Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon National Park is part of Utah’s ‘Mighty 5,’ which is a collection of the most prominent national parks found throughout the state. The reserve spans the southeastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau within the Colorado Plateau, and is actually a series of naturally eroded amphitheaters rather than a canyon. It is best known for its surreal crimson-colored rock formations such as spires, pinnacles, fins, and hoodoos. These prominent features are saturated in an array of colors that are so vivid and mind-blowing that it is a challenge to identify each hue.
The configurations resemble a limestone and sandstone fantasyland where the elements have had free reign to sculpt the landscape over millennia. It has created a breathtaking environment, which has attracted visitors from all over the world for a chance to immerse in the splendor. In fact, the unveiling of the whimsical towers rising up from the rocky terrain like a series of fingers pointing to the heavens is quite dramatic. It is not uncommon to observe tourists staring out at the scene them with their mouths open in wonderment.
There are countless ways to experience the natural wonder of the park, but the most common is by hiking or driving the scenic road. Both alternatives allow visitors to explore the distinctive rock features and alpine environment, but from different perspectives. Hiking trails range from easy to challenging loops and commonly descend into the canyon for direct access to the topographical landmarks.
Conversely, the 37-mile scenic drive around Bryce Canyon will navigate along the park’s 18-mile main road and the various overlooks from the rim of the plateau. For efficiency, it is advantageous to begin the drive at Rainbow Point and continue towards the park’s entrance for easy accessibility to the numerous pullouts and overlooks. To that end, the following are the lookouts in the order that they will be encountered along the scenic route:
Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Overlook:
Rainbow and Yovimpa Overlooks are the southernmost lookouts that are accessible from the Rainbow Point parking lot. From here, visitors are at the highest point in the park, an elevation of over 9,000 feet, with a northerly view of the hoodoo-filled canyon. A pathway navigates along the forested rim with opportunities along the way at clearings that provide varying perspectives of the magnificent amphitheater. The area is best photographed from midday to sunset when the sunlight perfectly highlights the colorful hoodoos and spires within Rainbow Canyon.
From Rainbow Point, the often-overlooked lookout of Yovimpa Point is a short, 10-minute hike away and should not be missed. On clear days, the vista stretches to the horizon where visitors can see the forested hillside of the Kaibab Plateau at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Other notable features that can be viewed are the colorful striations of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which include the Pink, Grey, White, and Vermilion Cliffs. The sweeping panorama of the geologic phenomenon is as mesmerizing as it is inspiring.
Black Birch Canyon:
The lookout at Black Birch Canyon is a lesser-known roadside pullout with charming views south to Rainbow Point. It offers another perspective of the multicolored hoodoos, buttes, and mesas that are blanketed with a dense forest of fir, spruce, and pine trees. Although they aren’t as grandiose as the features found at the Bryce Amphitheater, the overlook showcases how precipitous the cliffs are from the rim of the plateau to the canyon floor.
The vantage point from Ponderosa Canyon is another quick roadside stop that educates visitors on the topography of the region. It gives visitors an intimate connection with the magnificent rock formations, and their mosaic of brilliant colors, as they extend into the basin. The lookout was given its name because of the massive Ponderosa Pines that are scattered along the canyon floor. The National Parks Service states that sizes of these behemoths “measure more than 5ft in diameter and exceed heights of 150 feet.”
Agua Canyon is one of the grander overlooks on the southern end of the park that showcases distinct contrasts of color between the iron-rich sedimentary and white limestone. It is also where sightseers are provided with a commanding view of the prominent hoodoos in this section of the canyon: The Hunter (left) and The Rabbit (right).
The park no longer classifies these towers by name due to their top-heavy nature and tendency to collapse, often leaving behind remnants that no longer resemble its original namesake. Since the landscape is constantly changing, visitors are encouraged to let their imaginations decide what distinctive shapes the hoodoos most accurately correspond to.
The Natural Bridge is an impressive 85-foot, sandstone arch that was sculpted over millions of years by the extreme forces of weather and erosion. Despite the fact that it is one of many arches found throughout Bryce Canyon, Natural Bridge is particularly special because of its photogenic nature. The best time to visit the landmark is during the mid-morning when the sun is high enough in the sky to highlight its prominent features with minimal shadows. The massive stone structure can be photographed from a variety of vantage points, but the most striking is when the lush Ponderosa pine trees of Bridge Canyon are perfectly framed through the arch.
The next stop on the scenic drive is the aptly named Farview Point and its expansive north-to-south panoramic view. Due to the excellent air quality found in Bryce Canyon, visibility is as far as the eye can see on most days. Views extend from the park’s legendary creamsicle-colored rocks out towards the prominent features of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Scanning from north to south, visitors can appreciate the Pink Cliffs (Aquarius Plateau), Grey Cliffs (Kaiparowits Plateau), White Cliffs (Molly’s Nipple), and a portion of the Kaibab Plateau (Grand Canyon’s North Rim).
