Though summer draws the bulk of Bryce Canyon National Park's 1.2 million annual visitors, a strong argument can be made that winter is a more fascinating time to visit this red-rock icon. The sharp contrasts between fresh-fallen snow, cerulean skies, and the park's red-hued amphitheaters are spectacular.
Southern Utah's national parks all are red-rock wonders. Zion National Park features towering cliffs of stone. Arches National Park showcases a one-of-its-kind collection of stony arches and windows. Canyonlands National Park is a maze of canyons, and Capitol Reef National Park offers a sprawling rockscape. Bryce Canyon, on the other hand, is much, much more intimate and, in some manners, more curious geologically.
Not quite 36,000 acres in size -- little more than a tenth the size of Canyonlands -- the drawing card of Bryce is its namesake amphitheater crowded with hoodoos and goblins that erosion has sculpted from the pink underbelly of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Whether you gaze down upon the amphitheater, or stroll through it, the features known as Thor's Hammer, Queen's Garden, Natural Bridge, ET, Indian Princess, and the Warrior, just to name a few, fire your imagination and cause you to marvel at nature's artistic side.
For most visitors, Bryce is a one-day adventure, as the 18-mile long Rim Road leads to all the major overlooks that provide dramatic views into the canyons down below.
But this small park deserves a closer, more attentive inspection, for its wonders are in the nuances that wind, rain, ice and snow have created, and even in the shadows it casts.
And you want solitude? Winter delivers that wholesale to Bryce Canyon. During a recent trip I had the Upper Inspiration Point Overlook to myself. I glanced down upon Natural Bridge, with two others. I had Farview Point to myself. I walked the Queen's Garden-Navajo Loop Trail (minus the Wall Street section, which is closed in winter) with my own thoughts. I watched the sun come up from Bryce Point with a hardy Texan and his two tripod-steadied cameras.
Of course, weather-wise winter can be mercurial at Bryce. One morning I awoke to -5 degrees Fahrenheit, the next to 19 degrees. The first day saw an afternoon high around 30 degrees or so, the next day saw the mercury climb to about 40 degrees.
So, with all that in mind, here's a checklist to help you navigate a wintry visit to Bryce Canyon.
* Pack with weather's vagaries in mind. In other words, bring layers. Be able to add or subtract by the hour. And if you're planning to watch the sun rise from Bryce Point, don't plan to stand there in jeans. It can get dangerously cold before the sun rises, and you need to be ready for those conditions. A pair of shell pants with an under layer of fleece pants is good for your legs, while a base- and mid-layer topped by a warm coat (down-filled is nice!) is great. And don't forget a warm hat and gloves, as well as a good, stout pair of lug-soled boots. Sneakers run the risk of earning you frost-bitten toes, and lack traction.
* Speaking of traction, it's not a bad idea to invest in a traction device of some sort. Snow falls on the overlooks and trails, and many, many, many feet compact that snow into hardpack as well as ice. It doesn't take much to go slip-sliding away, and with the sharp drop-offs in some areas of Bryce Canyon, just one slip could be detrimental to your well-being. I've trusted my health to YakTrax for years (although there are similar versions of these devices out there). No worries if you can't find them at home, as they're sold in the park's Visitor Center.
* If you're determined to watch the sun rise from Bryce Point, and to enjoy the illumination of the main amphitheater, plan on driving to the point between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. (in the Visitor Center they post the next day's sunrise, so use that as a gauge). Since it possibly will be very dark, as opposed to somewhat dark, when you reach the point's parking lot, you might feel good toting a flashlight to see where the best footing is on the way to the overlook. Just keep the beam pointed on the ground in front of you, as some photographers might already be on the overlook and using long exposures to capture the dawning day. A misguided beam of light would not go over well in that situation. Also, don't be late, as sunrise can be fleeting. The day I went there was a good expanse of cloud cover, and when the sun finally climbed above the horizon at roughly 7:18 a.m., I had all of 18 minutes to capture the spectacular digitally before clouds covered the orb back up.
* Consider bringing a tripod and a remote shutter release. The low light conditions require a very steady hand to get a blur-free photo.
* Think strategically. Do you want to watch the sun rise? If not, sleeping in certainly is good. But if you do, a good approach would be to get up, go to the point, enjoy the sunrise, and return to your lodging (more on that in a bit) for breakfast and regrouping for the rest of the day. If you're not an early riser, after breakfast you might want to head to the far southern tip of the park and backtrack from there, taking in Yovimpa Point, then Rainbow Point, then Black Birch Canyon, Ponderosa Canyon, Aqua Canyon, Natural Bridge, Farview and Piracy points, Swamp Canyon, Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point, and Sunrise Point.
That way you end your day close to your lodging, as opposed to 18 miles away.
* Drive cautiously between stops. The park speed limit ranges generally between 30 mph and 40 mph, and in winter snow- and ice-covered patches demand a bit less gas.
* Although it's winter, don't forget, or neglect, sun block and water. The sun can be harsher in winter due to the reflective snow, and the dry air, and high elevation (Bryce Canyon ranges from 6,600-9,100 feet) can leave you lethargic and suffering from the altitude if you're coming from far below. Water helps combat the dryness.
* Where to stay? Unfortunately, the Bryce Canyon Lodge and its surrounding cabins are closed in winter. Unless you're planning to camp in the park's North Campground, the closest accommodations are found at Ruby's Inn, a complex that dates to the early 20th Century and which, despite the Best Western branding, has remained in the same family, the Syretts, all these years. This sprawling establishment has just about everything you could need -- hundreds of rooms, restaurant, grocery, liquor store, beauty salon, digital photo lab, gas station, auto repair shop, and gift shop. Staying here in winter is inexpensive. From November 1 to March 31 they offer a "Winter Warmer Special;" stay one night at the regular rate, and each additional night is half-off. With rates starting at $46.63, it won't set you back a lot to stay at Ruby's.
* Consider a full-moon snowshoe hike with a ranger. These events are free and open to 60 visitors, but you have to get a ticket at the Visitor Center to join the hike. Tickets are available at 8 a.m. the day of the hike and go quickly -- sometimes the line starts forming at 7:30 a.m. At least one full-moon hike is scheduled this winter, on December 20. This could be a particularly popular event, as it's scheduled to coincide with a full lunar eclipse.
* Check the park newspaper to see if any star-gazing events are scheduled during your stay.
* There are roughly 30 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails -- most surrounding the park on adjoining national forest lands. However, there also are a small number of XC trails in the park. Skis, as well as snowshoes, can be rented at Ruby's if you don't have your own. This is a great way to see another side of Bryce Canyon -- the forested one -- and get some exercise at the same time.
* For more information on Bryce Canyon, check out the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association. It offers a number of helpful publications, such as Geology of Utah's Parks and Monuments, Shadows of Time -- Geology of Bryce Canyon, and Bryce Canyon Auto and Hiking Guide. By supporting this organization you help promote "the education, research and interpretive programs" of its public land management partners in the Colorado Plateau Region.