Bryce Canyon, Utah
There’s nothing in the world quite like this – a sunrise casting light over thousands of crimson-colored stone ‘soldiers’ in the middle of a sweeping amphitheaters of stone.
Bryce Canyon is no doubt a special place to visit. Although small in size (56 square miles) and less popular than its Zion Park neighbor, this reserve is a jewel among the national park system set in the backdrop of southern Utah’s Pink Cliffs. The park’s biggest attraction are its famed hoodoos - oddly-shaped pillars of rock formed by eons of erosion. And, the reserve holds the largest collection of them in the world.
Our spring arrival to this unique place coincided with a recent storm that left remnants of snow on some of its highest peaks. The snow-capped rocks are surreal to see especially in the depths of the reserve’s amphitheaters.
Witnessing these sentinels at first light is truly magical. My oldest daughter and I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to travel to Bryce Point where sunrises are said to be spectacular. The morning was downright cold topping only 20 degrees as we waited with a handful of others to see the sun creep over the horizon. But, the freezing temperatures could not take away the drama that unfolded before us.
It’s startling how quiet the amphitheater can be despite the brilliant show we were witnessing. The snowy cliffs literally glowed in the soft light of the sun, its rays pulling the curtain back on the massive hoodoos standing at attention.
You would think that nothing could top such a show. But, that assumption is wrong.
Even the most common of hikes and sights are incredible to see and that includes the ever-popular trek along the rim. The Rim Trail covers up to five and half miles one way and takes you through captivating overlooks along the way.
A well-traveled section includes the leg between Sunrise and Sunset Points. It is paved and quite easy to follow, but still offers impressive views of favorite formations such as Thor’s Hammer.
For a closer look, you can drop down below the edge via the Navajo Loop. On its own or combined with the Queen's Garden Trail, hikers can wind their way down into the belly of the reserve and visit some other popular hoodoos such as Twin Bridges and Wall Street.
This route is one of the stars of Bryce Canyon. But be warned, it can be tricky and tiring for those who attempt it. For those wanting to up the ante, there is also a full moon hike that follows much of the same course. Chosen by lottery, the hikes are led by park guides, and by all accounts, is well worth the extra effort.
In addition to these mesmerizing hikes, we spent time exploring more than half a dozen spots along a curvy, scenic drive up a mountain. We traveled the 18 miles to Rainbow Point – a spot that sits about 91-hundred feet above sea level - before starting our sight-seeing tour from the top down.
Our slow descent included stunning views and a unique perspective of the surrounding cliffs. A highlight of the drive was Natural Bridge. This particular arch truly shines in the rich colors of the region’s red stone and provides a beautiful contrast to the Ponderosa forest in the canyon below. It was my first encounter with a natural arch inside the park system and my front-row seat to this natural wonder was a great introduction.
These sites are quite a draw for the crowds that flow in and out of the park. But, you don’t have to look far for a quieter spot at the park to enjoy. One of my favorites is the Mossy Cave Trail.
This out-of-the-way trail is tucked into the outer edge of the reserve and is a little less than a mile in length. But its rocky path provided me with a more intimate look at the canyon’s red pinnacles. And, there is room enough to explore the small stream and all of its nooks and crannies before arriving at a fork in the proverbial ‘road’.
Going left takes hikers to a small grotto where, depending on the season, you will see moss growing along the overhang, or in colder weather, icicles will form instead. Meanwhile, going right takes you to a small waterfall.
Only a handful of people was there to see the rush of muddy water tumble downstream. But the near-solitude of this place - at this moment in time - was enough for me to truly appreciate the wonders this park has to offer.
Distance: 5.5 miles, one way
Difficulty: Easy - Moderate
Queen’s Garden Trail:
Distance: .9 miles, one-way
Difficulty: Easy - Moderate
Distance: 1.4 miles, RT
Mossy Cave Trail:
Distance: .8 miles, RT
Next: Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks