In Bryce Canyon, a geologic fairyland of rock spires rises beneath the high cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. This intricate maze, eroded from soft limestone, now glows with warm shades of red, orange, pink, yellow, and cream. The rocks provide a continuous show of changing color throughout the day as the sun’s rays and cloud shadows move across the landscape.

Natural Bridge. Photo © Judy Jewell.

Natural Bridge. Photo © Judy Jewell.

Looking at these rock formations is like looking at puffy clouds in the sky; it’s easy to find images in the shapes of the rocks. Some see the natural rock sculptures as Gothic castles, others as Egyptian temples, subterranean worlds inhabited by dragons, or vast armies of a lost empire. The Paiute tale of the Legend People relates how various animals and birds once lived in a beautiful city built for them by Coyote; when the Legend People began behaving badly toward Coyote, he transformed them all into stone.

Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all, but rather the largest of a series of massive amphitheaters cut into the Pink Cliffs. In Bryce Canyon National Park, you can gaze into the depths from viewpoints and trails on the plateau rim or hike down moderately steep trails and wind your way among the spires. A 17-mile scenic drive traces the length of the park and passes many overlooks and trailheads. Away from the road, the nearly 36,000 acres of Bryce Canyon National Park offer many opportunities to explore spectacular rock features, dense forests, and expansive meadows.

The park’s elevation ranges 6,600-9,100 feet, so it’s usually much cooler here than at Utah’s other national parks. Expect pleasantly warm days in summer, frosty nights in spring and fall, and snow at almost any time of year. The visitors center, the scenic drive, and a campground stay open throughout the year.

Planning Your Time

Allow a full day to see the visitors center exhibits, enjoy the viewpoints along the scenic drive, and take a few short walks. Because of the layout of the park, with viewpoints all on the east side of the scenic drive, rangers recommend driving all the way south to Rainbow Point, and then stopping at viewpoints on your way back toward the park entrance; this means you won’t constantly need to turn left across oncoming traffic.

View from Sunset Point. Photo © Judy Jewell.

View from Sunset Point. Photo © Judy Jewell.

The hike into Queen’s Garden is a good, relatively short hike, and it’s easy to fit into a one-day tour of the park. If you have more time to hike, the Navajo Loop Trail is also good; it can be combined with the Queen’s Garden for a pretty substantial trek. Another good bet for strong hikers is the outstanding Peekaboo Loop. These trails are often crowded near the rim, but less so the farther out you get. But if the crowds begin to get to you, it’s time to visit the Fairyland Loop Trail, which is off the main drag and less trafficked.

If you’re interested in photographing the hoodoos—and it’s hard to resist the urge—it makes sense to spend the night in or near the park. Photographers usually obtain the best results early and late in the day, when shadows set off the brightly colored rocks. Memorable sunsets and sunrises reward visitors who stay overnight. Moonlit nights reveal yet another spectacle.

If you want to travel into the backcountry, be sure to consult with a ranger about your plans. Remember that winter can last a long time at this elevation, and many trails can be blocked by snow and ice into the spring. The weather can also take a toll on the trails, and it’s not uncommon to learn that your selected trail has been closed by rockfall.

Exploring the Park

Bryce Canyon National Park (435/834-5322, $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 pedestrians and bicyclists, admission good for 7 days and unlimited shuttle use) is just south of the incredibly scenic Highway 12, between Bryce Junction and Tropic.

Special hazards you should be aware of include crumbly ledges and lightning strikes. People who have wandered off trails or got too close to the drop-offs have had to be pulled out by rope. Avoid cliffs and other exposed areas during electrical storms, which are most common in late summer.

Travel map of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.