Bryce Canyon National Park: Number 3 of the Big 5

Previously we have talked about two of the other National Parks that comprise Utah’s “Big 5” – Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. Another of the Big 5 (and the 2nd most visited) is Bryce Canyon National Park, which we had the opportunity to revisit this past weekend.

It is amazing how diverse these parks are… Canyonlands with it’s awesome rock formations and deep canyons carved by the Colorado and Green rivers; Arches with it’s slick red rocks and magnificent arches; and Bryce with it’s hoodoos and weird structures. They say “Utah Rocks” and it does!

Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park

This trip to Bryce Canyon we stayed in the national park campground within the park. If you like to camp, you can reserve ahead. There are a few first-come, first-served sites but as you can well imagine, they fill up quickly.

Right near the campground is prairie dog village, home to Utah Prairie Dogs that had been almost extinct. They are very cute and fun to watch. We walked over with our binoculars and watched them scamper about. We were there in spring and there were lots of little ones.

Right near there is the Bryce Canyon Lodge. This historic structure was built originally by the CCC and worth checking out even if you don’t stay in the lodge or in one of the quaint cabins. We stayed there once and it was pretty nice – right near the rim with benches where you can sit quietly and reflect on the beauty.

There are also lots of places to stay just outside the park, served by a great shuttle service (in season) so you don’t even need to take your car into the park. You can shuttle to the overlooks and optionally walk along any or all of the Rim Trail. This trail runs 11 miles and has amazing views of all the features.

View from the Rim Trail

The section of trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points is paved; offering a 1/2 mile easy walk. But no matter how far you go along the rim trail, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular scenery.

Overlooks and Scenic Drive

Driving, shuttling, or walking… the main overlooks are at Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points. These look out over the main Bryce Amphitheater where the most fantastic hoodoos and rock formations are. The colors are simply amazing; ever-changing with the light!!!

But if you have your car and the time, you can also take the 18 miles scenic drive right out to the end of the main park road. This takes you to the highest elevation – over 9,000 feet – with lots of overlooks en route and a short (1 mile) bristlecone trail at the end. If you haven’t see Bristlecone Pine trees, you should do this. They are some of the oldest living things on earth – the oldest is over 4,000 years old. Bryce has some as old as 1,500.

We’ve talked about these amazing trees in our blog about Great Basin National Park. They grow in the harshest possible conditions at high elevations where you think nothing could survive.

Hikes Below The Rim

If you are a hiker, there are TONS of trails below the rim where you will get up close and personal with the rock formations while walking paths that winds through fir trees and junipers.

Our favorite is the Fairyland Loop Trail – an 8 mile hike that starts at Fairyland Point. It is considered strenuous because of the elevation gain and length, but it is totally worth the effort. You won’t see a lot of people on this trail. We loved the quiet and the scenery; get there early and take in the colors as the sun rises.

One of the really cool features along this hike is Tower Bridge.

A shorter, but must do hike is the Navajo Loop where you can see structures like Thor’s Hammer, Two Bridges, and “Wall Street”. There is a 550 foot elevation gain – nice going down, but a bit harder coming back up! Be sure you wear sturdy shoes and take lots of water.

Backcountry Adventures

On our next visit to Bryce Canyon, we plan to bring our backpacks. There are a bunch of connecting trails and backcountry camp spots near springs where there is perennial water. And, when the shuttle is running, you can take the shuttle to start your hike from one point, then hike for a few days and come out at a different shuttle stop. You do have to get a backcountry permit from the rangers.

Nearby Red Canyon

Just a few miles from Bryce Canyon is Red Canyon. Managed by the National Forest Service, they have a visitor center, small campground, picnic areas and a ton of walking/hiking trails, plus an 8 mile paved bike path that goes through “Little Bryce”. The contrast of the green trees against the red canyon walls is stunning.

We took the hiking trail that began at the campground and it was amazing. Red rocks; hoodoos, windows and other crazy rock formations; and gorgeous vistas. Almost as nice as hiking in Bryce Canyon and fewer people! We would highly recommend a stop at Red Canyon.

Scenic Highway 12

Red Canyon lies to the west of Bryce Canyon National Park, along Highway 12. Continuing east on this Scenic Byway, you will wind through part of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (administered by the BLM) and end up at Capitol Reef National Park. This was one of the prettiest drives we have been on. Highly recommended; as is a visit to Capitol Reef! We’ll talk about that one next… number 4 of the Big 5 in Utah, and the least visited.

Need Help Planning Your Visits?

If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.

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