By Cami Sauder, Lyn Mettler and John Chavez
With only two million visitors per year, instead of in two months like some other national parks, it might almost seem like you have Bryce Canyon National Park all to yourself. Almost.
At Bryce, you’ll find the largest concentration of hoodoos on earth. What on earth IS a hoodoo, you ask? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it at as, “a natural column of rock in western North America often in fantastic form.” They got the “fantastic” part right!
These rock formations occur on every continent, but here at Bryce, you’ll see the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world.
It is truly like stepping into another world!
How to Get There
On Southwest, you can fly direct from most cities into either Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, each only ~270 miles distance away. Rent a car and be there in no time (ie about four hours, not TOO far ;-)).
Lyn and her family chose to fly into Las Vegas, spending a few days in Sin City on either end of their trip, and driving to Zion National Park followed by Bryce Canyon in the middle.
Nearby Attractions to Visit
These parks are all part of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks that also include Arches and Canyonlands on the eastern side of the state.
The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where Cami and her family enjoyed tubing and jet skis on Lake Powell, is another great family-friendly option in the region.
Lyn and her family checked out Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park and Kodachrome Basin State Park. They highly recommend these state parks, which have more of Utah’s fabulous landscapes without all the crowds!
Getting Around in the Park
Bryce is laid out differently than some other National Parks. Basically, it’s a canyon, which you can access primarily from one side.
Simply head down a trail that leads down into the canyon and take your pick of connecting trails. Eventually, you’ll want to pick one that leads you back up and then you can simply walk back alongside the canyon’s edge to your car or starting point.
The park does have a free shuttle service, running from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. May through September, bringing visitors to viewpoints, trailheads and other parts of the Bryce Amphitheater area of the park.
You can track the shuttle to see how long it will be until it arrives at your location via the Bryce Canyon Shuttle website, including stops outside the park itself like Ruby’s Inn and the Bryce Canyon Lodge.
Alternately, you can drive an 18-mile main road that takes you from north to south and to the park’s highest elevation at 9,000 feet.
Rainbow Bus Tour offers free guided tours to Rainbow Point twice daily. This tour lasts 3 1/2 hours and stops at many of the park’s scenic viewpoints. Leave the driving to someone else for a morning (9 a.m.) or afternoon (1:30 p.m.). Best of all? It’s free!!
It’s also ideal for backpackers who want to be dropped off at trailheads to start their hikes. Reservations are a must. You can reserve a spot up to seven days in advance for one of the 40 seats by calling 435-834-5290.
When to Visit
This National Park is open 24/7 the entire year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but visiting during the off season (which is anytime outside of May through September) means there is not a lot of supportive infrastructure (ie tours, restaurants, shops, etc.).
When Lyn visited in April, which was still the off season, they found only a handful of places to eat. So plan for that or enjoy eating Subway for lunch AND dinner. 🙂
Summer temperatures at Bryce top out at a very comfortable 80-degree average high. In winter, which can last until April, the roads may be closed briefly for plowing. Lyn and her family found it still lightly snowing in April.
Additionally, Bryce Canyon is at a higher elevation than other parks like Zion (9,000+ feet at its highest point), so that makes it a bit cooler.
Bryce Canyon National Park Entrance Fees
The Bryce Canyon National Park entrance fee is $35 per car for a seven-day pass or $40 for an annual pass. You can also purchase a seven-day motorcycle pass for $30.
If you plan on visiting at least three national parks within a year’s time, spring for the America the Beautiful annual pass for $80. That allows you to visit as many National Parks as many times as you want in a year.
Senior citizens can purchase a lifetime senior pass for ALL national parks for only $80 or instead choose a $20 annual pass. Everyone in your car gets in for the price of the pass with the pass holder in tow!
The National Parks also honor active duty military members and dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, with a free annual pass.
INSIDE TIP: Want to volunteer in a national park? If you acquire more than 500 hours of service, this entitles you and three others to visit National Parks free for a year.
