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There really is no such thing as a bad time to visit Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, but considering this geological wonder just celebrated its 100th anniversary this summer, the milestone can serve as the perfect excuse for a road trip. Plus, visiting in the fall means thinner crowds and cooler temps, usually ranging from the mid-50s to the mid-70s.
So pack your layers, load up your car, and, before you make the nine-hour drive from Denver, take a gander at this manual for making the most of your trip.
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Soaking in the Views
First order of business in Bryce? Experience the area’s unique geology, which nature’s best artists—rain, ice, and erosion—have painstakingly sculpted over time. The Bryce Amphitheater is home to the largest concentration of hoodoos on Earth, and there are four viewpoints that offer sweeping vistas of this marvel: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Be forewarned, these areas typically bustle with visitors, but the panoramas are worth it. Avoid congested parking lots at each viewpoint by taking the free park shuttle. It picks up every 15 minutes just north of the park at the shuttle station (where parking is free) and again at the visitor center, before dropping off at each viewpoint.
For an alternate vantage, and to escape the crowds craning to see the Amphitheater, travel south on the park’s main road (UT 63) for about 11 miles from the visitor center to find Natural Bridge, a vibrant red-hued arch (one of seven natural arches in the park) that overlooks a ponderosa forest.
Though Bryce is small compared to many other national parks (it encompasses just 56.2 square miles; Rocky Mountain National Park, by contrast, spans 415 square miles), hiking options abound. For a family-friendly route flanked by towering, multicolored rock walls, check out Mossy Cave, located along the northern border of the park about four miles east of Highway 12. An out-and-back trail totaling less than a mile, this path meanders past a waterfall ideal for cooling off your toes and is one of the lowest elevation hikes in the park, meaning you don’t have to suck wind to see the sights.
Another gentle option: Bristlecone Loop, which you can access from Rainbow Point at the south end of the park. This one-mile jaunt weaves among ancient bristlecone pines—some 1,800 years old—at more than 9,000 feet in elevation. The panoramic views can stretch as far as the Four Corners area.
If you feel comfortable hiking at dawn, dusk, or dark, check out the Queen’s/Navajo Combination Loop Trail—the park’s most popular trek that’s far less crowded at off-peak hours. This moderate three-mile loop starts from the top of the canyon and descends into the hoodoos, winding through archways and passing beneath the watchful eye of Queen Victoria herself (the so-named hoodoo, that is). Just be sure to bring a headlamp and mind the edges of the canyon if you’re hiking in limited light.
To ditch the hordes, try entering the park from the eastern boundary at the Tropic Trail, which leaves from the small town of Tropic and enters the canyon where it connects to other routes, like locals’ favorite Peek-A-Boo Loop, a three-mile circle that pads through the heart of the Bryce Amphitheater.
To cover more ground in the park, trade your hiking boots for two wheels. Snag a Schwinn from the Historic Service Station—or an e-bike to mitigate the strain of pedaling at high elevation—and set out on the Shared-Use Path. This 18-mile paved route begins at the bottom of Red Canyon, a state park west of Bryce Canyon, then travels along Scenic 12 Byway and through the park, all the way to Inspiration Point.
Although mountain bikers won’t find any unpaved trails to ride inside Bryce Canyon, fat-tire enthusiasts in search of adrenaline can find their flow on Thunder Mountain Trail, an eight-mile singletrack trail in nearby Red Canyon with switchbacks and some technical terrain.
One of 201 certified Dark Sky Places in the world, Bryce Canyon is a stellar (pun intended!) place for stargazing. On a clear, moonless night, you can see thousands of stars, multiple planets, and the Milky Way stretching across the park’s inky sky. Head south on the main road, and pull off at Rainbow Point, Natural Point, or Farview to find the darkest stargazing spots. Or, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, lace up for a night hike and descend into the canyon from Sunrise Point into Queen’s Garden, where you’ll see a blanket of stars suspended over majestic rock formations. Just be sure to bring a headlamp and watch your footing.
Want a closer look? Book a trip with Dark Ranger Telescope Tours, where astronomy experts will point out the Milky Way, star nebulae, comets, and planets with the help of high-powered telescopes. Or, scope some of the various stargazing activities put on by the park, including full moon hikes and a night sky telescope program.
Where to Stay
Camping spots inside the park can book up months in advance, so if you’re looking for a last-minute reservation, consider pitching a tent at Kings Creek near Tropic Reservoir in Dixie National Forest, where you’ll find tent and RV campsites.
If you prefer the creature comforts of traditional lodging, head to Tropic for a slew of bed-and-breakfasts, including Bullberry Inn, Happy Trails, and Bryce Trails. Stone Canyon Inn offers treehouse, cabin, and bite-size bungalow options.
For more sophisticated accommodations, check out Under Canvas Bryce Canyon, a newly opened three-star glamping outpost situated just 15 minutes from the park. There, spread out on a 750-acre property with safari-style tents, a full-service kitchen, and bottomless nightly s’mores. Note: Under Canvas closes seasonally each year, so you’ll have to book this for your next Bryce trip in May 2024.
Where to Eat
Dining options in the park are limited, but you can access quality grub by traveling a little farther afield. Consider Stone Hearth Grille, a cozy lodge-style restaurant in Tropic, for ribeye steaks and hearty vegetarian dishes, like a beet ravioli appetizer or a stuffed poblano pepper entrée. Try to score a spot on the patio, where you’ll enjoy a burbling stream as gentle background noise and soak in views of mammoth pink rock formations.
If you’re looking for something a little faster, swing by i.d.k. Barbecue, a no-frills but award-winning joint offering sandwiches, meat plates, nachos, and loaded baked potatoes. Or, get your caffeine fix and fuel up with a slice of homemade banana bread at Bryce Canyon Coffee Co.
Once you’ve tasted your way through Tropic, drive about 30 minutes northwest of the park to the small town of Panguitch. There, you’ll find C Stop Pizza, a casual, family-owned joint offering slices, salads, and breadsticks, as well as Wanderlust Cowgirl Coffee, a drive-thru java joint.
If You Do One Thing
Hike the Rim Trail from Inspiration Point to Bryce Point and back. An easy three-mile adventure, this route provides sweeping, uninterrupted views of the hoodoos in Bryce Amphitheater and weaves in and out of the pines, giving this stretch of path a sense of solitude. Just be aware that the trail borders the canyon ledge, so use caution and pay attention to your surroundings.