I have been so excited to write this post since we got back from vacation. Bryce Canyon was our favorite of the three National Parks we visited on our Southwest Parks vacation. We didn’t expect it to be as it is largely dismissed as a day trip in many of the travel guides I’ve read. It was a pleasant surprise realizing how much we enjoyed the scenery.
Bryce Canyon National Park is one of Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks (joined by Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef) and as such, does capture many of the visitors who come through the state to see the more famous neighboring Zion National Park. It does not rank in the top 10 National Parks by annual visitors, but it’s still absolutely worth a visit in my opinion.
Bryce Canyon is famous for its hoodoo rock formations, which resemble bright red, orange and pink chess pieces or castle spires that rise up from the ground. The hoodoos are the result of frost weathering and erosion over time, that have worn away softer layers of stone. Bryce is known for having drastic temperature swings – 20 to 30 degree differences from day and nighttime which further exacerbate the potential for freezing conditions.
Bryce Canyon is also known for its Dark Sky designation. The intentional reduction of light pollution in this remote part of Utah means that it is one of the darkest places in the state – which creates a healthier environment for animals and creates unparalleled stargazing opportunities for visitors, as well as astronomy programs led by National Park Service rangers.
Tips for Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park
- Where to Stay: We stayed at the Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel the night after we spent the day in the park, one of three hotels located in the gateway community of Bryce Canyon, just outside the park. Rooms are limited outside of the park, and are fairly expensive. We paid more than $350 for a room that slept four in a queen bed and a sofa bed. The room was spacious though, and the hotel had a lovely fireplace in the lobby, a pool and hot tub that offered a beautiful view of the starry sky, and a generous breakfast buffet in the hotel lobby the next morning.
- The night before we arrived at the park, we stayed in very comfortable Airbnb in nearby Kanab, about one hour drive time from Bryce. Staying in Bryce Canyon has its benefits, there is a free shuttle that stops at area parking lots and hotels and takes you to the park and there are ample food and drink options in Bryce Canyon. Being close by also means you can take in evening astronomy programs hosted by National Park Service park rangers, too.
- How to Get There: Bryce Canyon is about 4 hours by car from both Las Vegas, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah. How you decide to get to Bryce Canyon largely depends on what else you’d like to visit while in Utah. We flew into Las Vegas, Nevada and this was one of our stops along our roadtrip loop. We plan to return to Utah in a few years to visit the other three National Parks we did not get to and will likely fly into Salt Lake City next time.
- How to Get Around: Like at many popular National Parks, you are encouraged to utilize the free Park shuttle service to get around the park. Parking fills up early in the park and can hinder the visitor experience by getting stuck looking for parking spaces at trailheads and scenic overviews. We drove into the park initially to take the scenic drive (I’ll touch on this more later). After taking the scenic drive, we drove to our hotel and took the shuttle from there back into the park.
- What to Eat: There are several restaurants inside the park, but the most wide options are outside the park in Bryce Canyon. There is a nearly full service grocery store on the shuttle line at Ruby’s Inn General Store, but it is quite expensive. We had our own sandwiches and snacks packed for the day and didn’t eat in the park.
- We ate dinner in nearby Tropic, Utah at Stone Hearth Grille, that I booked several weeks in advance. This restaurant features steak, seafood and regional recipes beautifully prepared and served in a restaurant overlooking the beautiful and remote scenery. The price point is a bit higher, but all of our meals were delicious. I had a seafood chowder (scallops, shrimp, etc.) for my starter and enjoyed a vegan chile rellenos for dinner (made with a cashew cream instead of cheese). It was the best meal I enjoyed all week.
- Where to Hike: We were only in Bryce Canyon for one day and decided to take on Peekaboo Loop Trail. This 5.5 mile trail is a lovely way to see the rim and the floor of the Bryce Amphitheatre. It has quite an intense descent and ascent (1,555 feet) followed by a tame, winding loop through a valley of beautiful hoodoos. I loved the ever changing scenery on this hike and the shady spots in the amphitheatre to stop for water or snack breaks. If we had another day in the park, we likely would have hiked Fairyland Loop. That is about 2.5 miles longer and includes about 500 more feet in elevation change. Because the weather can change so drastically throughout the day and at different elevations, be sure to wear layers and carry a lot of water.
- What Else to See and Do: Don’t miss the Bryce Canyon scenic drive, located at the Southern end of the Park (it’s basically one road and one entrance, so you will drive all the way to the most southern point and work your way back). The scenic drive has about eight scenic overlooks offering different vantage points of the park, but is not on the shuttle route and has limited parking. We got to the park around 8:30 AM and were able to just barely find parking at each of the scenic overlooks. The views are beautiful and there is a remarkable difference in plant life at the different elevations in the park.
- The Bryce Canyon Visitor Center talks at length about the geological history of the park and its famous hoodoos as well as about light pollution and Bryce Canyon’s Dark Sky status. It’s also a great place to pick up souvenirs and to talk with a Park Ranger while planning your hikes.
- Downtown Bryce Canyon features a variety of restaurants and ‘western’ themed entertainment, like an old time village with ice cream and children’s entertainment and a rodeo is also nearby (open seasonally on weekends).
- Ruby’s General Store is the best spot to find a huge variety of souvenirs, books, etc. It’s one of the oldest operating businesses outside the park and is just fun to take a walk through.
If you’re looking to plan a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park or the nearby communities of Bryce Canyon and Tropic, be sure to use the resources from Visit Utah. I also love using hard copy travel guides for my National Parks adventures. I checked out a copy of Moon Travel Guide for Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park and brought it with me for trip planning. Happy travels!