Before loading up and continuing on the journey, be sure to take advantage of the short walk to the north towards the Piracy Point lookout. Although the overlook is similar in many ways to Farview Point, the path leads through the verdant and aromatic pine trees, which are a welcomed reprieve and titillation on the senses.
Swamp Canyon Overlook:
Up the road from Farview Point is the relatively obscured Swamp Canyon Overlook. The vista is not unobstructed like many of the other major overlooks, but the easterly viewpoint provides scenic views of the Mud and Swamp Canyon Buttes. Hoodoos and fins bound the view on both sides as they protrude from the heavily forested countryside. The overlook is also the Swamp Canyon/Sheep Creek trailhead that connects hikers to the Under the Rim track.
Unlike the previous overlooks and pullouts, Paria View is 2 miles off of the main road via Bryce Point Road. Looking to the southeast is the Paria River watershed and its slot canyons, which experiences extensive flash flooding during thunderstorms. It is one of the rare areas in the park that affords visitors with a westward facing overlook that is ideal for sunset.
The amphitheater is small in comparison to others in the park, but it is just as picturesque. It is a mesmerizing perspective that encompasses the exact angle, where the multi-layered mesas frame the thickly forested canyon floor perfectly. An added bonus is how the blend of the bright blue sky and deep green trees contrast impeccably with the flowing colors of the sedimentary rock. The juxtaposition creates a scene where the distinct features of the landscape are highlighted and unmistakable.
Situated at 8,300 feet along the southern edge of the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, Bryce Point is touted as being one of the most exquisite panoramic views in the park. The vista is highly regarded for being the section of the park that has the highest concentration of vibrantly colored hoodoos.
Due to its elevated, northern-facing position along the rim, the overlook delivers a sweeping scene of the hoodoo-filled canyon floor and natural amphitheater. The views are unparalleled, especially at dawn when the aforementioned red rock formations are awash in the fiery glow of the rising sun.
The appropriately named Inspiration Point is a seemingly endless vista of the diverse canyon landscape, which is widely considered to be ‘one of the most incredible views in the United States.’ The viewpoint features varying levels of overlooks to observe the diverse congregation of colorful spires, fins, and hoodoos that are pervasive within the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater.
As with mostly all of the eastern-facing overlooks, Inspiration Point is best visited during sunrise when the light fills the amphitheater and creates a sweeping glow of crimson, gold, rose, and orange. The steep cliffs offer unobstructed views that extend to the horizon and look out at natural landmarks like Boat Mesa.
At an elevation of 8,000 feet, Sunset Point offers another dramatic perspective of the breathtaking rock formations found within Bryce Canyon’s main amphitheater and Claron Formation. The incredible view extends from the edge of the plateau into a section of the park that is nicknamed the Silent City, which is an intricate maze of highly concentrated hoodoos, spires, and fins. Nowhere in the park are the colors more prominent and vivid than within the Silent City. It is also the location of one of the park’s most recognizable landmarks, Thor’s Hammer, as it soars mightily above the surrounding landscape.
Along with its breathtaking views, Sunset Point is also the trailhead for the park’s most popular day hike: the Navajo Loop Trail. The trail begins by descending through the slot canyon of Wall Street via a series of switchbacks before reaching the canyon floor. As the path winds through the canyon, visitors are pitted against the towering rock formations of Silent City. From here, hikers can finish the loop or extend their excursion by connecting to the Queen’s Garden Trail to form a longer loop that culminates at the rim of Sunrise Point.
Sunrise Point is the final of four main viewpoints found along the rim of Bryce Canyon’s main amphitheater. As its name implies, it is an astonishing setting for photographing sunrise and the remarkable transformation that occurs as the surrounding geologic wonders are saturated in a fusion of orange, gold, and crimson. The panorama provides unobstructed views of the Boat Mesa and Sinking Ship landmasses that are set against the dissected cliffs of the Aquarius Plateau.
From Sunrise Point, outdoor enthusiasts can access the Rim Trail, Queens Garden Trail, and Navajo Loop Trail via the Queens Garden Trail. For the Queens Garden Trail, hikers will follow the meandering tree-lined path as it twits and turns from the rim of the plateau down to the main amphitheater’s canyon floor. The trail ultimately passes the sandstone formations of Queen Victoria and Queen’s Castle before connecting with the Navajo Loop Trail, which culminates at Sunset Point.
Bryce Canyon Visitor Center:
The Bryce Canyon Visitor Center is a full-service facility that features an information kiosk, bookstore, and informative displays and exhibits. For first time visitors to the park, it is a great starting point for any questions about hiking trails, wildlife, weather, or any other pertinent information. The visitor center also features an award-winning film called “Shadows of Time.” It is a 20-minute video that illustrates the history of the park, and plays every half hour throughout the day.
The operating hours of the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center vary depending on season: summer (May-September) 8am-8pm, fall (October) 8am-6pm, winter (November-March) 8am-4pm, and spring (April) 8am-6pm.
