Bryce Canyon – the top trails!

An extended Bryce Canyon hike that incorporates the Navajo Loop Trail, Peekaboo Loop, Queens Garden Loop and Fairyland Loop to take in the most spectacular sections of the canyon in one day.

I’ve managed to fly in a few days early for a conference, so I’ve got two full hiking days that I’ve split between Bryce Canyon and my second visit to Zion National Park. My general intent is to try and squeeze as many walks as I can combine into one day at Bryce Canyon…

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The Highlights

  • You can’t really go wrong about where to watch the sunset – although Sunset Point is the most spectacular (get there early to get a parking spot or catch the shuttle bus). Or if you want to avoid the crowds, you’ll have Paria View more or less to yourself…
  • Navajo Loop Trail is the best walk if you’re limited for time or not up for a longer walk – even better, combine the Navajo Loop Trail and Queens Garden Trail (2.9 miles / 4.6kms) which captures some of the most impressive vistas. And start as early as you can to beat the crowds on the Queens Garden Trail.
  • Fairyland Loop is perhaps the best of both worlds – not as spectacular as Navajo Loop Trail, but a more contemplative experience without the crowds with a variety of rock formations
  • You could easily spend a few days here – but equally I felt a full day was sufficient (or two days to spread out a few walks). Just make sure you get there in time for at least one sunset! And get up early to avoid the crowds.

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First impressions

I arrive at the spectacular Bryce Canyon late in the afternoon after a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas airport – a bit too late to start any hikes, but just in time to catch the sunset. I make my way to Bryce Point, which offers one of the most scenic vistas of the full Bryce amphitheatre. There’s a large viewing platform with 180-degree views, and a few of the hiking trails start from here. You see sort of what’s in the photo below, but it’s one of those places where a photograph doesn’t do justice to the incredible landscape.

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After admiring the spectacular views from here, I drive a short distance to Paria View. There’s a short walk to this more remote lookout, which faces west and catches the last rays of the setting sun. It’s also much less busy than Bryce Point – I see less than five people for the hour I’m here.

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The views are not as spectacular as Bryce Point, but still pretty impressive as the colours change with with setting sun.

I’ve got just enough time to get to Sunset Point before it’s darkIt’s quite a change after  Paria View – from enjoying an almost deserted lookout, I’m now sharing the view from Sunset Point with hundreds of people, both at the lookout and on the very popular Navajo Loop Trail below.

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Not that the number of people is surprising – this is the most spectacular sunset vantage point, with the hoodoos almost glowing red against the darkening sky.

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I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s hike. ‘Though while some places make you work hard to earn the view, Bryce feels almost the opposite. I could sit here all day and watch the changing colours of the almost surreal landscape, without making any effort.

The Hike

I get up early – to catch the sunrise, avoid the crowds and allow plenty of time for an extended circuit that combines four of the most popular Bryce Canyon trails.

Navajo Loop (1 mile / 1.6km)

Starting at Sunset Point, which is roughly in the middle of my extended hike, I take the Navajo Loop track which descends to the floor of Bryce Canyon.

Being the most popular track, I figure that by starting here early I’ll avoid most of the crowds… I’m not the first person – there’s a line of photographers and tripods facing the rising sun – but no crowds and no problem getting a parking spot. From the start of the walk you can see Thor’s Hammer, an example of a tent rock or fairy chimney (bottom right photo – it’s the tall, narrow pinnacle with an even narrower neck, supporting a large hammerhead-like rock on the left-hand side of the photo).

I head down the left-hand (eastern) trail, which descends steeply via a series of switch-backs. Towering above are hoodoo formations and some Douglas fir trees, which seem out of place in this environment.

Near the bottom is the Twin Bridges formation, just off the track and with warning signs advising of instability. Maybe next time I visit it will be the Single Bridge formation?

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It’s just under a mile to the junction with the trail that connects the Navajo Loop to the Peekaboo Loop Trail. (You can also continue back to the top via the Navajo Loop Trail, which is a 1.4mile / 2.2km circuit in total.)

