The Essential Bryce Canyon

Early morning and late afternoon sunlight seems to ignite Bryce Canyon's hoodoos. NPS Photo-Ray Mathis.

* Surrounded by southern Utah’s rugged wilderness, I’m confronted by, of all things, butterscotch. In a landscape of warm kaleidoscopic colors that change with the swinging of the sun, butterscotch currently is the color of the limestone ramparts that brought fame to Bryce Canyon National Park. And, I find as I plant my nose against the rough and rumpled bark of a 100-foot-tall Ponderosa pine, butterscotch is the unmistakable scent wafting from the tree. As national parks go, Bryce Canyon seems pretty straightforward. Each year 1.6 million people trek to the park, and 99.9 percent cling to the 18-mile-long feeder road that shadows the rim. They’re satisfied to gaze into amphitheaters of hoodoos that time, wind and water have so artfully carved into the Paunsaugunt Plateau’s vibrantly painted geology. Sixty-five million years in the making and still under construction, the cliffs once were muds, clays and silts on the bottom of a freshwater lake that flooded much of southwestern Utah.

* When's the best time for a Bryce fix? Late winter can be great if you like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, while mid-summer is fantastic as the 8,000+-foot altitude keeps things relatively cool. I, frankly, like September, a time when the few bugs that reside around here are mostly gone, as are many of the other tourists, and when the evening chill makes for comfortable tenting or even sleeping under the stars.

* Compared to most of the other Western parks, Bryce doesn't have a multitude of hiking options. But the trails it does offer are pretty spectacular courtesy of the unusual geology. A great hike for both families and individuals actually ties together two trails -- the Queen's Garden Trail and the Navajo Loop -- to create a hike of a tad more than 3 miles. Even though it's somewhat short, this loop takes you into one of the park's main amphitheaters. Along the route you'll pass such notable outcrops as Thor's Hammer and the Queen's Garden. As of July 2007, however, the Wall Street stretch of the Navajo Loop still was closed due to a rockslide. Still, you can proceed down the Thor's Hammer side and link to the Queen's Garden Trail.

* If you can afford more time in the park and enjoy backpacking, the Under-the-Rim Trail is a great adventure, one that takes you away from the bulk of the park's visitors and gives you a view of Bryce's colorful underbelly. Striding along this 23-mile-long route takes you through a quiet, breathtaking wilderness of orangish geology and towering trees in which details elude those in a hurry. This is the perfect location to embrace a Ponderosa and sample its sweet aroma. Going nostril to bark seems beyond strange, but the sweet bouquet is hard to believe unless you personally sample it; and besides, there’s no one around to deem you peculiar.

* Though home, or at least in the neighborhood, to elk, the occasional mountain lion and pronghorn antelope, most likely the only relatively large-sized wildlife to be spied in Bryce Canyon are squirrels, chipmunks and prairie dogs. On the reptilian side of things, the park is home to the Great Basin Rattlesnake, short-horned lizards, side-blotched lizards, the striped whipsnake and the Tiger salamander. Now, the park has on occasion been in the flight path of California condors that head north from Grand Canyon, but it's extremely rare to spot one of those great birds.

* Bryce Canyon might not have as many activities for youngsters as other parks, but the massive, yawning amphitheaters no doubt will catch their attention. Are your kids fans of cornfield mazes? Then they'll likely enjoy an opportunity to descend into the amphitheaters and roam among the hoodoos. If you come in summer be sure to make plans to attend one of the park's astronomy shows and see if the rangers can't point out the celestial body named for the park. Of course, the park also has a Junior Ranger Program that rewards participants with badges, while patches can be purchased for $1 at the park bookstore.

* Bryce Canyon's crowds stick closely to the main road that runs the length of the rim. You can flee them easily by taking a hike down below the rim, and there are plenty of options besides the lengthy Under-the-Rim Trail. For instance, the 4-mile-long Hat Shop Trail is an out-and-back hike that leads you to a field of balanced-rock hoodoos. The Swamp Canyon Trail attracts few travelers yet provides you with close-up views of hoodoos and rock fins. Just remember that these hikes involve quite a bit of hiking down off the rim top into the amphitheaters and then, of course, a climb back out. Be sure to pack plenty of water.

* The Bryce Canyon Lodge serves up the best dinner, hands down. I mean, look at this sampling of dinner dishes: Fairyland Crème Brie and Apple Stuffed Chicken, Red Canyon Grilled Trout Almandine, and Gorgonzola Ravioli, a vegetarian dish featuring raviolis stuffed with three cheeses and wild mushrooms and topped with tomatoes and Gorgonzola sauce. And the prices aren't too bad, either, with entrees topping out in the low-$20s.

