Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce who ranched in the area described the canyon that bears his name as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”. But the rest of the world knows the canyon as a vast wonderland of brilliant-colored spires, rising like sentinels into the clear sky above.
Contrary to what its name suggests, Bryce is not one canyon but a series of natural bowls filled with hoodoos (tall columns of rocks) carved into the edge of a high plateau. This otherworldly geology is enough of a reason to visit, but it’s not the only one. Far from major cities and in the higher elevations of the American Southwest, Bryce offers dark skies for stargazing and lots of wildlife.
Home to the largest concentration of hoodoos on Earth, Bryce Canyon is one of the most-visited national parks in the United States. More than two million people visit Bryce each year with most staying at least one full day, if not longer. No matter how long you stay, some planning will help you make the most of your visit.
Here are 5 things to know before visiting Bryce Canyon National Park.
1. Each Season Has Its Pros and Cons
The best time to visit Bryce Canyon National Park is between June and September when temperatures are between the high 60s and low 80s. Because of the pleasant weather, this is also the high season. If you’re planning on visiting during this time plan in advance and prepare to encounter crowds. In July and August, you can expect frequent thunderstorms, but they don’t last long.
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The shoulder seasons of May and October are a bit cooler—reaching freezing temperatures at night but still pleasant during the day.
If you don’t mind colder temperatures and want to visit during a quieter time you visit in April or November. Temperatures during this time are lower but still pleasant during the day—generally in the 50s during the day and at times reaching the high 60s but below freezing at night.
Bryce is beautiful in the middle of winter when it is covered with snow and you might find yourself alone there. The restaurant and the lodge are closed, however, so if you visit during this time, make sure you have a place to stay and eat outside the park.
2. There Are a Variety of Accommodation Options
You have a choice of two national park campgrounds both with ample space for RVs and tents; no electrical, water, or sewer hookups. North Campground has 99 sites all available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Loop A of this campground is open year-round. Sunset Campground provides 100 sites available April-October with peak-season reservations through recreation.gov.
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For those not traveling with an RV, the best place to stay in the park is the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon built in 1925 between Sunset and Sunrise Points. The restaurant at the lodge is also the best place to eat. You should book a room at the lodge in advance, up to a month ahead at the very least.
3. You’ll need To Drive a While to Get There
Bryce Canyon National Park is about 270 miles (a 4-hour drive) from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. No matter what direction you are coming from, you’ll need to get to U.S. Route 89, then take the Utah Scenic Byway 12 east, and finally head south on Utah State Route 63.
You’ll be driving for hours in the middle of nowhere, passing through small towns that seem to have been forgotten by time. You’ll also drive through some of the most beautiful, otherworldly parts of the Southwest.
Pro Tip: Combine your trip to Bryce Canyon with a trip to Zion National Park, 72 miles south of Bryce. About 14 miles before the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park, stop at Red Canyon for a short walk among red-rock hoodoos. Alternately, plan to combine your visit to Bryce Canyon with a trip to less crowded Capitol Reef National Park over Scenic Byway 12, an All-American Road.
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4. Stop at the Visitor Center before Exploring the Park
Your first stop at any national park should be the visitor center where you can learn about the geology, flora, fauna, and history of Bryce Canyon. Visit the museum and the hands-on exhibits to learn how the iconic hoodoos were formed and about the different layers of life in and around Bryce Canyon from fossils to current wildlife. At the visitor center, you can pick up a map of the park and find out what ranger programs are being offered.
If you are visiting between April and October and staying outside the park leave your car and take the free shuttle to the visitor center.
Pro Tip: Fill up your reusable water bottle at the visitor center. If you didn’t bring one, it’s worth buying one at the gift shop since you can fill it up at all the trailheads and viewpoints.
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5. Take Advantage of the Ranger Programs
The park offers daily ranger programs from guided rim walks to geology talks to evening programs at the lodge and the campgrounds. Check out the ranger programs board at the visitor center if you’re interested. While for most programs you can just show up, a few require that participants sign up in advance.
…a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.