Last updated on July 6th, 2023 at 08:06 pm
Bryce Canyon National Park is one of Utah’s greatest treasures. It’s the second most visited of Utah’s Mighty 5 Parks with 2.5 million visitors per year (nearby Zion NP is first with 4.5 million). And strangely enough, despite having lived in Utah for most of my life, I never visited Bryce Canyon until the pandemic. I’d actually driven past the main road into Bryce Canyon several times without ever going in! The Shame!! I always had somewhere else to be… But, when the pandemic forced us all to explore closer to home, Bryce Canyon was first on my list of Utah must-sees. And I’ve been back several times since. Let me show you why Bryce Canyon is such a treasure, and my suggestions for spending two days in the Park.
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Getting To Bryce Canyon
Getting to Bryce Canyon takes 4 hours by car from either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas. Bryce is only 70 miles from Zion National Park, so most out-of-state visitors would definitely want to combine visits to both.
The Park is open 24 hours a day, year round. Because of its high elevation, you should expect snow in the winter, and certain trails aren’t open during that time of year. But the higher elevation also means that summer time temperatures are cooler than Utah’s other Mighty 5 National Parks.
Where to Stay Near Bryce Canyon
Bryce City is the closest “city” to the park, located only a few miles from the Park’s entrance. City is a generous term. The largest two hotels in the area are located here – both part of the Best Western chain – along with a couple restaurants, gas stations, and souvenir stores. Bryce City is also home to the Bryce Shuttle. Here you can park your car and catch a shuttle into the Park, helping you avoid the high-season parking hassles inside. Bryce City is a hub for companies (like those below on Viator) offering ATV and horseback riding. Campgrounds are also spread throughout this area (and inside the Park as well).
You can also find lodging in one of the surrounding small towns. Panguitch (population 1700) and Hatch (pop. 150) are each located about 30 minutes west of the Park’s entrance. Tropic (pop. 500) is located about 15 minutes east of the Park’s entrance. Each of these towns offer motels, restaurants, markets, and vacation rentals.
I generally prefer to stay in vacation rentals when I travel, and we found a gem in Hatch. It’s called the Sevier River Ranch and Cattle Company, and we have now stayed there 3 different times. Located on 280 acres, with sweeping views of red-rimmed plateaus to the east, and the winding Sevier River down in the valley below to the west, this vacation rental is a beautiful spot to base any adventures into Bryce Canyon or the surrounding areas.
The ranch consists of only 6 rental units of varying sizes (including a 3 bedroom house). We stayed in the Farrier’s Quarters during our first visit – a newly renovated studio apartment featuring travertine floors and shower, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances. Rustic Luxury!
On two subsequent visits to Bryce Canyon, we stayed at Sevier River Ranch too. But we rented out the entire place for two different family reunions! It was absolutely perfect for large groups. I have an entire post dedicated solely to The Sevier River Ranch & Cattle Company if you would like to read more about this great rental property.
Bryce Canyon Overview and Layout
Now on to the main event – Bryce Canyon National Park! Here’s a simple way to think of Bryce Canyon. The main road inside the Park sits on top of a high plateau. All along the entire east side, time and nature have eroded this plateau, leaving behind a wonderland of pink/orange/white cliffs and “hoodoos” – the narrow cylindrical stone towers that make Bryce famous.
The Bryce Amphitheater, with its large concentration of hoodoos, is located at the northern edge of this plateau and is the park’s most visited area. This is where most iconic Bryce Canyon photos are taken. In addition to its breath-taking vistas, the most popular hiking trails are concentrated here, too.
The Park is more than just the Amphitheater though. It extends a full 18 miles along the plateau to the south. A winding road will take you to its southern end where you will find sweeping views across Southern Utah and all the way to Arizona on a clear day. Along the way, there are multiple scenic viewpoints and hiking opportunities. And, the trail head to the very popular Mossy Cave Trail actually sits outside the entrance to the Park, along the road to Tropic.
A Suggested Two-Day Itinerary for Bryce Canyon
To make the most of any visit to Bryce Canyon, I would recommend spending at least two days exploring this great National Park. Three days would be even better since there is so much to do in the surrounding area too. Here’s how we spent two days on our first trip to Bryce Canyon.
Hiking Into the Amphitheater
On our first morning, we hiked the Queens/Navajo Loop Combination Trail. This may be the most popular hike in the Park. It takes you from the Amphitheater’s most popular viewpoints along the Rim, directly down in and among the hoodoo forests.
The Bryce Canyon Map, given to you upon entry, suggests a clockwise route for this hike, starting at Sunrise Point. But prior to our trip, I read that the counterclockwise route, starting at Sunset Point, is easier. When hiking this series of trails, your elevation change is 600 feet. Plus, the top of the Amphitheater sits at an altitude of 8300 feet. I’m all for making a hike like this as easy as possible.
