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Bryce Canyon National Park: This Small Corner of Utah Packs a Colorful Punch

Bryce Canyon National Park, Marion Littlefield photo.

Bryce Canyon National Park might be small in size, but definitely not in stature. Marion Littlefield photo.

Though covering fewer than 36,000 acres -- and most folks simply gaze down on most of that acreage -- Bryce Canyon National Park carries the impact of a park much, much larger.

One look at the rumpled and jagged Creamsicle-colored topography of this park in south-central Utah and you'd likely agree that a picture is worth a thousand words. Or more. Just look at the accompanying photo. How long would it take you to describe that scene to a friend over the phone?

Somehow Ebenezer Bryce managed to convey the gist of the setting in just six words. True story. As the legend goes, Ebenezer was a Mormon missionary who came to the region in the 1870s and settled with his family below one of the multi-hued amphitheaters that are the park's calling cards these days.

Understandably, if you've seen these amphitheaters, when some of Ebenezer's cattle wandered off into the landscape, he had quite a dilemma on his hands. As he later put it, in words that live on today, Bryce Canyon is one "helluva place to lose a cow."

Now, to borrow some of Ebenezer's words, Bryce Canyon is also one helluva national park to visit. True, the main road is only 18 miles long, and you can negotiate it, with a few rim-side stops to look into the colorful maw, in a day. But if that's all you do, you've deprived yourself of an incredible experience in sampling this ruddy jewel of the National Park System.

Sad to say, but I've been told that while 1.6 million people trek to the park, on average, each year, 99.9 percent cling to that 18-mile-long feeder road. They’re satisfied to gaze into amphitheaters of hoodoos that time, wind and water have so artfully carved into the Paunsaugunt Plateau’s vibrantly painted geology. Sixty-five million years in the making and still under construction, the cliffs once were muds, clays and silts on the bottom of a freshwater lake that flooded much of southwestern Utah.

What's particularly sad about those visitation figures is that it's so easy to more beyond simply looking down on this landscape and actually hike down into it.

Come summer, a great hike for both families and individuals actually ties together two trails -- the Queen's Garden Trail and the Navajo Loop -- to create a hike of a tad more than 3 miles. Even though it's somewhat short, this loop takes you into one of the park's main amphitheaters. Along the route you'll pass such notable outcrops as Thor's Hammer and the Queen's Garden.

If you can afford more time in the park and enjoy backpacking, the Under-the-Rim Trail is a great adventure, one that takes you away from the bulk of the park's visitors and gives you a view of Bryce's colorful underbelly. Striding along this 23-mile-long route takes you through a quiet, breathtaking wilderness of orangish geology and towering trees in which details elude those in a hurry.

Other options? The 4-mile-long Hat Shop Trail is an out-and-back hike that leads you to a field of balanced-rock hoodoos. The Swamp Canyon Trail attracts few travelers yet provides you with close-up views of hoodoos and rock fins.

Now, historically speaking, this jewel has been somewhat challenged in terms of its name. Back on June 8, 1923, the landscape was designated a national monument. A year later, on June 7, 1924, it was renamed Utah National Park. Four years later, on this date in 1928, it finally received its present name, Bryce Canyon National Park.

Naming issues aside, this park has a few other notable attractions beyond its geology.

One is the Bryce Canyon Lodge. Its log-work and shingles are gorgeous, you've got great location, being right inside the park and a short walk from the rim, and have a choice of either one of the 40 historic cabins with their high ceilings and gas-burning fireplaces or one of the 70 motel-style rooms that aren't as charming but are comfortable just the same.

Another is the sky overhead. The night skies over southern Utah are some of the darkest in the country. At Bryce Canyon, which happens to be the home base of the National Park Service's Night Sky Team, they say you can see 7,500 stars on a clear, moonless night.

Geology and astronomy. Quite a bit of clout for this national park.


I have been to Bryce numerous times, and hiked pretty much every trail there. I have been to parks such as Glacier, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Teton ect.. While these parks are no doubt beautiful, there is, in my mind something very special about Bryce. Hiking the back of the canyon is like being on the set of an old "Star Trek" episode, with the purple sparkling hoodoos and colors for as far as you can see. As for the night sky... It is very hard to get to sleep at night while camping because the star gazeing is addictive, I have even put out the campfire to get a better view of the sky. My favorite trip was a few years ago in September (when all the kids go back to school). I was camping, had a great day hiking. Looking at the stars that night, watching some clouds roll in. I woke up the next mornig to about 6 inches of snow. One of the most beautiful scenes I have witnessed, with the snow covered orange formations, it was truely amazing! If ever you get the chance to go, TAKE IT! You won't be disappointed! Oh Ya, stop in at Zion while your at it.

Bryce is one of my favorite parks. I have cycled through the park twice and hope to do it again. The park road system offers a superb route along the rim of Bryce Canyon with vistas of amazing rock formations. For those thinking of cycling the park road, be sure to carry plenty of water. The high desert air quickly sucks the moisture out of you. My last trip to Utah included a bike trip that took in Cedar Breaks NM, Bryce NP, Escalante, Capitol Reef and Zion. All special in their own way.

Many National Parks have some sort of statistic about how some large XX percent of visitors stick to paved roads, walkways, and boardwalks. At first, as an avid hiker, I was fairly aghast at those numbers. However, I've since more or less made my peace with them. Consider, for example, some of the factors that would apply to Bryce Canyon:
- the first thing that jumps out at me is that with a number like 99.9%, I wonder if part of it is related to the fact that Utah Highway 12 passes through the Park, and whether or not all those through-travellers are counted as visitors
- many visitors may be elderly, disabled, or traveling with small children, all of whom for which a hike down into a canyon in the Utah desert is simply not an option
- many visitors to Bryce Canyon are from Asia, Europe, or even just the East Coast , and are making what is essentially a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Colorado Plateau... even leaving aside that if they are on a tour bus, the bus schedule may not leave enough time for a hike, the sheer number of things to see may lead to the decision to see Bryce from tour road in order to have enough time on the trip to take in places like Zion, Arches, Mesa Verde, or the Grand Canyon

Sure, part of me wishes that ever American shared my enjoyment of hiking, but rather than be sad about how few visitors are taking to the Trails, in an era of declining Park visitation, I prefer to be happy that they are visiting the Parks at all.

These are my thoughts exactly. The highlight of my childhood was a family roadtrip across the U.S. visiting many national parks and other wondrous sights. The entire trip was three weeks, the length of my father's vacation. We did very little hiking but I drank in the magnificence of those places. Now, I try to take my children to see our beautiful country.
I love hiking, but it is not for everyone. And hiking up a grade at a high altitude is very difficult for many individuals.

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