Fairyland Point is a commonly overlooked scenic viewpoint that is situated north of the entrance station, before entering the park, on Fairyland Point Road. A paved path navigates the short distance from the parking lot through a densely packed Ponderosa Pine forest before reaching the vista at a clearing at the edge of the canyon. Once at the clearing, the lookout provides visitors with an intimate vantage point of the distinctly shaped hoodoos.
This is also the same location where hikers can begin the strenuous 8-mile Fairyland Loop Trail or 5.5-mile Rim Trail along the rim and into the canyon. Both treks traverse the spectacular scenery and provide unique perspectives of the prominent clusters of hoodoos that fill the canyon.
Queen’s Garden Trail to Navajo Loop Trail (Easy/Moderate – 3-miles round trip):
One of the perks of hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park is that a majority of the main trails intersect with one another. This allows outdoor enthusiasts the chance to extend their hikes to include one or more of these trails to form a loop of varying difficulties, distances, and starting/ending points. An example of this can be seen with the Queen’s Garden to Navajo Loop Trail, which is the most heavily trafficked hike in Bryce Canyon.
The safest and most scenic route that park rangers recommend is by starting at the Queen’s Garden Trailhead at Sunrise Point, then continuing clockwise to the Navajo Loop Trail, Sunset Point, and ultimately back to Sunrise Point via the Rim Trail to complete the round-trip trek. All told, the loop is approximately 3 miles and is rated as moderate due to the length and elevation change, but is considered easy since the well-maintained trail is free of any challenges or hazards.
The popularity of the loop stems from the fact that the trail runs through some of the most incredible scenery found in the heart of the park. Beginning along the forest-lined rim, the views are incredible and only increase in beauty as the trail descends towards the canyon floor of the park’s main amphitheater. Along the way, visitors are treated to varying perspectives of the colossal hoodoos as they tower over the trail and surrounding vegetation. Many of these rock landmarks line the path and are appointed interesting names like Gulliver’s Castle, Queen Victoria, and Queen’s Castle.
At just over 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail merges with the Navajo Loop and hikers are presented with the option of utilizing one of two gradually ascending routes. Taking a left at the junction is the preferred route, as it navigates past the impressive Wall Street, whereas a right at the fork will give hikers an intimate view of Thor’s Hammer. Both of these routes culminate in a series of steep switchback before reaching the rim of the canyon at Sunset Point. Before continuing on, it is highly recommended to take the short detour down the other side of the Navajo Loop to the overlook of Thor’s Hammer. After returning to Sunset Point, hikers will connect with the Rim Trail, which is the final leg of the loop that will take hikers back to Sunrise Point.
Peek-a-boo Trail (Moderate/Strenuous – 5.5-miles round trip):
As with most hikes in Bryce Canyon, the Peek-a-boo Trail can be started at varying locations, but it is recommended to begin at its trailhead at Bryce Point and proceeding clockwise. Although longer, the 5.5-mile trail is a welcomed alternative to the crowded Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trails during peak season; however, since it intersects with these trails, it can also be added as an extension to create a 6.4-mile double loop nicknamed the “Figure 8 Combination Trail.” No matter the choice of excursion, the Peek-a-boo Trail is a true moderate/strenuous hike due to its length and extreme elevation gain over very short distances.
The added benefit of this arduous, backcountry route is that it navigates into the awe-inspiring Bryce Canyon Amphitheater through a variation of tunnels, deep canyons, and narrow passages. These obstacles and the constantly fluctuating topography are why it is widely considered to be one of the more difficult day hikes. Despite its difficulties, the trail encompasses some of the most majestic vistas and profound encounters with the surreal sandstone rock formations found throughout the park.
One of the highlights of the trail is the Wall of Windows, which is a spectacular formation of arches and fissures in the upper portions of a series of connecting hoodoos. These monoliths showcase the framework and evolution that the hoodoos undertake throughout the park, as well as provide insight into the erosion process that meticulously chisels their unique shapes over time. Other prominent hoodoo formations that are encountered along the loop are the Hindu Temples and the Cathedral. These distinctive rock formations are perfectly framed against the deep-blue sky and create a formidable scene along the path.
After weaving through the rich canyon environment and dense hoodoo formations, the trail will reach the junction at the valley floor where hikers began the clockwise loop. From here, it is a rapid ascent via a series of steep switchbacks back to the rim of the plateau. The completion of the Peek-a-boo Loop Trail is accomplished as the trail emerges out of the canyon and onto the paved walkway at Bryce Point.
Fairyland Loop Trail (Strenuous - 8-miles round trip):
The Fairyland Loop Trail is a brilliant 8-mile route that is listed as strenuous for its length and rapid elevation gain, but is not overtly difficult for anyone with a modicum of outdoor experience. It begins at Fairyland Point and ventures into the canyon before turning back towards Sunrise Point and culminating at Fairyland Point via the Rim Trail. Since the trailhead is located n