The main goal of our visit to Bryce Canyon National Park in October of 2020 was to hike into the hoodoos. Although they exist on every continent, Bryce Canyon has the highest concentration of hoodoos in the entire world. Pretty cool that it’s right here in our own backyard! If you search for the definition of “hoodoo” you will come across a number of interesting meanings. Hoodoo is both a noun and a verb. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary hoodoo is defined as a noun in four variations: “a body of practices of sympathetic magic traditional especially among African Americans in the southern U.S. (not to be confused with voodoo); a natural column of rock in western North America often in fantastic form; something that brings bad luck; and, nonsense.” As a verb it can be used in the form of hoodooed, hoodooing and hoodoos, and is defined as, “to cast a spell on, or to bring bad luck.” The hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, as you probably assumed, are columns of fantastic rock — they certainly aren’t nonsense! Although their magic will undoubtedly cast a spell on you, we can assure you it’s only good spells and vibes here.
The History & Creation of Bryce Canyon
The high elevation of Bryce Canyon, over 11,000 feet in some places, creates the climate that shapes the canyon cliffs and hoodoos. In fact, the weathering and erosion never stops here; if you listen closely when it’s very quiet, like early in the morning and during the night, you can actually hear the rocks cracking and tumbling. So how are these otherworldly hoodoos created? The thin canyon walls of rock, also called fins, erode through a process called “frost-wedging.” When snow and ice melt the water creeps into fractures within the rock. As it refreezes it will expand and this process creates cracks in the fins. Eventually these cracks will develop into holes, also known as “windows.” The windows continue to get larger until the top collapses and falls, which leaves behind columns of rock. Rainfall continues to dissolve and shape these pillars of limestone into the odd-looking spires named hoodoos. Bryce Canyon is always changing, as the snow and rain are constantly at work sculpting new hoodoos and destroying the old ones. Pretty wild!
Bryce Canyon is part of the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rock formed over time, like millions of years. Bryce Canyon sits at the very top of this geologic staircase, Zion Canyon is in the middle, and the Grand Canyon sits on the bottom. This is a rock record that recounts 525 million years of the earth’s history. Before Bryce Canyon was filled with it’s telltale hoodoos the area was full of water sometime between 40 to 55 million years ago. Most of Utah was under water and surrounded by mountains, and the nearby rivers carried various sediments (mostly limestone) into these ancient lakes. Around 15 to 20 million years ago, tectonic plate activity pushed up a giant chunk of the earth’s crust — nearly two miles — to form the Colorado Plateau. This caused the lakes to dry up, created modern-day Utah and now we are lucky enough to witness this amazing piece of history. Growing up I must have had terrible science and history teachers because none of this stuff was even remotely interesting to me (I almost failed earth science) but as an adult I find it SO fascinating. Maybe if we had taken field trips to see these places with our own eyes I would have been more into it!
Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park
It was the sixth day of our Utah road trip when we left from Kanab to drive the 90 minutes to Bryce Canyon. Of course we didn’t leave as early as we would have liked, we never do. Plus we had to take our hotel’s complimantary cruiser bikes for a spin to grab breakfast in the morning. After trying to ride a bicycle one-handed and spilling hot coffee on myself, we had to make another pit stop at the local outdoor store, which also happens to serve great coffee — possibly the best coffee we had in Utah. If you’re driving through Kanab and you need a caffeine fix be sure to stop at Willow Creek Outdoor for gear and legit coffee.
Once you reach the park there is a $35 fee per vehicle to enter and the pass is valid for seven days. If you’re planning to visit more national parks and federal recreational lands within the next year we highly recommend purchasing the “America the Beautiful” annual pass for $80. If you’ve visited any national parks recently you can also apply your receipts toward the purchase of an annual pass. When we first visited Utah we were buying entrance passes at every park, and it was at Bryce Canyon when the worker asked if we had visited any other parks that week — fortunately we saved all our receipts so the annual pass was essentially free. We wanted to make the most of our money so we wound up visiting 12 national parks that year!
Getting to Bryce Canyon
Often travelers are visiting all of Utah’s “Mighty 5,” i.e., the state’s five national parks. If you’re coming from Zion National Park it takes about two hours to drive the 89 miles to Bryce Canyon. From Utah’s least visited National Park, Capitol Reef, the 121 mile drive takes a little over two hours. The other two mighty awesome national parks include Arches and Canyonlands, both of which are about four hours away. If you’re traveling from the Salt Lake City area to Bryce Canyon you’re also looking at a four hour drive. Utah is such a great state to road trip around because everything is within a few hours, and there is just SO much rad stuff to see!
The scenic drive to from Kanab to Bryce Canyon is mostly on US-89. Things really start to get awesome though when you make the righthand turn onto Utah’s Scenic Byway 12, also known as “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.” The 122-mile state highway has been designated as an All-American Road. Only about 30 percent of the scenic byways get this prestigious distinction, so you know this route has to be pretty special. From the intersection of US-89 and Byway 12 until you reach UT-63, where you’ll turn right for the final three mile stretch to the national park is only 12 miles, but it packs in some dynamite Utah scenery for that short drive. If you’re visiting Utah you should definitely consider adding the full 122-mile scenic byway to your itinerary.