If you take this route clockwise, as suggested on the map, you will climb out of the Amphitheater via a series of very steep switchbacks at the end of the Navajo Loop. If you go counterclockwise instead, you will descend into the Amphitheater using these switchbacks. You then climb out using the Queens Garden Trail at Sunrise Point – a more gradual incline.
So, starting at Sunset Point, we followed the Navajo Loop to the right, immediately descending the steep switchbacks.
We then hiked through Wall Street. Here, the high rock walls give the feel of a slot canyon.
Exiting Wall Street, you’ll find a few isolated pines, growing tall from the Amphitheater floor.
We continued to follow the southern loop of the Navajo trail around to its meeting point with Queens Garden Trail.
Here, you have the option of following the north loop of the Navajo Trail, immediately up out of the Amphitheater. Instead, we followed the Queens Garden Trail, taking us deeper into the Amphitheater and ultimately around into the Queens Garden. This is where you’ll find a hoodoo that looks like Queen Victoria.
From there, we followed the rest of the Queen’s Garden trail, gradually climbing up out of the Amphitheater to Sunrise Point, enjoying the parade of spectacular scenery all along the way.
From Sunrise Point we walked along the Amphitheater Rim trail, taking in the vistas along the half mile return to Sunset Point. The entire Queens/Navajo Loop Combination hike was 3.5 miles long and took us about 2 hours (with all the gawking and photo taking).
Start early. These trails are the Park’s most popular. The parking lot at Sunset Point is the Park’s largest, but easily fills to capacity. (On our most recent 2023 visit, we arrived at the lot at 9:15 am and found only a couple spot available spots remaining). For busier times of the day, the Park offers a shuttle service from a larger parking area in Bryce City.
Remember the Elevation. The Amphitheater Rim in this area sits at an altitude of 8000 feet. I normally live at 5000 feet and can always feel the difference in my stamina. If coming from sea level, you will notice it even more.
My Favorite Sunset Point Viewpoint. The viewing platforms at Sunset Point can be crowded. Check the view from those platforms out because they’re great. But then follow the paved pathway just a little further south, beyond the main platforms, and you’ll find what I think are even better views and far fewer people.
An Afternoon Alternative for Crowd Avoidance
Since Bryce Canyon was filling with people towards the end of our morning hike, we left for the rest of the day and took a side trip to Kodachrome Basin State Park. This small State Park is located only 30 minutes southeast of Bryce, and is never nearly as crowded as Bryce Canyon can be. In fact, at the time of our afternoon visit, there were only 7 cars in the parking lot for this Park’s most popular trails.
Kodachrome Basin gave us a completely different kind of Utah red rock hiking experience. This Park is especially known for its monolithic sedimentary pipes. I’ve written another blog post with photos and more details about Kodachrome Basin State Park, but here are a few to whet your appetite.
Lower Elevation, Higher Temperature – Kodachrome Basin sits at 5800 ft, a significantly lower altitude than Bryce. You will be hiking in noticeable warmer temperatures. Pick up some extra water in the town of Tropic on your way.
A Tropical Lunch – Tropic also makes for a perfect lunch stop in between the two Parks.
Red Canyon – This is another spot worth exploring if Bryce is crowded. It features hoodoos similar to Bryce Canyon and is only 13 miles away from the Park. Click here to read about the time we visited Red Canyon on a different trip to the area.
Hiking The Amphitheater Rim
For our morning hike on Day 2, we hiked the Rim Trail along the Amphitheater between Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. There are 4 named viewpoints along the Amphitheater Rim – Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce. Each has a parking lot, and a fenced platform for your viewing pleasure. The Rim Trail extends along the length of the Amphitheater Rim and connects these viewpoints.
For me personally, the view of Bryce Canyon from Inspiration Point offered is favorite overall Amphitheater view. Since it’s located in the midpoint of the Amphitheater, you really can take in the whole spectacle.
The trail between Inspiration Point and Bryce Point is 1.5 miles long (3 miles round trip), and offers ever-changing views of the majesty below. You are literally walking along the edge of the Amphitheater. Bryce Point sits at a higher elevation than Inspiration Point, and so there are inclines throughout, though none are difficult. We encountered very few hikers. It was a peaceful Sunday morning hike with spectacular views. Here are pictures from the hike:
Don’t skip Inspiration Point. It’s not nearly as crowded as the Sunset/Sunrise Point area, and I think the views of the Amphitheater here are even more breathtaking. Like the day before, we left the Park after our morning hike to avoid peak crowds.
