While the view down into the ruddy and tawny maw of Bryce Canyon National Park is pretty spectacular, you should try looking up at the park's colorful ramparts! And one of the best places to enjoy this view is along the park's lone long-distance backcountry trail, the 23-mile-long Under-the-Rim Trail that rises and falls down along the floor of the park, an area that few folks actually get to see because they prefer not to hoist a pack on their back.
With Fall sliding across the Rocky Mountains, it's actually a great time to be heading down this trail. Bugs are not a problem, and the aspen leaves are changing and trying to match the hues that geology has painted across the Pinks Cliffs that hoist the park more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
The Under-the-Rim Trail stretches from Bryce Point to Rainbow Point in the park. You can hike the entire 23 miles, or shorten the distance and even turn it into a day hike by taking one of the four connector trails that dart down from the park's 18-mile-long rim road -- the Sheep Creek Connector, the Swamp Canyon Connector, the Whiteman Connector, or the Agua Canyon Connector. Among the many beauties of this hike is the solitude you enjoy because, as noted above, there are few folks who actually head down this path. Winding through the conifer forests and through glades of aspen that cover the floor of the park you walk past the rocky debris of past flash floods that are responsible for the park's sculpted geology. Days end when you wrap yourself in the silence that descends with sundown.
The logistics of organizing a hike Under the Rim are pretty straightforward. You need a backcountry permit (rates range from $5 per permit for seven days to $15, depending on the numbers in your group), but you can't reserve one in advance by phone or email. You can get one 48 hours in advance if you show up in person, or as late as an hour before the visitor center closes for the day. When you get your permit, you also select your backcountry campsites, which are designated by the park. Now, about the only trick -- and one that usually is easily overcome -- to this hike is arranging a shuttle. When a friend and I did it, we dropped a car near the Whiteman connector trailhead and hiked around to the Riggs Spring Loop, where we met up with one of my brothers, who had parked a car at Rainbow Point. If you only have one car, you have to rely on the generosity of strangers to give you a ride back to your rig, but that shouldn't be too difficult.
We had reserved the Natural Bridge site for our first night, and from the Whiteman trailhead it took about 90 minutes to reach that spot. The campsite is nestled among thick stands of Ponderosa pines along with some Douglas fir and junipers and, naturally, offers tremendous views of the park's Natural Bridge formation. Sundown isn't disappointing here, as the setting star's rays practically ignite the sandstone cliffs that rise above you. The thick pine-needle duff here also made for a particularly cushy mattress.
Generations ago this area was logged by settlers, as evidenced by the stumps that stand at the feet of the 250-300-year-old trees. One stump measured roughly 3 feet across, a testament to the tenaciousness of trees in this arid, rocky setting. Lean feeders of Willis Creek range through this area -- but they're more a jumble of rocks, pebbles and boulders colored rust, caramel, orange, pink, red, auburn, black and cream than streams of water.
As you hike through the park's basement you notice the subtleties of Bryce Canyon. Here's a Ponderosa seedling that had sprouted from a crack in a boulder where its seed had found purchase and germinated. Over there in the rubble of a wash are fossilized shells. Wrap your arms around one of the many Ponderosas and you enjoy the rich aroma -- butterscotch to some, vanilla to others. Near Iron Spring, where the pigments that color Bryce Canyon's amphitheaters seep out and stain the wash bed, we spot the initials "E-J-B," and individual who claimed to have visited here in 1938. That no doubt was too late to have been left by Ebeneezer Bryce, a Mormon settler who famously said that the canyons here were a "helluva place to lose a cow." But might they have been from a descendant?
In this arid landscape, water is pretty precious and far between in the backcountry, so plan to pack plenty. There are two water sources along the way -- Iron Spring and Riggs Spring. The park calls both "reliable," but the flow from Iron Spring is not the most appealing as it's usually stained and heavy with mineral deposits. Still, in a bind you can treat it and live to tell others to pack plenty of water. Riggs Spring is slightly better.
Also, take care of your feet. There's lots of up and down along the route, and if your boots aren't completely broken in, or if you're prone to blisters, you'll likely get some on this hike. Pack the requisite First-Aid remedies, whether that's moleskin, Second Skin, or simply Band-aids, and use it at the first hint of a hot spot. And don't be bashful about changing your socks to keep a dry pair next to your skin.
Perhaps the best way to finish this hike is with a room at the Bryce Canyon Lodge. Coming off several days in the backcountry, cooking over a stove, and sleeping on the ground, nothing beats a hot shower, good dinner, and soft bed.