When to Visit Bryce Canyon
When we visited Bryce Canyon a few years ago we didn’t know much about the place, only that it was absolutely stunning and a friend of mine who had just been there was raving about it. We stopped there after spending a couple days at Zion National Park. It was our last destination on a 10-day road trip through the Southwest, which also included Moab, Arches, Canyonlands, Horseshoe Bend, Las Vegas and Snow Canyon. At Bryce Canyon we pretty much just visited every viewpoint, and there are a bunch of them! Don’t get me wrong, each viewpoint is special and the experience was still amazing. There’s no place like Bryce Canyon in the world and when seeing it for the first time we were awestruck. But I knew that we’d need to go back there someday, because we had not given ourselves enough time to take a hike down into the canyon. We didn’t save enough time to walk amongst the strange and majestic hoodoos — and it has haunted us since! (Hmm, so maybe they do really cast spells?)
If it’s possible we prefer to travel during shoulder season, i.e., the travel season between peak and off season. A trip to Yellowstone during peak season probably scarred us for life! Both times we visited Utah was during shoulder season, spring and fall, and the weather was PERFECT. (Well, we could have done without the freak snowstorm that happened on our way out of Utah in October, right after nearly running out of gas. That was fun.) The temperatures at Bryce Canyon can swing as much as 40 degrees in a day, between freezing at night to pleasant and warm during the afternoon. You’ll want to wear layers so you can add and shed clothes as the temperatures change throughout the day. If you’re looking for mild weather then April through October would probably be best timeframe for you. We were lucky enough to witness Bryce with a dusting of snow when we visited in early May. Winters there can be quite cold but most of the overlooks are still open, whereas summer brings more frequent thunderstorms. Regardless what season you visit you’ll undoubtedly be impressed with Bryce Canyon.
Where to Stay Near Bryce Canyon
There appears to be plenty of lodging and camping available near Bryce Canyon, but we highly recommend making reservations during the busier seasons. A quick Google search will pull up plenty of options near the national park for all types of travelers, from first class accommodations to glamping to boon-docking. Inside the park there are over 200 sites at the North & Sunset campgrounds. The campsites have water and restroom access but the majority of them are available on a first come, first served basis and cannot be reserved in advance, so arrive early if you’re hoping to score a site within the park. Bryce Canyon Lodge is a historic property with 114 rooms that’s located inside the park and nearby its main attraction, the jaw-dropping Bryce Amphitheater. We’ve camped at the Bryce Canyon/Cannonville KOA which is a 12-mile drive from the park entrance. This KOA has tent, RV and group sites, vacation rentals and cabins, and amenities such as hot showers, wifi, a dog park, a camp kitchen, a pool and an onsite store. Because we made our reservations late we ended up with a tent site. We were surrounded by beautiful red rock cliffs that characterize much of Utah and watched a gorgeous pink desert sunset. We’ll never forget that night, it was SO incredibly windy, like nothing we have ever experienced camping. I’m still surprised that our tent didn’t blow away! After attempting to make a fire and cook dinner we just retreated to the tent early and tried to sleep it out. Funny story, we heard some strange noises and when we got out to investigate, discovered the guys camping next to us relentlessly trying to open canned goods with boulders. I’m not sure that they ever succeeded but we found the whole thing kinda hilarious. (If we had a can opener we would have helped, we’re not total jerks!)
Things to do at Bryce Canyon
The rangers at Bryce Canyon offer guided tours and interpretive programs year-round on topics like geology, astronomy and wildlife. There are over 65 miles of hiking trails and also trails for horse back riding tours. Overnight backpacking is allowed on the Under-the-Rim and Riggs Spring Loop trails only and you must obtain a permit in advance. We would definitely like to go back someday to sleep in the hoodoos under the stars! In fact, as one of the darkest places in the world Bryce Canyon offers exceptional stargazing due to its high elevation, dry air and lack of light pollution. The stars and Milky Way are best viewed on moonless nights, but when the moon is out the rangers offer nighttime tours through the hoodoos! You’ll also be wowed just visiting the various overlooks at Bryce Canyon and gazing upon the stunning scenery.
The first time that we visited Bryce Canyon our mistake was going to every single viewpoint without giving ourselves enough time for a short hike. The park road follows the rim of Bryce Canyon for 18 miles from the visitor center to the very last stop, Rainbow Point. That doesn’t sound very far, but when you’re driving 30 MPH or less, following a line of cars and stopping often, 18 miles takes a lot longer than you’d expect! It was our last day in Utah and we needed to leave by the mid-afternoon to head back to Oregon. I even tried to walk down into the hoodoos but Bob stopped me, we really didn’t have any time to spare. And since that day until we returned to Bryce in October, I obsessed about hiking into the hoodoos.
