If you visit Bryce Canyon National Park in winter, and there is snow on the ground and blue sky overhead, the one hike you absolutely must take is the Queen's Garden-Navajo Loop Trail.
Let's have no quibbling over this selection. While Bryce Canyon Ranger Kevin Poe likes to call it the best 3-mile hike in the world, I'll settle for the best 3-mile hike in North America. When there's snow on the ground and blue sky overhead, that is, and in the top five come warmer seasons, dropping only slightly in stature due to the lack of a snowy contrast.
Why so highly regarded? The surreal scenery. Cross-state neighbor Arches National Park has the world market cornered on stone arches, but I have yet to find a park that can compete with Bryce Canyon when it comes to hoodoos. (Sorry Goblin Valley State Park, but while you have scores of hoodoos and goblins, their metallic makeup is duller than that on display at Bryce Canyon.)
The trail can take as little as two hours out of your day, or three hours or more, depending on how much you like to dawdle, compose photographs, or just soak in the landscape.
In winter you'll begin this trek from the parking lot at Sunset Point. After leaving your car, walk north a short distance along the Rim Trail overlooking Bryce Amphitheater to Sunrise Point and the Queen's Garden Trailhead. From here you'll descend into an other-worldly landscape. For roughly 3 miles the trail meanders down and up and back down again, leading you through some stone passageways and cruising along the canyon floor before finishing uphill through a narrow divide given height not only by the embracing stone walls but by Douglas fir trees reaching for any sunlight that can pierce this slot.
In between you are led through a Crayola-colored landscape both whimsical and artful, one that sparks the imagination, questions gravity, and reaffirms your faith in Mom Nature for her creative genius. It seems there is a fantastic view everywhere you turn.
Indeed, while Ranger Poe urges folks to hike this trail clockwise (so as to ascend instead of descend the "slippery slope" near the end by Thor's Hammer), it wouldn't be a bad idea to hike this trail in both directions if you have the time. That way you wouldn't miss any of the curious and interesting angles in the landscape that gain perspective depending on the direction of your hike.
The descent from Sunrise Point allows you to peer down towards the Queen's Garden. What makes this stretch so spectacular? Very simply, the landscape of hoodoos, minarets, spires, and windows in stone and twisted, gnarled, bent and wizened trees that have stood silently by while the surrounded rockscape has been sculpted by erosion. Your eyes dart constantly dart back and forth, so worried are you that you might miss something truly fantastic.
But it's all fantastic. And in winter, when the red-rock is set off by blue skies overhead and blindingly white snows underfoot, the setting is even more incredible than in summer.
The Queen's Garden Trail runs only about eight-tenths of a mile, one-way, and ends at its namesake garden, a pocket of towering hoodoos and outcrops huddled near the rim wall. The most famous hoodoo, dubbed "Queen Victoria" for its rough outline of the queen, stands right near the end of the trail.
Now, just before you reach the end of the Queen's Garden Trail there's a junction with a connecting trail that takes you over to the Navajo Loop Trail. This trail cruises for a while along the bottom of the Bryce Amphitheater, leading you past towering walls and outcrops of rock, a broken forest of Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs that towers over a brushy understory featuring spreading patches of Greenleaf Manzanita. During the high heat of summer hikers can take a break on a long log situated under a rock overhang, but in winter you're not likely to overheat or feel a terribly hot sun on your shoulders that necessitates a break in the shade.
Once you tie into the Navajo Loop Trail you need to head up the "slippery slope," a series of switchbacks squeezed by towering cliffs and made slippery in winter by the snowy coating. (In summer you can bypass this slope and hike on through Wall Street, but in winter this section is closed due to the occasional dropping of rocks from the freeze-thaw cycles.)
Once you reach the top of these switchbacks you spy Thor's Hammer, a tall spindle of rock topped by a squarish outcrop that brings into mind Balanced Rock at Arches. From there it's a short walk up a few longer switchbacks to the top of Sunset Point and your car.
Trail: Queen's Garden-Navajo Loop
Trailhead: Sunset Point Parking Area
Length: Roughly 3 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate due to possibly slippery conditions underfoot. Definitely consider a traction device on your boots, such as YakTrax. You can buy a pair at the park's Visitor Center.
Payoff: One of the most surreal landscapes on Earth, made all the better by the rich contrasts of snow, red-rock, and blue sky.