Peekaboo Loop Trail (4 miles / 6.4km)

From the start of the Peekaboo Trail, Silent City can be seen to the north just below Sunset Point where I started the walk – it’s an extraordinarily high concentration of hoodoos. (I’m doing the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, which is the opposite to the direction you’re supposed to walk. It’s still pretty early in the day and I figure I won’t encounter many people on the trail.)

Another impressive formation is The Cathedral, a large butte that stands behind several large hoodoos.

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The Peekaboo Trail then winds past numerous hoodoos, and there are views of the Wall of Windows to the south, a long, thin ridge containing several natural arches.

Just over a mile into the Peekaboo Trail, there’s a faint but obvious track that heads off to the left (east) – it might be an older route that’s no longer used. This small detour offers a great view of the hoodoos around the track, and you can see Peekaboo Trail itself winding along the valley.

The trail then goes through a tunnel cut into the ridge

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After the tunnel, the trail descends steeply via a set of switch-backs: in the distance, to the south, is Paria View.

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The trail follows a series of washes. I spot a mule deer just above the path – about the only wildlife I see all day.  Just after my mule encounter, I reach the trail that connects the Peekaboo Trail with Bryce Point.

I continue along the Peekaboo Trail (I could also have gone up to Bryce Point and then taken the Rim Trail back to Sunset Point). I’m happy, in hindsight, with the decision to continue along the Peekaboo Trail. The trail swings around to the north and heads towards a cluster of hoodoos.

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Another artificial tunnel creating an arch provides another nice photo opportunity, as the trail ascends gradually up the valley.

The trail is more exposed here, with hoodoos on both sides of the wide valley.

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Looking back, the arch cut into the rock can be seen, with hoodoos above and Bryce Point in the background.

The final stretch of the Peekaboo Loop Trail back to the Navajo Loop junction is fantastic walking, with hoodoos and pink limestone formations on both sides of the trail

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It’s taken just under 2.5 hours to cover the 8km, down to the canyon floor via the Navajo Loop Trail and around the Peekaboo Trail to the start of the Queen’s Garden Trail.

Queen’s Garden Trail (2 miles / 3.1km)

Another trail, another tunnel… the Queen’s Garden Trail starts (or ends) with a tunnel cut into the rock, before following a long row of hoodoos that are right next to the trail.

It’s less than a mile to Queens Garden (0.8 miles / 1.3km), where there’s a short trail that leads to the Queen Victoria formation. Which I think is the one below 🙂

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I’m beginning to get a big hoodoo-ed out by now, although the Queen’s Garden lookout is pretty impressive. It’s now about 9am, and while I saw about three people on the Peekaboo Loop trail, the Queens Garden Trail is much busier. There’s about ten people at the viewing area, so I don’t venture up some of the side trails that would offer a better view – but are all signposted with “closed” signs.

The trail starts to ascend gradually from here; I’m now sharing the trail with a few more people.

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There’s three tunnels along the Queens Garden trail between the valley and Sunrise Point. The first tunnel marks the start of (another) very scenic and high-hoodoo section!

The trail now heads straight up towards a number of tall hoodoos, before it follows the base of the formations.

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Then through the second tunnel, where the trail starts to get steeper and switchbacks between hoodoos.

As the trail gains altitude there’s some nice views to the east, towards the Aquarius Plateau to the east

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As the trail nears the top, there’s also a nice view of the Queens Garden Trail below and the formations of the “Queens’ Garden” to the west.

The views as the Queens Garden Trail nears Sunrise Point are truly impressive, and I’m stopping frequently to take photo (and possibly because it is now getting a bit warm in the sun!) There’s views a long way out to the south and south-east, and huge drop-offs from the trail to the valley below.

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Fairyland Trail (9 miles / 14.5km)

From Sunrise Point the trail follows the top of the ridge for a short distance (500m) before reaching the Fairyland Loop. I decide, for no particular reason, to do the loop in an anti-clockwise direction, and set-off down from the ridge and towards Tower Bridge.

The trail descends gradually but constantly – if you’re only doing this hike start early as the first few miles is very exposed (I’m going downhill, so it’s not too bad). I’m pleasantly surprised that despite being a far less popular walk (partly due to its length) the scenery along the descent to Tower Bridge is no less spectacular than any of the other walks. And even though it’s mid-morning, I only see a handful of people on the walk (many of them on their way back, as they started much earlier.)

