Exploring Hoodoos & More in Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park
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Although it’s one of America’s smallest national parks, Bryce Canyon National Park in the state of Utah packs in tons of stunning scenery and opportunities for outdoor adventures. The park is famous for its natural amphitheaters and red rock spires known as hoodoos, but it also contains gorgeous pine forests, aspen groves, and wildflower meadows.

With around 2.5 million visitors each year, Bryce Canyon is the second-most visited of Utah’s five national parks. Much of the park remains open in the winter, making it a fantastic year-round destination.

Whether you’re interested in a summer backpacking trip or a winter snowshoeing excursion through the hoodoos, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to plan your trip. This guide includes interesting facts and history about the park, climate and weather information, the best times to visit, things to do while you’re there, an overview of the park’s best hikes, and the best places to stay.

Hikers in Bryce Canyon National Park

History

Archaeological research suggests that humans have been in the Bryce Canyon National Park area for at least 10,000 years. Historians believe that people used the land seasonally but did not reside there due to the challenges of year-round habitation in this harsh climate.

Evidence shows that Paleoindians hunted large mammals in Bryce Canyon towards the end of the last Ice Age. Since then, the Paiute, Fremont, and Anasazi people have occupied the area and used it seasonally for hunting and gathering. These groups typically left in the winter because of the challenging weather conditions.

Euro-American explorers and settlers didn’t arrive in the area until the 1800s. During this time, Mormon pioneers spent summers tending sheep and cows in the present-day park, and overgrazing led to a shortage of valuable food resources, such as Indian ricegrass. The lack of food contributed to numerous conflicts between settlers and American Indians throughout the 1860s. Following a peace agreement at the end of the decade, Ute, Paiute, and Navajo peoples were displaced and moved to reservation lands. Pioneers then re-settled communities abandoned during the conflicts. Over the next few decades, pioneers continued to farm and raise livestock on the lands and use the forests for timber.

In 1916, the Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads promoted Bryce Canyon’s natural wonders to generate interest in the area. Tourist services gradually increased as a result of their efforts. By the early 1920s, the Union Pacific Railroad was considering expanding rail service in southern Utah to facilitate additional tourism growth.

As visitation increased and word spread of the area’s scenic beauty, conservationists grew concerned about degradation to the landscape and natural resources. Activities like unregulated tourism, logging, and overgrazing were damaging Bryce Canyon’s ecosystems, and a movement began to preserve the land as a national park. Government officials in Utah lobbied for protection at a federal level. Eventually, they persuaded National Park Service Director Stephen Mather to submit a recommendation about Bryce Canyon’s status to President Warren G. Harding.

On 8 June 1923, the park was established as a national monument to​​ preserve its “unusual scenic beauty, scientific interest, and importance.” A year later, it became Utah National Park, and the US Forest Service transferred control to the National Park Service. In 1928, the park was renamed Bryce Canyon National Park, and the boundaries were extended to their current size in 1942.

Key Facts about Bryce Canyon National Park

Size: 56 square miles (145 km2)

Number of visitors: around 2.5 million a year

Established on: 8 June 1923 (first established as Bryce Canyon National Monument)

Number of hiking trails: 35+

Highest point: 9,115 feet (2,778 meters) at Rainbow Point

Lowest point: 6,620 feet (2,018 meters) at Yellow Creek

Other interesting facts about Bryce Canyon:

