Part of the Colorado Plateau, a high plateau at the top of the Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon National Park features a spectacular and distinctive landscape. Giant natural amphitheaters are filled crimson-colored hoodoos – the national park has the largest concentration of hoodoos anywhere on Earth.
The hoodoos – irregular columns or pillars of rock – are created by the processes of uneven weathering and erosion. The high elevation of the park means that for over half the year there are both above and below freezing temperatures, so that water which seeps into the spaces between and within the rocks freezes and expands. This expansion process, known as ice wedging, gradually breaks apart the rocks: first into walls, then windows, then into fully formed hoodoos as water continues to melt and refreeze.
While incredibly scenic, Bryce Canyon National Park is relatively small, and it’s possible to do almost all the hiking trails in a day or two. If you’ve got limited time, Bryce Canyon in 24 Hours suggests the best hikes and lookouts to visit.
A short history of Bryce Canyon National Park
Little is known about early human habitation in the Bryce Canyon area; archaeological surveys show that people inhabited the area for at least 10,000 years. Artefacts have been found from the Anasazi and Fremont people, before the Paiute Native Americans moved into the surrounding valleys and plateaus around the mid-12th century. The Paiute believed that hoodoos were the Legend People whom the trickster Coyote turned to stone.
In the 18th and early 19th century the first European Americans explored the remote and hard-to-reach valleys, with Mormon scouts visiting the area in the 1850s to assess the viability of agricultural development. Around 1870 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent Scottish immigrant Ebenezer Bryce and his wife Mary to settle land in the Paria Valley, and the Bryce family chose to live and graze cattle right below Bryce Amphitheater. Settlers began to call the area “Bryce’s canyon”, which later became Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon was declared a national monument in 1923, and in the same year a road was built on the plateau to provide easy access to viewpoints over the amphitheaters, and Bryce Canyon Lodge was built in 1924-1925. Only a few years later, on 25 February 1928, the Bryce Canyon was upgraded from a National Monument to a National Park.
Bryce Canyon Lookouts
Even without going on one of the many hikes, Bryce Canyon offers some spectacular lookouts over the natural amphitheatres from the rim. Sunrise or sunset is the best time – and all of the vantage points offer a great view.
A short walk leads to one of the more remote lookouts. Although you won’t get the most spectacular views here, it’s one of the least-busy overlooks and because it faces west it’s one of the best spots for sunset. One prominent and photogenic castle-like hoodoo rises above the canyon floor to to reflect the last rays of the setting sun.
Paria is a Paiute word meaning “water with elk” or “water with mud” (the translation varies depending on context and season)
One of the most scenic vistas of the full Bryce amphitheatre. The views are expansive and you’ll avoid the crowds.
The Southern Paiutes called this place Unka Tumpi Wun-nux Tungwatsini Xoopakichu Anax – meaning “Red Rock Standing Like a Man in a Hole”.
It’s also a popular spot for Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, and Uinta Chipmunks.
Inspiration Point provides three levels of lookouts into the Bryce Amphitheatre, providing some varied perspectives of the landscape. To the north is Silent City (dense rows of rock walls), to the south is Bryce Point and the Wall of Windows, and below is Bryce Creek (the main drainage of the Bryce Amphitheatre, which is normally dry).
This lookout (and the next two) are always fairly busy, but they offer some of the best Bryce Canyon views.
Sunset Point is one of the most popular spots in Bryce Canyon providing breathtaking views over the Bryce Amphitheatre – it can get busy but but there is plenty of space along the rim to enjoy the view. From this vantage point is a view of many of Bryce Canyon’s most famous hoodoos: directly below is Silent City and Thor’s Hammer.
The Navajo Loop Trail descends from Sunset Point through the Wall Street slot canyon, and the people along the hiking trail provide a sense of scale to the spectacular scenery.
The northernmost of the four major viewpoints above the Bryce Amphitheatre, Sunrise Point provides spectacular views at sunrise and sunset. While offering similar views as Sunset Point over the Bryce Canyon hoodoos, the greater height of this viewpoint gives you a 360 degree view.
To the north-east is Boat Mesa and the Sinking Ship, anf behind these rock formations are the tall Pink Cliffs of the Aquarius Plateau. From here you can also see the Queen’s Garden trail making its way down a ridgeline.
Bryce Canyon Shuttle
A free Bryce Canyon Shuttle (with park admission) runs every 15min between a number of the lookouts and trailheads along the rim – and also services the town of and the Visitor Center.
Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park
There are a variety of hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park, with a range of easy to moderate trails.
|Mossy Cave||0.8 mi / 1.3km||Easy||Walk along creek to mossy grotto|
|Sunset to Sunrise||1.0 mi / 1.6km||Easy||Easy, paved hike along rim with great views. Pets allowed|
|Bristlecone Loop||1.0 mi / 1.6km||Easy||Trail through forest with great views|
|Rim Trail||1-11 mi / 1.6-17.7km||Easy||Partly paved trail along Bryce Amphitheater|
|Navajo Loop||1.3 mi / 2.2km||Easy/Moderate||Short but steep trail past interesting rock formations|
|Queens Garden||1.8 mi / 2.9km||Easy/Moderate||One of the easier trails that descends into the canyon|
|Queen’s + Navajo Loop||2.9 mi / 4.6km||Easy/Moderate||Combines two trails|
|Tower Bridge||3.0 mi / 4.8km||Easy/Moderate||Out-and-back walk to Chinese Wall & Tower Bridge|
|Sheep Creek/ Swamp Canyon||4.0 mi / 6.4km||Easy/Moderate||Less trafficked walk through Bryce backcountry|
|Hat Shop||4.0 mi / 6.4km||Easy/Moderate||Balanced-rock hoodoos via Under the Rim Trail|
|Bryce Amphitheater Traverse||4.7 mi / 7.5km||Moderate||One-way hike using shuttle to return|
|Navajo / Peekaboo Loop||4.9 mi / 7.8km||Moderate||Mini figure-8 loop|
|Peekaboo Loop||5.5 mi / 8.8km||Moderate||Steep, spectacular hike through the canyon|
|Figure 8 Combination||6.4 mi / 10.2km||Moderate||Queen’s Garden, Peekaboo Loop and Navajo Loop|
|Fairyland Loop||8.0 mi / 12.9km||Moderate||Chinese Wall, Tower Bridge, tall hoodoos on longer loop|
All the trails within Bryce Canyon amphitheatres are connected – so with an early start you can join them together to form a 15.5 mile / 25km extended Bryce Canyon Loop that takes in all the major rock formations and thousands of hoodoos in the Bryce Amphitheatre and Fairyland.
Best Bryce Canyon hikes
There’s really no “bad” Bryce Canyon hikes, but if you’ve got limited time these are arguably the best ones to do, in order…
1. Navajo Loop
The iconc Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon features Wall Street (a set of switchbacks that take you down between narrow walls of limestone) views of Thor’s Hammer (the park’s most famous hoodoo). Go early in the day to avoid the crowds on thie popular hike.
Distance: 1.3mi / 2.2km loop. Allow an hour.
2. Peekabook Trail
This trail gets fewer visitors, which can make it more appealing on a busy day… I’d put this on par with Queen’s Garden, but it’s a little more strenuous and feels a bit more remote. The trail passes many rock formations including Silent City and The Cathedral, goes through two tunnels and has many great hoodoo views.
Distance: 5.5 mi / 8.8km loop. Allow 2-3 hours.
2. Queens Garden
Considered to be the least difficult trail which enters the canyon from the rim, the Queens Garden Trail gets fairly busy. It has three tunnels cut into the rock, many views of hoodoos and a rock formation resembling Queen Victoria. (It’s an out-and-back trail, but you can return via Navajo Loop making it 2.9 mi / 4.6km.)
Distance: 1.8 mi / 2.9km return. Allow 1.5 hours.
4. Fairyland Loop
This is the least busy of the Top 5 Bryce Canyon trails, and takes you into the area known as Fairyland. While the trail has less hoodoos, it makes up for this with a range of interesting rock formations – Tower Bridge, Chinese Wall, Boat Mesa and Sinking Ship – and more open vistas.
Distance: 8 mi / 12.9km loop. Allow 3-4 hours.
5. Rim Trail
There are some spectacular views into the Bryce Amphitheatre and Fairyland from the Rim Trail, which goes from Fairyland Point to Bryce Point. It’s a nice walk to do just before sunset, after you’ve done one (or more) hikes in the canyon. (Between Sunrise Point and Bryce Point you can use the free shuttle bus to allow a one-way hike)
Distance: 1-11 mi / 1.6-17.7km return. From 30min to 5 hours.
Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is about 270 miles (430km) or 4.5 hours drive from either Las Vegas in Nevada or Salt Lake City in Utah, which are the closest international airports. The closest regional airport with scheduled commercial flights is Cedar City Airport in Utah, located 80 miles (150km) west or a 1.5 hour drive from Bryce Canyon.
Accommodation near Bryce Canyon
The most convenient accommodation is The Lodge at Bryce Canyon, which is within Bryce Canyon National Park and in walking distance of most hiking trails and the Park Visitor Information Centre. Both hotel rooms and cabins are available. The Lodge is closed over winter (Jan-April), and can get booked out well in advance in the summer months.
The nearest town, Bryce, is only a 5min drive away, and there is a shuttle between Bryce and key attractions within the national park.
When to visit Bryce Canyon
May through September is generally considered that the best time to visit Bryce National Park, when the warmer is and the days longer (even in the middle of Summer, average temperatures are much lower than Arches National Park, Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree). However, if you’re planning on doing some of the longer hikes, I’d recommend March/April or October/November, when there are a lot less people and the days a little cooler. Winter is also a good time to visit, but brings the risk that some of the roads may be closed due to snow.
- National Park Service (NPS) – Bryce Canyon Day Hikes