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To the south is the Chinese Wall (or China Wall), another prominent formation, which is considered to be one of the best examples in the Bryce Canyon of the evolution of walls into fins, windows and hoodoos.

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The Fairyland trail descends relentlessly – I’m glad I’m heading down to the valley. Seeing the track endlessly snaking up the hill would have been a bit disheartening! I’ve also seen the formation below described as the Chinese Wall – it’s a very long row of hoodoos that the trail follows the base of.

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After about 1.5 miles (2.5km) from the start of the trail is the the turn-off for Tower Bridge, another feature of this walk. The side-track to the viewing area below Tower Bridge is only about 200 yards / 180m. On any other walk it would be amazing. After five hours of walking almost non-stop through hoodoos it’s still impressive, but somehow I seemed to have reached a point of rock-formation-exhaustion!

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The Fairyland Loop track is fairly exposed for most of it’s length as it winds around some large formations. There’s another view of  Tower Bridge from above, where you can see more clearly the natural arch formed by the extreme weathering in Bryce Canyon.

Another prominent formation that can be seen from different angles along the track is the Boat Mesa (below). This huge formation is in the middle of Fairyland Loop Trail.

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I haven’t seen much wildlife, but when I find a stunted tree near the track that offers a little shade for a lunch break, I see a Steller’s Jay. It’s a conspicuous bird with bold black-and-blue colouring, and the only crested jay of the western states. A bit further on I spot an Arizona Thistle Flower, a North American species of thistle in the sunflower family.

The trail ascends for the last 1.5 miles – although fairly gradually, and with plenty of rock formations to distract you from the climb.

It gets a bit steeper as the trail nears Fairyland Point on the ridge, but never as steep as the other trails into the valley, like the Najavo Loop trail. An impressive row of hoodoos  faces the trail on the opposite side of Fairyland Canyon.

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Just before reaching Fairyland Point, there’s a nice view of the Sinking Ship formation in the distance.

I reach Fairyland Point at the top of the ridge at about 2pm, with just the final stretch along the top of the canyon to get back to the car.

Fairyland Point to Sunset Point – Rim Trail (3 miles / 5km)

It’s uphill from Fairyland Point to Sunset Point, especially the first mile, but fairly gradual. The Rim Trail follows the edge of the escarpment, so there’s great views over the canyon below.

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It’s a constantly changing landscape of rock formations as far as the eye can see.

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Just before the Rim Trail meets the start of the Fairyland Loop track, I make a small and unplanned diversion to the North Campground General Store for a cold drink. It’s now just half a mile before I’m back at Sunset Point. The car park’s now full and the lookout crowded. It’s time to leave…

It’s been a long day of hiking, through the most incredible landscape. In hindsight I’m happy with the route I took, although I would have changed it slightly to do Queens Garden Loop first to avoid the crowds, then the Peekaboo Trail. Even better would be to visit during a less popular time of year – I hope one day I can do the same hike again in winter!

Location You could start from Sunrise Point or Sunset Point. I started at Sunset Point (plenty of parking if you get here early and a shuttle-bus stop) and took the well sign-posted Navajo Loop Trail
Distance 26.8km (16.5 miles) as walked (combining four separate trails)
Grade Moderate/Hard. Total elevation gain of 1,015m elevation gain
Season/s Most of the year (May-Sep is peak season), Some trails may be closed or hard to navigate in winter
Maps
  • “Exploring Bryce Canyon” map from Visitor Centre is sufficient for most hikes
  • National Geographic “Bryce Canyon NP” (1:20K & 1:40K) is best
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)
Map-BryceCanyon
Map showing Bryce Canyon route (yellow)

3 thoughts on “Bryce Canyon – the top trails!

  1. Yes, Bryce Canyon is a wonder. We visited there a couple of times some years back. Hikers need to be aware of the high elevation. Most of these hikes are on ground that is over 8,000 feet elevation above sea level. The air is thin and one needs to dress appropriately and use sun block or sun screen to avoid sun burn.

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