And, don’t forget, if you have a fourth grader, your whole family gets into National Parks free during their school year and the following summer as part of the Every Kid in a Park Program. These special passes alone are honored at more than 45 Federal Recreation sites throughout the United States!
You can also access Bryce Canyon National Park FREE in 2020 on the days below, but keep in mind these days will be even MORE BUSY than usual:
|January 20||Martin Luther King, Jr. Day|
|April 18||First day of National Park Week / National Junior Ranger Day|
|August 25||National Park Service Anniversary|
|September 26||National Public Lands Day|
|November 11||Veterans Day|
Bryce Canyon Visitor Centers
There are two Visitor Centers at Bryce Canyon. One is located at the north entrance, and the other is further into the park.
There, you’ll find a short informational video along with information about museum and ranger programs. Pick up a brochure describing all the various ranger-led activities, including activities like rim walks, talks, astronomy and geology programs and even a full-moon hike! Don’t forget about the junior ranger in your group.
The Mysterious, Otherworldly Hoodoos
Bryce’s most popular sight is the Bryce Amphitheater, which is full of the iconic signature of this park: the hoodoos.
According to the National Park, the hoodoos are uniquely formed in this area, because of wild swings in temperature that vary between freezing nights and warm afternoons. These formations are created by weathering and erosion, including snow and ice melt that allows water to seep into fractures of the rock, refreezing and expanding.
They start from a thin wall of rock, in which frost and ice eventually create “holes” or “windows” within the wall. From there, the “top” of the window eventually gives way, separating the wall into limestone spires called “hoodoos.”
There are some famously-named and shaped hoodoos to look for, including:
- Thor’s Hammer
- The Chessmen
- Tower Bridge
- Wall of Windows
- The Poodle
There are many vantage points to view the hoodoos and magnificent vistas, but the four main vistas are at Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point and Sunrise Point.
Hiking at Bryce Canyon
Bryce has many day hikes that range from easy to strenuous. Some trails are also shared by horses and mules during the summer, so they recommend hiking clockwise to reduce your chance of encountering these animals.
Many of the trails intersect each other and connect to form loops of varying distances and difficulties. For example, the Navajo Loop Trail, Peekaboo Loop Trail and Queen’s Garden Trail can all be joined for a longer hike with shorter excursions along each connecting trail.
Up for a longer backcountry hike? You can get your permit in person at the Visitor Center for overnight stays before setting off on Under-the-Rim trail, about 23 miles long. It’s broken into four sections and is incredibly strenuous, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
Sunset to Sunrise Trail
This is the easiest hike in Bryce’s 60-mile trail system and is part of the Rim Trail that runs along the edge of the canyon. It’s only 1-mile round trip and very close to the Visitor Center.
Most people will want to stretch their legs after entering the park, as well as pause and take in the incredible Bryce Amphitheater, and this paved trail is a perfect spot to do both. Plus, you can bring Fido, as long as he’s on a leash.
Bristlecone Loop Trail
This 1-mile roundtrip trail takes you through a spruce-fir forest to cliffs, offering excellent views.
Queen’s Garden Trail
Lyn’s family opted to take the Queen’s Garden Trail into the canyon, which is the least difficult descent (get ready for some steep downhills, though it’s designed with lots of switchbacks to help). From here you can connect to other trails within the canyon like the Navajo Loop Trail.
A 5.5-mile roundtrip hike, the trail gives you a great overview of the canyon, passing by the Wall of Windows. You can also combine the Navajo and Peek-a-Boo Loops together to form a Figure 8.
A less-crowded trail that runs 8 miles roundtrip, you’ll pass by hoodoos like the China Wall, Tower Bridge and more.
Mossy Cave Trail
There’s a great little trail outside the confines of the park called the Mossy Cave Trail, which Lyn’s family happened upon the evening they arrived.
It’s a short (1 mile roundtrip) and simple trail that, for free, offers fantastic scenery that runs alongside a stream, and, you guessed it, leads to a mossy cave :). Great for kids!
It also offers views of a few “windows” in the rock walls that have not yet become full “hoodoos,” which is super cool.
