The Bryce Canyon landscape is unique—entirely different than nearby Zion as well as other Utah national parks—partly attributed to its high elevation location ranging from 8,000-9,000 feet. The air is thinner up here, the environment colder, and the wind much, much stronger—elements that come together to create an otherworld on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
Stepping onto any lookout, you are challenged to connect with a most amazing example of the forces of nature affecting this planet and at the same time, you will almost certainly feel as though you are stepping foot onto the edge of another world.
For this article, I want to highlight a few different ideas that will deliver a diverse experience in Bryce—where to drive, stay, hug some trees, and go for the big adventure—with the caveat that at this one-of-a-kind national park, there is nothing more spectacular than the red rock nation that sprawls across Utah’s high desert on the Colorado Plateau.
Where to Drive
Hitting the scenic auto-trails in the national parks is often the best place to start gaining an understanding of the lay of the land. Many of the park roads were developed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the early days of the park service to provide access to the most interesting and marketable features nearby.
A scenic tour along the 38-mile (round trip) Bryce Canyon National Park Rim Road provides access to 13 viewpoints that peer over the amphitheaters. It is a perfect first outing to get acquainted with the park.
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Where to Stay
There are three options located inside of the park: the North Campground (open year-round), Sunset Campground (high season), and the recently renovated 114-room Bryce Canyon Lodge which was built from local timber and stone in 1924-25. Any non-park-related activity—sleeping, eating, shopping, fueling up, or learning about the local history—will almost surely bring you to Ruby’s legendary roadhouse.
Iconic Site in the Park
There is no view in this park more classic than a sunset view from Sunset Point. It is located just one mile beyond the National Park Visitor Center and access to the overlook is just footsteps from the parking lot. If you look just below and to the left, you will find another iconic landmark: Thor’s Hammer—famed for its unique balanced rock and isolationist position among the larger network of hoodoos that surround it. This area is also stellar for birdwatching (shout out to our bird-ninja friends)! Swallows, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Stellar Jays, hawks, and Ravens all soar in the skies catching air from the thermal cliff sides.
Where to Hug Some Trees
The forested areas surrounding the national park cross three “life zones” that change with variant elevation gains. In the lower regions, you will find dwarf forests (juniper, pinyon pine, manzanita, aspen, willow, and birch) growing along streams. In the mid-elevations, Ponderosa pine, spruce, and Douglas fir forests thrive. On the high plateau, spruce, aspen, Douglas and white fir continue. At Rainbow Point located at the end of the scenic drive, you can spot the toughest tree on Earth: the ancient Great Basin bristlecone pine, a species categorized among the oldest living organisms on the planet.
Wandering the Rim Trail from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point travels across one 1-mile of flat trail hugging the amphitheater where gorgeous, sprawling views abound! With a large parking lot, restroom facilities, and a paved pathway leading to and fro, this is a great spot for people of all ages and with all levels of overall health to enjoy the storied views of Bryce Canyon. The Rim Trail extends 5.5-miles from Bryce Point to Fairyland with occasional steep elevation changes.
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Hiking through the hoodoos along the Navajo Loop Trail to the Queens Garden Trail allows hikers to choose their adventure along intersecting networks that weave throughout more challenging sections of the inner canyons but with easy access to trailheads at both Sunset and Inspiration Points. This is a moderate outing at just under 3 miles.
For those looking to go longer, the Peekaboo Trail (5.5 miles) and Under-The-Rim Trail near Rainbow Point (22 miles) lead trekkers farther into the backcountry. As always, get backcountry guidance at the National Park Visitor Center.
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Before you go, check Bryce Canyon’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!
It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.
—Ebenezer Bryce, early homesteader at Bryce Canyon