* I'd return to the lodge for breakfast, as the buffet is hard, if not impossible, to beat in terms of price (less than $10 for adults, $5.75 for kids under 12), variety (French toast, pancakes, granola, cereals, eggs, fresh fruits), and kid-friendliness.

* Best lodging again would have to go the Bryce Canyon Lodge. You've got great location, right inside the park and a short walk from the rim, with a choice of either one of the 40 historic cabins with their high ceilings and gas-burning fireplaces or one of the 70 motel-style rooms that aren't as charming but are comfortable just the same. I enjoyed one of the latter after hiking the Under-the-Rim Trail and the wine and cheese on the patio after a refreshing shower were perfect.

* If you're traveling with kids, then perhaps your best option would be Ruby's Inn, for when kids travel, they seem to insist on staying at a place with a pool, and that would be at Ruby's. The rooms here, too, are a tad more comfortable than the park's motel-style rooms...but not as charming or cozy as the cabins at Bryce Lodge.

Comments

While I certainly appreciate your writings and videos, I wish you would describe RV availability together with size limits. Thanks

While I can't attest to size limits at Bryce Canyon, the two park campgrounds do have RV sites available. While there are no hookups, there is a pay dump station at the south end of North Campground. Hope that helps.

http://www.nps.gov/brca/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm

Anonymous, just about every park with camping offers equivalent info online. This one offers everything you're asking about and more. And a phone number to call if you need more details. For something as important as whether your RV will fit in the space you're going to reserve, I'd suggest that you always get your info from the source rather than from another friendly blogger. Even guidebooks written with that info in mind are just that -- GUIDE books -- and the info is constantly subject to change or additional restrictions based on changing circumstances (road construction, etc.).

-- Jon

Just a few miles away from the Bryce Visitor Center and also near another entrance into Bryce Canyon, there is fabulous lodging at the Bryce Country Cabins (Route 12 in Tropic, UT). Several cabins and each can sleeep as many as four adults. Air conditioned too. Great views from front and back. Great people running the place and they can hook you up with a horseback trail ride into the canyon (with Clint Mecham). This is the place we're returning to on our next visit to Bryce. And don't mis the little hike to Mossy Cave off Route 12 in Trpoic. Great waterfall and swimming hole in the midst of some exotic hoo doos.

just avoid ruby's. not only is the food horrible, they ask you to take a second mortgage on your home to pay for it.

I ate at Ruby's once and found it to be pretty good and reasonably priced. Of course, I lived in LA at the time so everything was reasonably priced when I compared it to home.

Staying at Ruby's BW off-season is a great deal - less than $50/night and seriously only a handful of people in the whole place.

I'll also cast another vote in favor of the Bryce Cabins down Route 12, but even better are the ones in Kodachrome Basin SP (less than a half hour away and accessibly via paved roads w/ access to rougher 4WD areas).

We enjoyed our stay at Harold's Inn; we've stayed twice in thier cabins. The cabins are bigger than a motel room, and very clean and well kept. they also have a diner and spa. Family owned and run. About $60. It's probably about 15 miles from the Canyon, but on the way to Bryce you drive through Red Canyon that has really nice hiking trails.

I always "smelled" the scent of the Ponderosa Pine as vanilla, although I do admit that some of my friends and audiences (when I worked in the west), did smell butterscotch. To me, there is nothing like hugging a big Ponderosa Pine, with my nose tucked into the tree bark. Aaah!

My wife and I stayed in the actual lodge a couple years back. THere are only about 4 or 5 rooms upstairs from the dining room and lobby, and while they call them "suites", our room was nothing more than a medium size room with a coffee maker. However, being in the lodge itself was nice, and we didn't have the noisy squirrels that people in the cabins often complain about. On the flip side, our room's window looked out onto the back courtyard, where most people who work at the lodge come to and fro, so expect some morning noise.

My favorite trail at Bryce has always been the Fairyland Canyon loop. Hit the Fairyland trailhead first thing in the morning and you'll have the first few miles all to yourself. As you go around Boat Mesa into Campbell Canyon you're bound to start running into more souls, espcially those who are visiting Tower Bridge Arch. But early morning in Fairyland, while not holding the amount and density of hoodoos in the main amphitheater, is still an incredible canyon full of scents, colors and serenity.

For a bush-whack, hike to the top of Boat Mesa and explore around. There are some unofficial trails leading up and around the top of the mesa, and while the park service probably doesn't want people poking around up there, it gives great views of both Fairyland and Campbell canyons.