“I Hiked the Hoodoos” Program
The National Park Services wants to motivate you to see the park on foot, so the “I Hiked the Hoodoos” program is designed to reward you if you hike a minimum of 3 miles.
Alternately, you can find three specific benchmarks and make a pencil rubbing or take a selfie at these benchmarks. Bring your evidence and claim your gift at the Visitor Center’s front desk.
Hike and Drive
You can drive the entire length of the main park road and end up at the highest point of Bryce Canyon, Rainbow and Yovimpa Points. The Park Service recommends hiking the easy 1-mile Bristlecone Loop to break up the driving.
Once there, you’ll be able to walk through a beautiful sub-alpine fir forest along with bristlecone pines. Bristlecones are the oldest living trees, with some over 4,000 years-old. On the way back, stop at Natural Bridge and Agua Canyon.
Other Activities in Bryce Canyon
There are lots of great adventurous things to do at Bryce Canyon.
If you didn’t bring your own horse, you can still take advantage of riding a horse at Bryce via Canyon Trail Rides. Choose from two-hour or three-hour rides through the canyon.
You’ll be greeted by a cowboy when making your reservation at the lodge. Soon you’ll be saddled up and ready to make your way into the heart of the Canyon.
See Bryce Canyon on an ATV (all terrain vehicle) accompanied by a guide April through the end of October. Ruby’s Inn offers guided ATV tours of Bryce Canyon for either a half-hour or full hour through pine forests and along the rim of the canyon.
You must be 16 years old to drive an ATV and 7 years old to be a passenger.
Bryce Canyon Rodeo
See a real live rodeo Memorial Day through mid-August Wednesdays through Saturdays. The Bryce Canyon Country Rodeo features cowboys, broncos and more.
Imagine seeing hoodoos from above! Take a flight over the canyon with Bryce Canyon Airlines & Helicopters.
They offer a 35-minute flight over Bryce, or you can combine Bryce with the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley or Zion for 1 1/2 to four-hour flights.
Where to Stay
Inside the Park
Bryce Canyon Lodge
The only non-camping lodging in the park is at the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge, built in 1923 and a National Historic Landmark, where you’ll find 15 cabins, along with motel rooms, studios and suites, a restaurant, pizzeria and a gift shop — but NO TVs.
INTERESTING FACT: Of the four lodges built in Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Zion and Cedar Breaks National Monument, it is the only original structure still standing, making it extra special!
And cell phone service? Don’t count on it unless you connect to WiFi in the lobby. You’re in a National Park, you know, so get out and experience the beautiful surroundings. As they say, “Unplug and unwind”! 🙂
You’ll be glad to know that each room contains a mini-fridge and a microwave to help save on eating costs.
All campgrounds are first-come first served, cost $20 to $30 and do not contain sewer, electrical or water hookups for your RV, although there are nearby flush toilets and showers.
Outside the Park
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Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel
Lyn and her family stayed at the Best Western Grand Hotel just outside the park and highly recommend it. This is one of the nicer Best Westerns Lyn says she’s seen and probably the nicest hotel in the area.
The property has an outdoor pool, which you can use in warmer months, a handy laundry to clean all those dirty hiking clothes, and a hearty daily breakfast buffet to fill up before heading out for a day on the trails.
Rooms were not luxurious, but clean and comfortable and do have microwaves and refrigerators (fill it with water!).
Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn
Across the street and part of the same property is the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn. This hotel has all of the dining (aside from the breakfast buffet at the Grand hotel).
The rooms here are a bit more like a motel and not as nice, but you will find that is the case around many National Parks. You can actually get a room with a whirlpool INSIDE the bedroom though! 🙂
Accommodations do come with a complimentary breakfast buffet and there’s also an indoor pool, a guest laundry (yea!), fitness center and a General Store in addition to the restaurants.
You can also board the Bryce Canyon Shuttle, which runs May through September, in front of Ruby’s Inn. To board the shuttle, you’ll need a Park Pass (which you would normally buy at the Visitor Center or main entrance), which you can also buy at the front desk of the Best Western Grand or Ruby’s Inn.
