The Essential Bryce Canyon

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.

* If you can afford more time in the park and enjoy backpacking, the Under-the-Rim Trail (see the hiking section) 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. Along with local dishes of chicken and beef, the restaurant chefs adhere to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program for fish entrees.

* I'd return to the lodge for breakfast, as the buffet is hard, if not impossible, to beat in terms of price, variety, and kid-friendliness.

* Best lodging again would have to go the Bryce Canyon Lodge (see the lodging section). 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 a better 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.