  • In spite of the name Bryce Canyon, the main feature in the park is not actually a canyon. Rather, it is a series of more than 12 natural amphitheaters along the Paunsaugunt Plateau’s eastern side.
  • At only 56 square miles (145 km2), Bryce Canyon is one of the smallest national parks in the United States. Currently, there are only 12 US national parks that cover a smaller territory.
  • The park is named after Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who built a road in the area in the 1870s to improve the accessibility of timber. The amphitheater where the road ended became known as Bryce Canyon. Although Ebezener Bryce and his family moved to Arizona in 1880, people continued using the name Bryce Canyon.
  • Bryce Canyon has the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. These fascinating rock spires form as a result of weathering and erosion from ice and rain. Within the park, the hoodoos vary in height from less than 6 feet (1.6 meters) tall to more than 200 feet (61 meters).
  • Bryce Canyon experiences freeze-thaw cycles on 200 days of the year. This means that temperatures go above and below freezing on each of those 200 days, creating ideal conditions for hoodoo formation.
  • The process that formed the hoodoos is known as frost wedging. Frost wedging occurs when water seeps into cracks in the rocks during the day, then freezes and expands when temperatures drop below freezing overnight. As the water expands, the force breaks off pieces of rock.
  • The park’s excellent air quality and remote location result in amazing visibility. On clear days, you can see for nearly 200 miles (322 km) and experience panoramic views of three states.
  • Elevation within the park changes 2,000 feet (650 m), creating three distinct climatic zones: pinyon/juniper forest, ponderosa pine forest, and spruce/fir forest.
  • These diverse habitats provide a home for a range of wildlife, including more than 1,000 plant species, 100 bird species, dozens of mammal species, and nearly 20 reptile and amphibian species.
  • According to Native American mythology, the hoodoos were the Legend People, who were turned to stone by Coyote, a trickster character in Native American legends.
  • The average annual snowfall in the park is 100 inches (254 cm).
  • The lowest temperature ever recorded in Bryce Canyon was -26°F (-32°C) in 1963. The highest temperature ever recorded in the park was 98°F (37°C) in 2002.

Thunderstorm in Bryce Canyon NP

Climate and Weather

Bryce Canyon has a continental climate with warm summers and cold winters. The park’s high altitude means weather conditions can change quickly at any time of the year. Fall, winter, and spring are especially variable. No matter what time of year you visit, large temperature swings and a range of weather conditions are possible in a single day.

Temperatures fall below freezing most nights between October and May, but they can plunge well below that when Alaskan cold fronts hit the Colorado Plateau. December, January, and February are the coldest months, and December through March sees the most snowfall. Heavy snowfall impacting travel can occur anytime between October and April. Snow flurries are possible any time of year in this high elevation environment but are exceptionally rare in July and August.

You can read more about what kinds of weather conditions to expect in each season below.

Summer (June to September)

Summer weather in Bryce Canyon is usually warm and pleasant. In June and September, daytime highs typically reach the high 60s to low 70s Fahrenheit (20 to 23°C), and overnight lows drop to the low or mid-40s (5 to 7°C). July and August are warmer, with average high temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s Fahrenheit (25 to 27°C) and lows in the low 50s Fahrenheit (10 to 12°C). July and August are the rainiest months and experience brief but frequent afternoon thunderstorms with heavy rain and numerous lightning strikes.

Fall (October to November)

Weather in the fall in Bryce Canyon is variable. You may experience a series of lovely fall days, or you could get hit by an early snowstorm. Snowstorms are possible in October, and by November, conditions in the park are already quite wintry. Average high temperatures drop from 58°F (14°C) in October to 45°F (7°C) in November. Nighttime lows decrease throughout the fall from 32°F (0°C) in October to 23°F (-5°C) in November.

Winter (December to March)

Winters in Bryce Canyon are typically cold and snowy, but there are still plenty of sunny days in the high desert. Between December and February, temperatures almost always go below freezing overnight and usually warm up to the upper 30s Fahrenheit during the day (2 to 4°C). March is a bit warmer, with daytime highs typically rising to the mid-40s Fahrenheit (7°C).

Spring (April to May)

Like the fall, spring weather is highly variable in Bryce Canyon National Park. Late snowstorms impacting travel in the region are possible through April or even early May. As the snow melts and temperatures warm up, wildlife becomes more active, and wildflowers begin to bloom. You may experience some rainy days on a spring visit to Bryce Canyon, but rainfall is usually not significant. Average high temperatures rise from 54°F (12°C) in April to 64°F (18°C) in May, with average lows increasing from 29°F to 37°F (-1.7°C to 3°C).

