Compared to Utah’s other national parks, Bryce Canyon feels like a totally different world. For one, its mesmerizing hoodoos ranging from white to pink to red feel like you might just be on Mars. For another, the canyon’s rim sits at between 8,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation, making it cooler and allowing pine and spruce forests to flourish. And lastly? It sees a fraction of the crowds.
Hike the intermediate, 8-mile Fairyland Loop Trail that sees fewer visitors and is just as gorgeous as the more popular hikes in the park.
“I like that not all the hoodoos are dark red on Fairyland,” says Garfield County’s executive director Falyn Owens. “The colors range from light pink to darker red. It’s really beautiful.”
Another spot at Bryce Canyon that most visitors miss? Natural Bridge. This easily accessed viewpoint brings visitors to a stunning view of one of the park’s few arches. It’s worth the drive.
If you want an activity that the whole family can enjoy, rent electric bikes from Bryce Canyon EZ Riders just outside the park. You can ride the five mile path to Inspiration Point inside the park, or head the opposite direction to explore Red Canyon. From point to point, the path is 18 miles and incredibly scenic.
Bryce Canyon was first federally protected as a national monument in 1923, making 2023 its 100th anniversary. Throughout the year you’ll find events celebrating the milestone with monthly themes ranging from night skies to geology to heritage. Keep an eye on the calendar of events at www.nps.gov/brca/planyourvisit/calendar.htm.
When you basecamp out of charming towns like Escalante, Boulder and Panguitch, near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, you’ll be amazed that most national park visitors never make it this far. This part of Utah is truly a hidden gem.
Before you set out to explore Bryce Canyon or Grand Staircase, you’ll want to fuel up at Wanderlust Cowgirl Coffee in Panguitch. It serves the best hot chai Owens has ever had and its sweet and savory kolaches can’t be missed.
Explore Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument
Start with a drive down Hole in the Rock Road, a 62-mile dirt road through Grand Staircase that’s accessible to higher clearance two-wheel drive vehicles in dry conditions. Access is just southeast of Escalante on Hwy. 12. Along the way you’ll find great opportunities for hiking, camping and exploring slot canyons such as the popular Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch canyons. Make sure to stop at Devil’s Garden, 12 miles from Hwy. 12, to see incredible rock formations like Metate Arch. If you’re not familiar with the area, the best way to explore is with a professional guide. Utah Canyon Outdoors will take you hiking in stunning, remote spots where you’ll really get a sense of the vastness of the Utah desert.
“It’s such a peaceful area,” says Garfield County’s executive director Falyn Owens. “There’s no cell service, so it’s a really great escape.”
Slot canyons have long inspired a sense of awe and wonder – and a desire to squeeze through their narrow depths. If you’re new to slot canyons, head to Willis Creek Slot Canyon in the national monument. This 2.6-mile roundtrip hike doesn’t have any technical sections and never gets too narrow, so it serves as a perfect introduction to canyoneering. Wear waterproof shoes since you’ll walk through Willis Creek most of the way as the canyon walls tower above you. As with all slot canyons, make sure to check the weather and postpone a hike if rain is in the forecast as flash flooding is possible.
If you’re looking for more adventure, book a trip with Excursions of Escalante. Owens refers to owner Rick Green as a “slot canyon genius.” He knows many off-the-beaten-path slot canyons to get visitors away from the crowds. Green is great at matching skills and abilities to trips, making sure you have just the right amount of fun. After spending the day guiding, Green spends his evenings serving on the local search and rescue team. Book at excursionsofescalante.com.
Visit Kodachrome Basin State Park
Or, head to another hidden gem, Kodachrome Basin State Park. This park is filled with brilliantly colored spires and was named by a National Geographic Society expedition in 1948 after the popular color film. It’s 20 miles southeast of Bryce Canyon off Hwy. 12. Panorama Trail, which is 3-6 miles is among the most popular and for good reason for the gorgeous views.
Best Restaurants in Western Utah
After a day spent exploring, head to the town of Boulder for dinner. The Burr Trail Grill offers burgers, sandwiches and more with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. Don’t miss Owens’ personal favorite, the fried green tomatoes served with chili jam and chipotle aioli.
Another mouthwatering option is the Stone Hearth Grille in Tropic. Only open in the summer, the grill serves some of the area’s best food. Sit on the patio nestled under the canyon walls and peruse the vibrant and inventive menu you wouldn’t expect in the middle of the desert. Make sure to start with the roasted beets, served with tofu cream, puffed rice, poached shrimp and a yuzu aioli. Locals consider it one of the best dishes in the county.
As you drive between Boulder and Escalante, don’t miss a detour to Hell’s Backbone Bridge, an engineering marvel with 1,500-foot drops on either side. An off-the-beaten path excursion, this isn’t a suitable adventure for low-clearance vehicles.
See the Stars
When it’s time for bed, this area has two truly unique lodging experiences. In Escalante, stay at Yonder on the grounds of an old drive-in theater. Guests can watch movies from restored classic cars before spending the night in a beautiful cabin, Airstream or RV site. Near the entrance to Bryce Canyon you’ll find Under Canvas, a glamping resort equipped with luxury canvas tents. Some even have windows above the bed to let you stargaze from your pillow.
Looking for more ways to experience solitude? Bryce Canyon National Park is an International Dark Sky Park, which means the stars are incredible in the entire area.
Winter in Bryce Canyon
Perhaps the best time to visit to find solitude? Winter.
“Seeing Bryce in the snow is wild,” says Owens, “It looks like cake and icing.”
Ruby’s Inn is the perfect place to base your winter Bryce Canyon adventure. Many groomed cross-country ski trails originate from the lodge, and there are several snowshoe trails that allow you to get down into the canyon. You can even take a horse-drawn sleigh ride.
Learn more at www.brycecanyoncountry.com