Bryce View Lodge
The Bryce View Lodge, which is also really a motel, is on the free shuttle route as well, and again, rooms are basic. You are also granted access to the amenities at Ruby’s Inn across the street like the guest laundry and indoor pool.
On site at this hotel is Ebenezer’s Barn & Grill Restaurant, which is open nightly April through October.
Where to Eat
A big thing to be aware of when visiting Bryce Canyon is that its “season” runs May through September, so there is not much in terms of dining that is open outside that time.
When Lyn and her family visited in April, they only found a handful of restaurants open, including:
- Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room
- The Pizza Place
- The Bryce Canyon Lodge restaurant
- Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant
- Stone Hearth Grille
- Uptop Steakhouse
And not all of these are super close to the park. Several are a 20-minute drive and only open for dinner.
But, you’ll likely only be staying a night or two, so it should not be a big deal. “We just found ourselves eating Subway a few more times than we would have liked,” Lyn said.
Inside the Park
Valhalla Pizzeria & Coffee Shop
Valhalla Pizzeria does not open until mid-May and closes mid-September, but if it is open when you’re visiting, enjoy lunch and dinner in a casual atmosphere. They serve pizza, salads, baked goods, coffee, beer and wine.
Bryce Canyon Lodge Restaurant
Open late March through early October, the Bryce Canyon Lodge Restaurant is known for its “rustic elegance” and features a grand stone fireplace. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (expect dishes like steak, chicken and seafood), seating is first-come, first-served and you can wear casual attire.
Inside the Lodge, you’ll also find the General Store serving hot and cold grab-and-go foods like pizza, soup and sandwiches. You can also pick up some groceries in a pinch.
Outside the Park
Subway is very close to the Best Western Grand and other hotels and is easy enough to grab on your way to the park to enjoy a sub sandwich in the midst of hiking.
Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room
Located at Ruby’s Inn, Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room is decent fare, but a bit high priced. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and are also open in the off season, thank goodness!
It is set up buffet style with different stations like a salad bar and dessert area. You can also order steaks and more off of the menu, and they do have a kids’ menu.
Bryce Canyon Pines
Another close option is Bryce Canyon Pines open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. They describe their food as “home cooking” and are known for their selection of pies. It, too, is open in the off season.
Stone Hearth Grill
For a nicer meal in a more rural setting, check out Stone Hearth Grill, which is in nearby Tropic, about a 20-minute drive. The restaurant is open for dinner and serves steak, seafood and chicken with a mountain view.
The Pizza Place
Lyn says she and her family always like to find a pizza place wherever they travel, because it’s a meal everyone likes. In Bryce, you can try super casual The Pizza Place, which Lyn recommends and which is also in Tropic, but slightly closer at a 13- to 15-minute drive.
What to Bring
- Hiking boots
- Hiking stick
- Plenty of water (1 liter every 1-2 hours; note: there are seven water refill stations located throughout the park)
- First-aid kit
- Flashlight (in case you end up hiking later than intended)
- Sunscreen and hat
- Whistle should you need help or need to scare wildlife
- Mirror can help rescuers locate you
- Waterproof clothing, especially during the rainy season
- Layers for changing weather
INSIDER TIP: Take pictures of the Amphitheater at dawn or dusk around the “golden hour.” The golden hour is the time after sunrise or before sunset when light is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky. The orange-red-pinkish hues will pop with vibrancy during the golden hour, and your friends and family will be amazed by your astounding photography skills.
Festivals at Bryce Canyon National Park
At this annual festival, you can join park rangers for family-friendly geology programs and bus tours, guided hikes and even special guest speakers during the evening programs. There are many exhibits and family-oriented activities at the Visitor Center during the event.
Interested in gazing at the stars while on vacation? Be sure to plan your visit during the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival.
Led by Astronomy Rangers and local Astronomical Societies, attendees will enjoy a variety of activities and programs offered both day, and, of course, night!
Want to learn more about Bryce Canyon National Park? Read their FAQ’s.
Want more general National Park tips? Check out our post on 7 Top Tips for Visiting America’s National Parks.
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