When to Visit

Bryce Canyon National Park is open year-round, but the best time to visit for most people is between May and September. Days during these months are warm and pleasant, with abundant sunshine. Brief afternoon showers and thunderstorms are common, especially in July and August. All the park trails and campsites are generally open, making this a perfect time for hiking and backpacking. May to October is the peak season in Bryce, so visitors should expect it to be busy.

April and October are considered the shoulder season. They are excellent times to visit for travelers who want to escape the crowds while also avoiding cold winter temperatures. Snowstorms become more likely during these months, but most park trails and campgrounds are open from mid-April until mid to late October (parts of the Rim Trail and Navajo Loop typically remain closed until mid to late May). If you plan your trip in April or October, expect cool days, chilly nights, and variable weather conditions.

Winter has its own charms and offers the chance to experience Bryce Canyon in solitude. Visiting between December and March is ideal for those who want to enjoy winter hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing in Bryce Canyon. From winter astronomy programs to guided full moon snowshoe trips, there are plenty of exciting ways to explore the park during the winter.

Bryce Canyon in Winter

Recommended Gear

Your Bryce Canyon National Park gear list will depend on what time of year you plan to visit and what activities you want to do while you’re there. No matter when you go, you should pack plenty of layers and rain gear. That way, you’ll be prepared for the potentially large temperature swings and sudden weather changes in the high desert environment. Sun protection is also crucial year-round since UV exposure is greater at high elevations.

Sturdy footwear, such as hiking boots or trail running shoes, is also a must. Even if you just plan on doing some sightseeing and short walks, you should bring hiking footwear with good traction so that you can safely navigate the terrain. According to the National Park Service, wearing improper footwear is the most common reason visitors get injured and require a rescue or hospital visit.

If you plan on hiking or backpacking in Bryce Canyon, check out our Desert Hiking, Backpacking Checklist, and Winter Hiking posts for detailed gear lists and other tips.

What to Do in Bryce Canyon National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Despite its small size, Bryce Canyon has over 35 trails and fantastic hiking and backpacking opportunities. With the right equipment, experience, and preparation, these activities are possible year-round in the park. However, you’ll have the widest selection of trails if you go between late May and September. Check the current conditions ahead of your visit to see if any closures affect your hiking plans.

Many consider September to be the prime month for hiking and backpacking in Bryce Canyon National Park. The chance of thunderstorms is much lower than in July and August, and the crowds begin to dwindle after Labor Day. The temperatures remain pleasant during the day, with slightly chilly nights.

Day hiking does not require a permit, but you’ll need one if you want to overnight in the backcountry. You must obtain your permit in person at the park Visitor Center, and you can make in-person reservations up to 48 hours in advance. Backcountry permits are issued throughout the year to those with sufficient experience and weather-appropriate equipment.

This high desert environment has unique challenges that hikers and backpackers must prepare for. Take a look at our Desert Hiking and Mountain Hiking guides for tips about safely hitting the trails in deserts and in high elevation settings.

It’s also important to address wildlife safety. Bryce Canyon National Park is home to mountain lions, black bears, and venomous snakes. Although attacks on humans are rare, it’s essential to exercise caution and take preventative measures to reduce your chances of an unwanted wildlife encounter. For example, those who spend a night in the backcountry are required to bring a bear canister to store food. You can view our Wildlife Safety article for tips about handling encounters with animals in the wild.

Best Hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon has a variety of trails to suit a range of preferences and time constraints. Whether you want to see the park’s highlights on a short walk or enjoy a multi-day hike through the backcountry, there’s a trail that will take you there. Here are Bryce Canyon’s best hikes.

