Bryce Canyon National Park is one of Utah’s 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 life, I had never visited. I’ve actually driven past the main road into Bryce Canyon several times over the years – and never gone in! The Shame!! I always had somewhere else to be… But, since the pandemic is now forcing us all to explore closer to home, Bryce Canyon was first on my list of Utah must-sees.
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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 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 will almost always look for a vacation rental first when I travel, and we found a gem for this trip in Hatch. Because we were traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, I wanted to keep us as isolated as possible. We stayed at the Sevier River Ranch and Cattle Company. It turned out perfect for this socially distant vacation. 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 was a great find.
The ranch consists of only 6 rental units of varying sizes (including a 3 bedroom house). We stayed in the Farrier’s Quarters, a newly renovated studio apartment featuring travertine floors and shower, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances. Rustic Luxury!
In my Tips for a Safe Pandemic Road Trip post, I’ve outlined the many reasons why our stay here was ideal pandemic lodging. But, it would also be great in other years. In fact, we returned a year later and rented out the entire Ranch for a family reunion. You can read more about the Ranch as a whole in that post – A Weekend at the Sevier River Ranch and Cattle Company
Where to Eat
We tried restaurants in each of the three surrounding towns. Because we visited during the pandemic, we either ordered take-out or dined outside. Consequently, we limited our choices to restaurants with outdoor dining options.
I was really surprised to find an Indian Mexican fusion restaurant in Panquitch Utah. My two favorite cuisines happen to be Indian and Mexican, so I was excited to discover it on Google Maps. It must be relatively new because it wasn’t yet listed on TripAdvisor. But the Google reviews were good, and did I mention that Indian and Mexican are my two favorite cuisines?
The menu here is very limited with only 4 different types of tacos – pork, beef, chicken, and vegetarian option (cauliflower and garbanzo beans.) Each comes with a unique mixture of Indian and Mexican spices and garnishes, and is wrapped taco-style in a small tortilla made from naan bread. I tried the sampler platter which included one of each meat taco. My favorite was the chicken tikka taco. It had a more distinct flavor, and was reminiscent of a good plate of chicken tikka masala. The beef and the pork tacos tasted very similar to me, though they were tasty. This was our best meal in the area surrounding Bryce.
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 a good cheap lunch.
Galaxy Diner is a throwback 50’s diner in Hatch. The menu includes a variety of burgers including buffalo and elk. We opted for buffalo burgers and took them back to the ranch. It’s hard to judge a 10 minute old burger, but it was decent and the ingredients all seemed very fresh.
Sevier Coffee Company
This is a nice little coffee shop in Hatch. In addition to good coffee, they also serve simple breakfast food – breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches – until early afternoon. We ate an early lunch under their pergola. My huge breakfast burrito was filled with cage-free local eggs, bacon, and country potatoes.
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. This is a food truck located in what I presume is the owner’s front yard along Fillmore’s main drag, just off the freeway. We 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. This time however, we left mid-morning, and needed some lunch along the way.
I found Tacos Los Panchos on Google Maps while at a road construction standstill, and was excited to see a 4.9 ranking – an unusually high rating on Google for an eating establishment. When we arrived, we found the typical Mexican food truck menu of tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, but the food had a very home-cooked vibe that sets it apart. My burrito was packed with whole beans, rice, fresh vegetables, and tender chicken. I’m sure most of the fillings were freshly prepared in the adjacent home’s kitchen. Mrs. Thorough Tripper will never pass up a shrimp quesadilla and it was excellent, too. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned.
We pulled over under a shady tree, and enjoyed the best meal of our trip in the car. We will now make it a point to schedule future Southern Utah road trips with a meal time stop in Fillmore.
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.
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.
There, 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. Here 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. We arrived at 8:15 am on a Saturday and found that it was only about 30% full. Keep in mind that The Park’s attendance was lower due to the pandemic, so I’m not sure if this is normal. By the time we finished our hike at 10:30 am, the lot was full and many cars were circling waiting for a spot. For busier times of the day, the Park offers a shuttle service from a larger parking area in Bryce City.
On the trails, we encountered few hikers at the beginning, but more and more hikers, including large family groups, started to clog the trail as we climbed up to Sunrise Point.
Remember the Elevation. The Amphitheater Rim in this area sits at an altitude of 8000 feet. I normally live at 5000 feet and could absolutely 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 were crowded at the end of our hike. We continued to follow the paved pathway just a little further south, beyond the main platforms, and found my favorite view 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. Because it was a Saturday, and especially since it was mid-pandemic, we were intent on maximizing our social distancing and avoiding bigger crowds.
So, we took a side trip to Kodachrome Basin State Park, located only 30 minutes southeast of Bryce. This turned out to be a great choice. We found significantly fewer people. In fact, 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 more about Red Canyon.
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.
We arrived at the Inspiration Point parking lot around 8:30 am. There were only a handful of cars. Personally, I found that Inspiration Point offered my favorite overall Amphitheater views. 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. I checked the large Sunset Point parking lot as we left, and like the day before, it was packed at 10:45 am, with cars circling for spots. The Inspiration Point parking lot at the same time was still mostly empty.
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 🙂
In summary, several times during the weekend, while admiring the unreal views out across the Amphitheater, I scolded myself for waiting so long to visit Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s truly one of Utah’s treasures. Gratefully, I have the luxury of living close. So I now plan on returning often.
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 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.