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Bryce Canyon National Park: Behold its fairytale-like landscape

Sunset Point view of Thor's Hammer in the late afternoon at Bryce Canyon
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July 27, 2018 03:45 PM
Sunset Point view of Thor's Hammer in the late afternoon at Bryce Canyon

The same thing happens to nearly every visitor who eyes Bryce Canyon for the first time: their jaw drops. Over millions of years, water, wind and ice carved out the park’s surreal, brilliantly colored geological formations, creating an otherworldly terrain.

Facts and figures

• Located in southwestern Utah, about 50 miles northeast of Zion National Park, the park spans 35,835 acres.
• Bryce is famed for its horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters and for its hoodoos, bizarre geological structures formed by frost weathering and stream erosion. The hoodoos range in size from human height to that of a 10-story building.
• The air in the area is so clear, on most days visitors can see Arizona’s Navajo Mountain, some 90 miles away.
• The park welcomes approximately two million people annually, with the majority visiting between March and early October.

The Claron Formation is the rock layer where hoodoos form at Bryce Canyon National Park. This layer includes siltstones, mudstones and especially limestone that was created 30-40 million years ago when an ancient lake covered most of western Utah. Hoodoos are tall, skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins and 'broken' lands. The Claron Formation is the rock layer where hoodoos form at Bryce Canyon.
Hoodoos are tall, skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins and 'broken' lands. The Claron Formation is the rock layer where hoodoos form at Bryce Canyon.

History

The park’s distinctive hoodoos likely began forming 40 million years ago.

Prior to Mormon pioneers settling here in the 1850s, the Pueblo and Paiutes peoples hunted game and harvested pine nuts in the region.

In 1874, homesteader Ebenezer Bryce, for whom the park was named, moved into the Paria Valley, just east of where the park stands today. While searching for missing cattle, Bryce wandered into the main amphitheater of Bryce Canyon. Word quickly spread about his unusual discovery, and residents of the Paria Valley began referring to it as “Bryce’s Canyon.”

Bryce went on to lead a group of Mormon pioneers who dug a 10-mile irrigation ditch in the canyon that diverted water from the plateau’s top into the valley below, making the area suitable for agriculture.

The area around Bryce Canyon was designated as a national monument in 1923 and was established as a national park in 1928.

Sunrise from Bryce Point over looking the amphitheater.
Sunrise from Bryce Point over looking the amphitheater.

Things to see and do

The conveniently located and visually stunning Bryce Amphitheater is the park’s most popular attraction. Take in the views at four primary viewpoints, all located within the first few miles of the park: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point.

Most visitors sightsee by hopping in and out of their cars along the 18-mile scenic drive. There’s also a free shuttle service that buses you to the most iconic areas.

In addition, there are multiple interconnected day-hiking trails, including the following: Bristlecone Loop, an easy one-mile hike where you’ll see bristlecone pine trees, the oldest trees in the world, with some dating back 5,000 years; Navajo Loop, a moderate hike that begins with sweeping views at Sunset Point; and the more strenuous 8-mile Fairyland Loop, which rewards hikers with mind-boggling views of the China Wall and Tower Bridge.

From April to October, you can also explore the geologic wonders via horseback tours.

The rising sun lights up manzanitas at Bryce Point
The rising sun lights up manzanitas at Bryce Point

Because the park exists in three distinct climatic zones, it’s home to a range of wildlife, including three endangered species: the Utah prairie dog, the California condor and the southwestern willow flycatcher.

Though day trips are doable, overnight stays are highly recommended—otherwise you’ll miss out on the stunning transformations of light, shadow and color that occur during sunrise and sunset. The dark of night puts on yet another show, and on a moonless evening, visitors can see as many as 7,500 stars.

Bryce Canyon offers two campground sites: Sunset Campground (100 sites, drinking water, no hookups, closed in winter) and North Campground (99 sites, drinking water, RV dump station during summer season, open year-round). Plan to make a reservation in advance if traveling between May and September.

Bryce Canyon Lodge, located within the park, offers historic lodge suites, western cabins and newer motel rooms.

Best time to go

Springtime feels more like winter, so plan a trip in the early summer, when temperatures range between 70 to 80 °F and the late-summer rainfalls have yet to begin. September temperatures tend to still be moderate, but by October, expect the first snow to fall.

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January 18, 2018 09:48 AM