  • The Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trail: This easy 2.9-mile (4.6-km) trail is one of the United States’ top desert hikes and one of the best and most popular trails in Bryce Canyon National Park. Over the course of 2-3 hours, hikers will traverse the canyon rim and experience breathtaking views of the Bryce Amphitheater. The trail also allows you to get close to the park’s surreal rock formations known as hoodoos. The Wall Street side of the Navajo Loop closes every winter due to icy and dangerous conditions. If you want to hike the entire length of this beautiful trail, plan your visit to Bryce Canyon in the spring, summer, or fall.
  • Under-the-Rim Trail: If you want to escape the crowds and experience Bryce’s backcountry, the Under-the-Rim Trail is a perfect multi-day hike. This challenging trail stretches 23 miles (37 km) from Bryce Point to Rainbow Point and has seven backcountry campsites (Sheep Creek is currently closed). You’ll experience some of the park’s highest elevations and gorgeous scenery, including rock spires, pine forests, pink cliffs, and meadows. Most hikers require 2-3 days to complete the trail, but you can stretch it out over 4 days if you prefer.
  • Rim Trail: This moderate 11-mile (17.7-km) out-and-back trail wraps around the rim of Bryce Amphitheater and has 1,177 feet (359 meters) of elevation gain. Hikers on the Rim Trail can enjoy unforgettable views of the hoodoos from above. The trail is paved between Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, but other sections have some steeper terrain. The trail closes between Inspiration Point and Bryce Point during the winter, but you can hike from Fairyland Point to Inspiration Point year-round. Those with limited time in the park can hike just the paved section from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point.
  • Riggs Spring Loop Trail: Beginning at Yovimpa Point, this 8.6-mile (13.8-km) trail travels through Bryce Canyon’s fir, spruce, and bristlecone forests. This loop is a popular place to overnight in the backcountry, and there are three backcountry campsites along the trail (Corral Hollow is currently closed). The trail is considered strenuous and packs in 2,248 feet (685 meters) of climbing. In addition to exploring the park’s pine forests, hikers can enjoy views of quaking aspen groves and red cliffs. Many backpackers combine the Riggs Spring Loop with the Under-the-Rim Trail.
  • Fairyland Loop Trail: If you’re looking for a moderate to challenging trail with less traffic, Fairyland Loop is a fantastic choice. The 8-mile (12.9-km) trail winds through the park’s famous hoodoos and features gorgeous scenery along the rim of the amphitheater. Keep an eye out for snakes on the trail. If you plan to do this hike in the winter, make sure to pack traction devices (you’ll need to start at Sunrise Point in the winter months due to seasonal road closures). Plan to spend about 4-5 hours on the trail.
  • Peek-A-Boo Loop: Beginning at Bryce Point, the Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail quickly descends to the canyon floor and winds through the hoodoos. Despite its relatively short length of 5.5 miles (8.8 km), numerous switchbacks and steep sections make this trail strenuous. You must hike Peek-A-Boo Loop in a clockwise direction, and the hike should take 3-4 hours. Keep an eye out for horses and mules on the trail and always yield to the animals.

Camping

There are two main campgrounds in the park – North and Sunset. North Campground is open year-round, although the RV dump station closes in the winter. The campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the year.

Sunset Campground is open from mid-April to late October. Reservations are required between 20 May and 15 October. You can reserve individual sites on a rolling 6-month basis and group sites on a rolling 12-month basis. Campground fees range from US$20 per site per night for tents to US$30 per site per night for RVs.

Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit in designated campsites only, and you must use established tent pads. Permits are US$5 per person and must be secured in person a maximum of 48 hours in advance.

Biking

Both Bryce Canyon and the surrounding area have exciting places to go biking. The best option within the park is the main road to Rainbow Point. The paved road ascends from 7,900 to 9,105 feet (2,408 to 2,775 meters) over the course of 17 miles (27 km). Riders will experience beautiful views of Bryce’s meadows, forests, hoodoos, and cliffs.

Outside the park, check out Thunder Mountain for singletrack and Dixie National Forest for a variety of trails ranging from easy to challenging. You can ask for details at the Red Canyon Visitor Center.

Horseback Riding

Horses were a common mode of transport in Bryce Canyon before it became a national park, and today horseback riding is a fun way to explore the park. Guided trail rides are usually available (weather permitting) from April to October. You can choose from 2-hour and 3-hour excursions on a horse or mule to experience Bryce Canyon from a different perspective.

