Vien R. Guenther
Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah
Updated: Jan 7
Utah is one of our favorite places to explore. With five national parks and seven national monuments, how can you not love it. Utah is like a desert wonderland with so many unique natural features; some are hidden so you need to do some trekking in order to find them and see them up close and personal. Each of these parks offers a unique experience, but what sets Bryce Canyon apart is its geology, the unbelievable hoodoos and amphitheaters.
Although Bryce has "canyon" in its name, it is not actually a canyon, but a series of more than a dozen amphitheaters which stretch 20 miles from north to the south. Over two million visitors come here annually, but the majority probably stay only at the rim of the canyon where the overlooks are. If you haven’t hiked down below, you should, I promise it’s worth the effort. It is magical down there.
Visiting Bryce Canyon was part of our Southwestern Utah road trip, which included hiking in Zion National Park, Capitol Reef National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument.
Bryce Canyon National Park occupies the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. It was named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish immigrant and a Mormon pioneer who homesteaded in the area in 1874, sent by the church to settle the land. He and his family lived below Bryce Amphitheater, which according to him is a "helluva place to lose a cow”. I can imagine, you can easily get lost down there. Other settlers called the area "Bryce's Canyon", which formally became Bryce Canyon later on.
Bryce Canyon was first designated a National Monument in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding. Then it was elevated to National Park status in 1928 by Congress. The park covers 35,835 acres - small compared to other national parks. There is little known about early human activities in the Bryce Canyon area. Archaeological surveys show that people have been in the area for at least 10,000 years. Several thousand years-old artifacts from the Anasazi have also been found south of the park, as well as artifacts from other cultures up to the mid-12th century.
The first major scientific expedition to the area was led by U.S. Army Major John Wesley Powell in 1872. Together with his team of mapmakers and geologists, they surveyed the Sevier and Virgin River areas including the Colorado Plateau. His map maker kept many of the Paiute place names, from the old inhabitants who left the area after a series of droughts, overgrazing and flooding.
You don't really have to hike to see the spectacular views in Bryce Canyon National Park - not everyone is equipped to do so, or physically fit enough. You can explore by car then stop at several viewpoints along the rim - we did that the first day and hiked down the canyon the next day. There are four major viewpoints along the rim - Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. In summer the park offers shuttle bus service for tourists; although not mandatory, it is encouraged in order to minimize congestion and impact in the park. (Check the National Park Service for shuttle bus info)
Bryce Canyon is known for its hoodoos, but there are several Natural Bridges found there as well. One of them is this 85 feet high natural bridge - or arch or window, whichever you prefer. It is easily accessed from the Bryce Canyon rim drive, just right by a parking lot.
You may perhaps not be impressed by this one if you've seen the arches in Arches National Park, but look closely, as this is a good example of the hoodoos in the making. Weathering and erosion from ice and rain, the main factors of sculpting the hoodoos, break down the rocks into walls, windows, and then into individual hoodoos.
FIGURE 8 LOOP HIKE (Navajo Loop, Peekaboo Loop & Queens Garden Trail) – 7.5 miles round trip
The best time of year to hike in Utah is either Spring or Fall, the weather is cooler and there will be less crowds - summer in Utah can be really hot if you are not used to it. The panoramic views of the whole canyon and hoodoos at different viewpoints are amazing, but hiking down below is when you will really appreciate the wonder of this magical place. You will feel quite insignificant when you wander between, around and even through these amazing rock formations.
Don't get intimidated hiking down into the "canyon", there are easy as well as strenuous hikes that you can choose from. Some of these trails are interconnected and can be combined with other trails to make the hike as long as you want. One is the 8-mile "Figure Eight" loop trail, a popular hike that should not be missed by anyone, if you are in good enough condition to do it. Just remember, you have to consider the hike uphill back to the rim on the last leg of the trail.
We did this hike in Autumn of 2012. It took us about 7.5 miles, combining the Navajo Loop, the Peek-a-Boo Loop and the Queens Garden - each is a short trail that you can take on its own, but you would probably change your mind once you are down there and do them all in one hike.
It is not until you hike down into one of the amphitheaters that you realize how big and tall the hoodoos are. Just look up and let your imagination run wild - you will see an endless display of shapes and colors as you work your way around one bend to another.
Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of hoodoos, and most are found in the northern sections of the park. These hoodoos range in size from an average human height, to a 20 story building. The Paiute Indians, who moved into the surrounding valleys and plateaus in the area around the same time that the other cultures left, had a myth surrounding the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. They believed the hoodoos were the Legend People whom the trickster Coyote turned to stone. A Paiute tribe’s elder called the hoodoos Anka-ku-was-a-wits, meaning "red painted faces".
In scientific or geological terms, Hoodoos, which are mainly found in the Colorado Plateau, are formed from layers of different types of sedimentary rock - limestone, dolostone, mudstone, siltstone and sandstone, accumulated and cemented together to create Bryce Canyon’s rocks. Due to Bryce Canyon's location, it experiences a variety of temperature conditions. The natural process of freeze and thaw is what shaped the hoodoos. The mineral deposits within the layers are what give them their colors.
Down in the "canyon" we found some wildflowers still in bloom. Plants in bloom are like a magnet, I couldn't resist to stop and take pictures.