Parking is easier here. At our first visit, the parking lot was mostly empty, both at the beginning and end of our Sunday morning hike. That was early in the pandemic though. However, at our June 2023 visit, it was also empty on arrival at 9:15 am and only half full when we finished 11:30 am. On a Saturday morning too! I think lots of visitors only go to Sunset Point.
Exploring the Rest of the Park
After relaxing back at the Ranch during the afternoon, we headed back to the Park for the evening. We anticipated finding fewer people, and that was indeed the case. We first drove the length of the Park – 18 miles to Rainbow Point. Rainbow Point offers a view northward across the length of the entire Park. Here the long expanse of pink, orange, and white cliffs literally does resemble a rainbow. This is also where the park’s elevation is the highest – 9100 feet!
At the Rainbow Point parking lot, we located the Bristlecone Loop Trailhead and took an evening hike. The Bristlecone Loop Trail is a 1-mile circular hike around the southernmost part of the Park’s plateau. It takes you through pine forest, with several commanding viewpoints out across the surrounding area to the east and the south. It’s named for the bristlecone pines that grow through this area. This species of trees is one of oldest on earth. The bristecones in Bryce are over 1000 years old!
We found that there had recently been a fire that had destroyed quite a few trees along part of this trail, but this left behind a different kind of ethereal beauty.
Towards the end of the hike, a short paved trail takes you to the most southerly viewpoint in the Park – Yovimpa Point
As we returned northward, we stopped at several of the viewpoints that dot the road along the way. We did not stop at them all. Honestly, they are not as spectacular as anything that you will see in the Amphitheater. But we did want to get a taste of the Park in its entirety. There were only a few people at each this time of the evening. Here are pictures from each of our stops to give you an idea.
Our 2 Days was not enough to see everything. If we would have had one more day, we would have also hiked the Mossy Cave Trail and the Fairyland Loop Trail. These are two other oft-visited areas within the Park. True, we could have squeezed them in, but I’m not young anymore, and can’t hike all day long 🙂 (And as I write this 2023 update, I still haven’t hiked either of those two trails. I will one day!)
A Quick Word About Food
When exploring Bryce Canyon, you gotta eat. And we tried restaurants in each of the three towns surrounding the Park. Here’s a look at my personal favorites.
IDK BBQ is a casual barbecue restaurant in Tropic serving a typical selection of pulled pork, brisket, and chicken along with the expected sides like mac/cheese and baked beans. I’m a barbecue snob, so with that said, it was fine. The meat wasn’t quite as smoky, flavorful, or juicy as I would expect with great BBQ. But it was good and relatively cheap for the area.
Sevier Coffee Company
This is a nice little coffee shop in Hatch. In addition to good coffee, they are the best breakfast and lunch option in Hatch. You can get breakfast croissants, breakfast burritos, and sandwiches in the afternoon. And the quality is really good. I highly recommend the turkey pesto sandwich on sourdough.
The Outlaw Saloon is another great choice in Hatch, and definitely the town’s best place to eat dinner. The Saloon is also well-known in the area for the quality of its steaks – with the meat sourced locally. They even have a cook-your-own-steak option with a common grill in a back room (you get a discount on the price if you cook your own). But they also have great salads and one of the best BBQ chicken sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. (Note that this is a 21 and older establishment, so you’ll need to order take out from here if feeding the little ones).
A Recommendation Along I-15
If driving back and forth to Bryce Canyon from northern Utah, I would highly recommend stopping for a meal at Tacos Los Panchos in Fillmore. When I first stumbled upon this place, it was a food truck located in what I presume was the owner’s front yard along Fillmore’s main drag, just off the freeway. Before I found it, I would usually time our drives from Southern Utah between meals, as the dining selection along this route is mostly fast food chains and gas station mini-marts. Once I discovered it however, it has become a must-stop along the way.
On our most recent trip down, I discovered that it has moved into a brick and mortar restaurant (next to Best Western Paradise Inn). There was always traditionally a long line, so I understand the need to move into a bigger space. And there was always a long line because their homestyle Mexican food is so good. They have maintained their 4.8 star google ranking for the last 3 years since I first discovered them. And I’m happy to report that despite the move, the quality is unchanged.
Several times during that first weekend visit of mine to Bryce Canyon, while admiring the unreal views out across the Amphitheater, I scolded myself for waiting so long to see them. It’s truly one of Utah’s greatest treasures.
Gratefully, I have the luxury of living close, and have been been back a couple more times since.
And I guarantee, we will go back several more times in the future!
Another great Utah National Park that I visited for the first time during the pandemic is Capitol Reef National Park. Click here to read my Thorough Guide to Capitol Reef. I made it to Canyonlands National Park for the first time during the pandemic too, and share that experience in my post about exploring Moab Utah. Plus I was able to return to and explore Zion National Park as well. And you can click here to check out my overview of all Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks.