The amphitheater. The hoodoos.
We all have those places that captured our imagination as children and continued to dream about visiting as adults. One such place for me was Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. I spent years dreaming of the place. Finally, one day, I said I’m going and that was that. When we cling to an impression for so long, it’s natural to fear if the place will live up to years of expectations. Bryce far exceeded all expectations.
Many people come to Bryce for a day and then journey on to the other national parks (or the many amazing state parks, too) in Utah. However, to truly appreciate Bryce Canyon, I recommend at least two days. I was there for 2.5 days and it was the perfect amount of time as I was intent on seeing everything that the park has to offer from vistas to hiking trails. If you do hike, be sure to wear proper hiking boots, stay on the marked trails, and bring plenty of water!
The Amphitheater & Rim Trail
The amphitheater, the grand showcase of Bryce Canyon, is why people visit Bryce. The expansive sea of hoodoos in front of you makes the jaw drop. It requires several viewings along the Rim Trail to fully take in the landscape as you see something different every time. And the hoodoos change with the time of day – at sunrise, the amphitheater is an orange glow while late afternoon brings out the subtle colors of the hoodoos, from brown to purple. The best places to take in the views are Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Bryce Point along the Rim Trail, which is a paved trail between Sunset and Sunrise Point and then becomes a proper trail past those points in either direction. A wonderful hike is from Bryce Point to Sunrise Point. It’s easier to start from Bryce Point as you’ll be going downhill the entire time (as I found out the hard way by hiking from Sunrise to Bryce Point). The park’s shuttle service stops at each of the points so you can take it back to your car when you are finished hiking.
Queens Garden Trail – 1.8 miles
Though a short jaunt into the canyon, the Queens Garden trail takes you along the top of the hoodoos and, in some instances, have them towering high above you. The trail is named for a hoodoo that resembles Queen Victoria. That’s one of the amazing things about Bryce Canyon. An active imagination will run wild on the trails. The trail head is just past Sunrise Point.
Navajo Loop Trail – 1.3 miles
Easily, this is the most popular and crowded trail in the park. Hiking this trail right after sunrise guarantees that you will have the trail mainly to yourself and that you will be hiking in a sea of orange. It doesn’t matter if you hike the trail counter clockwise or clockwise, as both ways will begin with a steep descent to the canyon floor and a steep ascent back up to the rim. One of the most famous hoodoos, Thor’s Hammer, is found on this trail. Along the way, one marvels at the Douglas Fir trees growing in the narrow slots of the canyon. The trail starts past Sunset Point.
Peek-a-Boo Loop Trail – 5.5 miles
If you came to Bryce to experience the hoodoos, then this trail is a wonderland and a must! Starting at Bryce Point, it is a steep hike down into the canyon, passing through an arch or two. Signs on the trail advise to beware of rock slides. As Bryce Canyon is still evolving from the elements, rock slides can happen. I was on my down this trail when a large boom reverberated through the canyon, and then 20 ft in front of me, a small rock slide ran across the trail and over the edge. The return hike up, thankfully, was uneventful. Once you reach the bottom, the loop portion of the trail begins. The trail winds its way up and down, around and between hoodoos of every shape offering some incredible views of the mass of hoodoos and the towering rim wall surrounding the area. It is a hike to take slowly to savior in the scenery, plus the many changes in elevation on the trail may leave you needing some rest. After completing the hike, going to the tip of Bryce Point will allow you to take in your hike from above. This time, certain hoodoos stand out. And it is from this point, that one gets the best view of the entire amphitheater. The colors and the steady lines of sediment just pop. The view looks a little too perfect, as if it was a painting and not real. This is the only trail in Bryce that is shared with horses as well as having the only vault toilet on the canyon floor.
Fairyland Loop Trail – 8 miles
This is the hike to do if you want a more personal experience of the canyon away from the main crowds. I’m a bit biased as this was far and away my favorite trail in the park. Had I more time, I would have hiked it twice! For the five hours it took me to hike it (I paused a lot to take in the views), I encountered only 6 other hikers. Though it’s one of the longer day hikes in the park, it has the gentlest descent and ascent to and from the canyon. This trail takes you through the varying landscape at the canyon, from forest to desolate areas, from hoodoo spires to a wall of windows as you make your way around the Boat Mesa. Around the half way point, there is a small spur trail taking you to see the Tower Bridge formation. Even if you opt not to hike this trail, it is well worth it to park at the trail head and take in the concentration of hoodoos at the start. It is a stunning sight with so many of them crammed into a small space. You can get to the trail head by hiking the Rim Trail to the north or driving to the parking lot located outside of the fee entrance station (the shuttle does not stop here).
Bryce Canyon is more than just the amphitheater. It is well worth the 15-mile drive (the park shuttle service does not go past Bryce Point), to Rainbow Point at the south end of the park. At the highest point in the park (9,115 ft elevation), you are not greeted with hoodoos but with an endless view of green stretching all the way to the Kaibab Plateau near the Grand Canyon! The drive includes several vista points, including Natural Bridge. One of my favorite stops is Paria View, near Bryce Point, which includes a short walk to the view point of the Paria River watershed that extends from the walls of hoodoos.
The one thing I did not do at the park was star gazing. Bryce Canyon has a dark sky unhindered by lights. The star gazing is supposed to be out of this world. Unfortunately, I was so active during the day, that I crashed each night. But on my last morning, I did wake up early and quickly popped outside and I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen so many.