredible arch between two huge towers, Mossy Cave; a stone overhang draped over by a broad waterfall, and Bristlecone Point require short to moderate hikes to get to.
While visiting the park, it’s a good idea to get around using the park shuttle. While it isn’t mandatory, it reduces congestion, the need for larger parking lots, and reduces human impact on the land. Shuttles run from April through mid-October beginning at 8:00 AM. They run frequently and stop at all the major overlooks and trailheads in the park.
Hiking is the primary fare for recreation in Bryce. Because of how fragile the landscape itself is, more hands-on forms of recreation are mostly off-limits here. But not to worry, there are plenty of amazing hikes to fill your time.
For beginners or those strapped for time, Bristlecone Loop and Mossy Cave are trails not to miss. They both total less than a mile and climb very little, but promise big payoffs. Mossy Cave is particularly beautiful in the winter, when the ceiling becomes covered in picturesque icicles.
Intermediates and those looking to burn a half-day should be sure not to miss the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop Combination trail. It’s the most trafficked trail in the park, but don’t let the crowds dissuade you. The trail puts you right in the heart of the action, winding through narrow side canyons and passing features like Queen Victoria, Thor’s Hammer, Two Bridges, and Wall Street. The Tower Bridge trail is also an intermediate hike ascending 800 feet through bristlecone pines to the aforementioned arch.
For hikers willing to sacrifice some more sweat, you’ll have the best chance to see the park without the crowds. Fairyland Loop is a prime example; the trail totals eight miles and passes Chinese Wall, Tower Bridge, and imposing hoodoos, with much more room to yourself. Peekaboo Loop Trail is a massive spectacle, entering the heart of the park and passing the Wall of Windows. For a more demanding, but equally rewarding experience, try the Figure 8 Combination. This combines Queen’s Garden, Peekaboo Loop, and Navajo Loop into a single day hike that can be done in four to five hours.
If you want to spend a night under the stars on the plateau, there are two drive-up primitive campgrounds in the park. North Campground has 99 sites for both tent and RV camping, and stays open year-round. Sunset Campground is open seasonally, with 50 RV sites and 50 tent sites. Fees are the same in both places: $20 per night for tent camping, $30 for RV camping. Each features basic amenities including pit toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables.
Like most national parks, the best camping experiences are the ones you have to put a little work into. The best way to experience overnighting in Bryce Canyon is backcountry camping. There are two main trails through the Bryce Canyon backcountry where you can camp, and both are superb.
The main backpacking through the park follows the edge of the plateau, traversing the many amphitheaters and ridges of Bryce. This is the Under The Rim Trail, a 22.4 mile one-way trek crossing most of the park. It runs from Yovimpa Point to Bryce Point, and there are seven backcountry campsites along the way to pitch your tent. The trail can be divided into sections, so if you don’t want to commit to the full length, you can do a smaller section in fewer nights. To call the Under The Rim Trail an epic journey may be selling it short – this is probably the best way to experience the park. And when you reach the end, you can take a park shuttle back to where you parked.
The other backpacking route covers much less ground, but in a less commonly traveled part of the park. The Riggs Spring Loop Trail covers just 8.6 miles and has three backcountry sites along the way. There’s also a large group site on a spur trail near Riggs Spring. For a less-committing trail that doesn’t skimp on elevation gain, this is a fantastic way to go. You’ll be guaranteed to see a part of the park that most never get to. And the solitude of the desert is what we’re all after, isn’t it?
It’s also possible to take a guided horseback ride through Bryce Canyon. There are a few equestrian trails set aside, including a ride into Bryce Amphitheater. Trail rides generally run from April to October. Riding a pack animal through the narrow drainages of Bryce is an unforgettable experience.
If you get the right permits, you can also bring your own horse or mule for pack trips. Get in touch with the park for more details as day trips need to be planned ahead of time with the approval of the park. You can also overnight with your stock just outside park boundaries in Red Canyon and Dixie National Forest.
Bryce Canyon is a gem for all things nature-related. Wildlife watchers, stargazers, and geology fanatics will all be overwhelmed by the majesty of the park. There are birdwatching and stargazing events in the park, as well as an annual geology festival. Regardless of your particular poison, Bryce has got everything a nature nerd could want with an afternoon and a pair of binoculars.
A Living Landscape
From the squirrels in the trees to the very earth itself, Bryce Canyon National Park is a living and breathing landscape. We are immensely lucky to see it in its present state, as pristine as it is. It’s a shining example of the need for National Parks, and the value of preserving special places for future generations. Not only of humans, but of the many thousands of living things that call this incredible place home. When you visit Bryce Canyon, you’re seeing a snapshot of a place that has taken millions of years to become what it is, and will continue along its journey for millions more. Take a breath, take it all in. It’s not going anywhere.
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