In Bryce, hiking can be breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. Treks of varying distances transport you into veritable sculpture gardens full of eerie hoodoo. After a day of exertion, gaze at the 7,500 stars visible in the night sky (an urban dweller is likely to see only about 200 at home) at one of the park's regular Night Sky programs.
Take a load off your feet on a wrangler-guided mule- or horseback trek in the park. At night, try a full-moon hike or, in winter, an early afternoon snowshoe expedition.
In the summer months, the park offers visitors a free shuttle that stops at the most popular viewpoints, trails, and facilities along the central Bryce Amphitheater. Leave your car outside the park, and hop on and off the shuttle as often as you'd like. Riding the shuttle is convenient and alleviates traffic and parking congestion.
Or forge off on your own by driving 18 miles (29 kilometers) along the rim of the horseshoe-shaped Bryce Amphitheater to Rainbow Point, rolling through meadows, ponderosa pines, and conifer forests, stopping for dramatic views of the luminous rock formations.
A dozen trails cover 50 miles (80 kilometers) in the park. The Queen's Garden Trail is an easy one- to two-hour walk to the naturally sculpted Queen Victoria hoodoo. Add to the Queen's Garden Trail the Navajo Loop and you'll have what Ranger Dan Ng calls "the best three-mile [five-kilometer] hike in the world." For those craving something a bit more strenuous, combine that loop with the Peek-A-Boo Trail for a tough but rewarding 8.6-mile (13.8-kilometer) journey that features close-up views of the Wall of Windows, the Cathedral, and the Three Wise Men formation.
Bryce is home to 59 species of animals, including two endangered species: the Utah prairie dog (there are about 200 in the park) and the Southwest Willow Flycatcher. Mule deer are common. Keep an eye out for the reintroduced pronghorn, the fastest land mammal on the North American continent.
Spanning three climatic zones, Bryce Canyon is full of conifer species, from spruce to fir, ponderosa, and pinyon. You'll find oak trees, cacti, and yucca at lower elevations. Bryce's many wildflower species include the Bryce Paintbrush, found only here. "Discovered" in 1965, it features pale to bright fuchsia blooms that grow in rocky soil breaks in spring.
Take in the amazing sunrise at Inspiration or Bryce Point, which paints the stone spires with soft and rich hues of red, pink, orange, and yellow.
Smart Traveler Strategies
For short visits, stop first at the visitors center just inside the park's entrance on Utah Route 63 to watch the 22-minute, award-winning film and to grab some maps. Then head to Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce viewpoints (with camera in tow). Take a quick hike along a canyon trail or a stroll along the rim.
If you have an entire day or longer in the park, drive out and back to Rainbow Point (18 miles/29 kilometers one-way) and stop at each of the 13 viewpoints along the route. Take a two- or four-hour wrangler-guided horse- or mule-back trip down into the canyon. http://www.nps.gov/brca/planyourvisit/things2do.htm
Excursions Outside the Park
A plethora of parks surround Bryce. Several are fewer than 100 miles (161 kilometers) away, including Zion National Park, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Capitol Reef National Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, and Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. The Grand Canyon itself is 178 miles (286 kilometers) away in Arizona. Red Canyon, within Dixie National Forest, is only nine miles (fourteen kilometers) west of Bryce and offers views of hoodoos without having to hike down to their bases.