Hiking the Queens Garden & Navajo Trail Combination Loop
On our latest trip to Bryce Canyon you’d think we would have learned our lesson from the last visit and skipped the overlooks, but of course we didn’t. It had been three years so we couldn’t remember all of them! This time though we drove directly to Rainbow Point, scoping out all the other viewpoints along the way. After assessing the time, Natural Bridge was the only stop we made because it had been one of our favorites from the last trip. We just wanted to get to Sunrise Point so we could begin hiking! I researched the park trails in advance and learned that the most popular hike is the Queens Garden Trail and Navajo Trail combination loop. It’s recommended to hike this trail in a clockwise direction, beginning at Sunrise Point, where the Queens Garden Trail starts and ends, and finishing at Sunset Point, where the Navajo Loop begins and ends. The Rim Trail connects Sunset Point to Sunrise Point so you can get back to where you started. During the busy season there’s a free park shuttle you can ride between the overlooks as well. From start to finish this hike is three miles long. We found plenty of parking available at Sunrise Point, which offers services including a general store, restrooms, water, showers, laundry and a snack bar from the months of April through October.
Bryce Canyon is a place where you’ll want to wear proper footwear on the trails, watch your footing and stay away from the steep edges. Also be aware that high elevation effects everyone differently and be especially cautious if you have any health conditions. It was a fairly steep descent down into the canyon, and it’s also pretty steep coming back up the hill. The middle section of this loop hike was actually quite pleasant and flat. The trail meanders through hoodoos and fins, and the ponderosa pines provide some nice shade from the midday sun. I was chilly when we began hiking but within a few minutes it was warm enough to remove my long sleeved shirt and hike in a tank top. The trail is mostly exposed until you get down into the canyon.
If you’re only going to hike one trail at Bryce Canyon it should be this one. The Queens Garden/Navajo combo passes by some well-known Bryce beauties. Queens Garden is sort of like a garden, but instead of flowers it’s filled with unique rock formations like Gulliver’s Castle, Queen’s Castle and Queen Victoria. The trail will take you through a few different manmade tunnels in the rock, and when you come out the other side it feels like you’re entering another dimension! Pack a camera because the views at Bryce Canyon just don’t quit. You have a couple options to come back up out of the canyon, the Two Bridges trail or Wall Street. When you reach the four-way intersection, turn right to take the Two Bridges trail. It passes by two “bridges” or arches spanning a canyon. There’s something pretty magical about walking amongst these tall, orange stone walls. As you reach the top of the switchbacks you’re greeted by the sight of the infamous hoodoo Thors Hammer. It’s not too much longer and the trail reaches the top of the rim where you connect to the Rim Trail, and from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point it’s a half mile trek. At that same four-way intersection mentioned earlier, keep heading straight to hike up Wall Street on the other side of the Navajo Loop. Wall Street is the only official slot canyon in Bryce Canyon. This trail is usually closed in the winter so if you really want to hike Wall Street make sure to plan your visit during the right season. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to do both Wall Street and Two Brides, so I guess we’ll just need to visit to Bryce Canyon again! No complaints here, we’d go back to Bryce a thousand times if we had the opportunity.
Places of Interest Near Bryce Canyon
If you’re planning a trip to southern Utah take note that there is a ton of awesome stuff to see and do near Bryce Canyon. On the way there from Zion National Park you drive right through Red Canyon. Located in the Dixie National Forest, Red Canyon is widely known for its popular trail system for hiking, bikes, ATVs and horses. One of the best things about Red Canyon is that it’s way less crowded than Bryce Canyon, and it shares many of its same signature features like unique hoodoos, red cliffs and ponderosa pines. A few miles after turning onto US-12 you’ll encounter the Red Canyon Visitor Center which offers clean restrooms, picnic tables, a gift shop, trail maps, brochures and information about the area. There’s also a campground nearby. En route to Bryce Canyon you drive through a couple neat manmade tunnels in Red Canyon too. There are some trails right off the side of the road that have great access to hoodoos and rock formations. If you have a few extra minutes to spare we suggest exploring the area for a little while.
Zion, one of our absolute favorite national parks, is roughly two hours away from Bryce Canyon. In our opinion if you’re going to travel to this area of southern Utah you should really visit both of these parks — they’re truly unique and unforgettable. Cedar Breaks National Monument, a three-mile long amphitheater of painted cliffs that’s awfully reminiscent to Bryce Canyon, is only a one hour drive away. Kodachrome Basin State Park in Cannonville, 30 minutes from Bryce, is characterized by 67 photogenic monolithic stone spires. Our next destination was the Escalante region of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where we hiked to Lower Calf Creek Falls and explored Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. The drive from Bryce Canyon to the town of Escalante is about one hour. The Grand Staircase section is the more remote area of the monument; it has the most extensive network of slot canyons in Utah.
For more ideas of things to do in Utah, check out some of the links below. Let us know if you have any suggestions of things to check out in Utah, too! Thanks for reading!