Bryce Canyon showcases the stunning geology of southern Utah, a red-rock wonderland created by wind, water, and snow. Among the nation’s most beloved (and photographed) parks, Bryce is a major draw for hiking, challenging rock climbing, and winter cross-country skiing trails.
And the park is less than 40 miles as the crow flies from another natural gem: Zion National Park.
Perhaps nowhere are the forces of natural erosion more tangible than at Bryce Canyon. Its wilderness of phantom-like rock spires, or hoodoos, attracts 2.7 million visitors a year. Many descend on trails that give hikers and horseback riders a close look at the fluted walls and sculptured pinnacles.
The park follows the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. To the west are heavily forested tablelands more than 9,000 feet high; to the east are the intricately carved breaks that drop 2,000 feet to the Paria Valley. Many ephemeral streams have eaten into the plateau, forming horseshoe-shaped bowls. The largest and most striking is Bryce Amphitheater. Encompassing six square miles, it is the park’s scenic heart.
Bryce past and present
For millions of years, water has carved Bryce’s rugged landscape. Water may split rock as it freezes and expands in cracks—a cyclic process that occurs some 200 times a year. In summer, runoff from cloudbursts etches into the softer limestones and sluices through the deep runnels. In about 50 years, the present rim will be cut back another foot. But there is more here than spectacular erosion.
Unlike the early Mormons who viewed Zion Canyon as a heavenly gift, rancher Ebenezer Bryce viewed the badlands that ran through his 1870s ranch as a bane. “It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow,” he once famously quipped.
The area’s indigenous people were far more amazed. According to Paiute Indian legend, the canyon’s hoodoo rock formations were created by that old trickster Coyote, who turned the gluttonous To-when-an-ung-wa (“Legend People”) into stone.
Truth be told, Bryce isn’t a canyon. It’s a natural amphitheater carved into the eastern flank of the Paunsaugunt Plateau by millions of years of wind and water erosion (and perhaps a little help from the Coyote god). While the fantastical hoodoos are certainly what draws most visitors to Bryce, the park’s extreme altitude means that visitors can also explore alpine meadows and coniferous forests that provide habitats for a wide variety of flora and fauna.
In the early morning you can stand for long moments on the rim, held by the amphitheater’s mysterious blend of rock and color. Warm yellows and oranges radiate from the deeply pigmented walls as scatterings of light illuminate the pale spires.
To help alleviate heavy summertime traffic, visitors are encouraged to park outside the park and hop the free Bryce Canyon Shuttle from a station off Highway 63 in Bryce Canyon City. The shuttle runs to the visitor center, lodge, campground, and several overlooks. However, you will need your vehicle to reach viewpoints at the southern end of the main park road.
By far the park’s most popular activity is walking all, or part, of the 11-mile Rim Trail between Fairyland Point and Bryce Point. Offering panoramic views of the kaleidoscopic topography, the trail can be accessed from several places along the rim, including Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, as well as the old and esteemed Bryce Canyon Lodge (opened in 1925).
The easiest way to dip down into the canyon is the Queen’s Garden Trail, a 1.8-mile route that starts from Sunrise Point. At the opposite extreme are routes like the Under-the-Rim Trail (23 miles) and Rigg Springs Loop (8.8 miles) that meander through stone formations and forested areas below the plateau; backcountry campsites along both of these trails enable multiday treks through the best of Bryce.
It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.
The classic auto tour of Bryce runs 18 miles south from the visitor center to Rainbow Point, where the view encompasses all five colorful layers (pink, gray, white, vermilion, and chocolate) of the Grand Staircase formation. From nearby Yovimpa Point, the view extends all the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a clear day.
Bryce Canyon is also an extraordinary winter park. Seeing the hoodoos covered in a shroud of fresh snow is surreal.
This article was last updated on August 19, 2019 and was excerpted from the National Geographic books 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas and National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012 as well as articles featured in “Cutting Loose” in National Geographic Traveler.