Horseback riding through Bryce Canyon

Winter Sports

Thanks to its high elevation, Bryce Canyon National Park receives more snow than other national parks in Utah and is a great place to enjoy winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Winter visitors can go on ranger-led snowshoe trips around the rim of Bryce Amphitheater and in between the snow-covered hoodoos. There are also a variety of cross-country skiing trails within the park above the rim and in nearby Dixie National Forest.

Stargazing and Astronomy

The night skies in Bryce Canyon have minimal light pollution and are some of the darkest in the US. This creates phenomenal stargazing opportunities in the park, particularly around the new moon. The park holds an annual Astronomy Festival in June, with daytime activities and astronomy-focused evening programs.

Where to Stay

Staying inside the park is the most convenient option when visiting Bryce Canyon. There are two front-country campgrounds (only North Campground is open year-round) and various backcountry campsites. If you don’t want to camp, the only hotel in the park is Bryce Canyon Lodge.

The historic lodge opened in 1925 and offers rustic accommodation with incredible access to many of the park’s top viewpoints and hiking trails. The hotel has 114 rooms, including lodge suites, motel rooms, and cabins. Although the Bryce Canyon Lodge and dining room shut down in the winter, you may be able to find lodging at the affiliated Sunset Hotel, one of the lodge’s motel units.

There are more accommodation options outside the park, but you’ll need to deal with traffic at Bryce’s only entrance if you are visiting during the peak tourist season. Here are the best places to stay outside the park:

  • Bryce Canyon City: Located next to the park’s entrance, this town is a convenient option with several hotels, inns, and campgrounds to choose from. The park shuttle stops in Bryce Canyon City, making it ideal for summer visitors who don’t want to drive or deal with parking in the national park. Entertainment options are somewhat limited, but you can find activities like rodeos, horseback riding, ATV tours, and dinner shows during the summer.
  • Tropic: This town is a bit further from the park (about a 15-minute drive) but is less touristy and tends to be quieter than Bryce Canyon City. There are several hiking trails in the area and various lodging options, including bed and breakfasts, hotels, cabins, vacation rentals, and campgrounds. Tropic is home to Bryce Pioneer Village, which offers historic cabins from the 1920s, in addition to family suites, motel rooms, RV sites, and campsites.
  • Panguitch: About a 30-minute drive from Bryce Canyon National Park, Panguitch is less convenient than Bryce Canyon City and Tropic but is a good option for travelers on a budget. Panguitch is close to Dixie National Forest, making it a nice choice for travelers who want to combine a visit to Bryce with biking or cross-country skiing on trails in the national forest.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Bryce Canyon is in a remote part of southern Utah, so you’ll need a car to get there. Access is via Utah Highway 12, which then connects to Utah Highway 63.

There is no public transportation to the park, but there is a free shuttle service that serves Bryce Canyon City and many of the park’s top viewpoints, trailheads, and other areas of interest. The park shuttle usually runs from mid-April to mid-October, weather permitting. Traffic and parking are an issue in Bryce Canyon during the summer. We recommend using the shuttle or starting your day very early to avoid congestion.

If you plan on flying into the region, the closest airports are Cedar City Regional Airport in Cedar City, Utah (1 hour 45 minutes away by car) and St. George Regional Airport in St. George, Utah (2.5 hours away). Major airports include McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada (4 hours away) and Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah (4 hours away). You can rent a car at any of these airports and then drive to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Most people combine their visit to Bryce Canyon with some of Utah’s other national parks, such as Zion National Park (1.5-hour drive) or Capitol Reef National Park (3.5-hour drive). Arches and Canyonlands are also possible to visit on the same trip, but these are about a 5-hour drive away near Moab, Utah. While we recommend taking a few days to fully experience Bryce Canyon National Park, it’s possible to stay next to one of Utah’s other national parks and stop at Bryce on a day trip.

Winter in Bryce Canyon

Conclusion

Bryce Canyon National Park is an incredible place to visit any time of the year. Whether you opt to stargaze at the summer Astronomy Festival or enjoy snow-covered hoodoos and quiet trails in the winter, many amazing adventures await you in this remote part of Utah.

 

Did you enjoy this guide to Bryce Canyon National Park? Check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure.

 


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