The Best Bryce Canyon Hikes for Your First Visit
I’ve visited a few places on my travels that make you feel like your on another planet: Joshua Tree National Park has its expansive rock formations and Iceland is made up of lava fields. But while first experiencing all the Bryce Canyon hikes the National Park in Utah has to offer, a 50-something-year-old man passing by on the trail phrased it perfectly: “It’s like we’re on Mars!” With soaring spires of red rock clusters, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been teleported to a far-away planet during your trip. With so many options for epic Utah hiking nearby, Bryce Canyon National Park is often skipped over by tourists. Most would prefer to check out Zion or Arches National Park, each part of the set of parks in the state affectionately known as the “Mighty 5” . However, the landscape of Bryce is definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen and the soaring vistas and panoramic views are guaranteed to take your breath away.
We began our trip in search of the famous Utah hiking experience by flying into Salt Lake City. We then stayed in Provo, Utah overnight. From there we drove the first of many stretches of car rides over the weekend that would be lined with snow-capped mountains and gorgeous views on views on views. Even the most mundane stops like gas stations are framed with mountain peaks and even along the most desolate highways, you can pull over for an impromptu hike with trails marked clearly along the road.
As we approached Bryce Canyon, we entered Dixie National Forest, which lines Bryce National Park to the East. It's here that the red rock Bryce is famous for really comes into view. Part of the drive is located on National Scenic Byway 12, Utah's only All-American Road. There are only a total of 31 All-American Roads in the U.S. which are given the designation because they have features along them that can't be found anywhere else in the U.S. and those features are important enough to be tourist destinations. The drive into Bryce is a beautiful one even in gloomy weather. We had planned to stay in the Park until sunset, snapping photos as the light bounced off the rock into the night. However, the one day we had to visit was cloudy, a bit rainy and without a glimpse of sun. When a National Park can blow your mind with its beauty even on such a dreary day, you know you’re experiencing something special.
Take Self-Guided Bryce Canyon Tours by Car
Bryce is a versatile National Park in that it’s both driver-friendly and hiker-friendly. If you’d rather not get dirty (and covered in red sand) you can drive the 18 mile road along the top rim of the canyon. Along the way you can pull over at different scenic viewpoints to see the canyon below, basically creating your own personalized self-guided Bryce Canyon tours. We took the time to check out a lot of the stops and hiked around the ones we could. Our favorites included Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, Natural Bridge, and Rainbow Point. All provide stunning views of the fire red canyon as well as views for over 150 miles into the distance.
At almost 9,000 feet up, the Natural Bridge viewpoint is a bit of a drive from the visitor center but provides the perfect view of the bridge rock formation: a stunning arch created by nature that frames the landscape and canyon in the distance. The color of the arch and the rest of the rock in the park comes from iron oxide minerals. Though this is one of many archways in Bryce, this one gives you the best view.
Rainbow Point is also well worth the drive all the way to the south end of the park. This viewpoint hits almost 10,000 ft and allows you to see for miles and miles. The changes in elevation are apparent as the ecosystem within the canyon changes. We could even see a thunderstorm in the distance off to the right. This is also a great place to view the Grand Staircase rock formation and the hills on the horizon are actually the north rim of the Grand Canyon!
Experience the Best of the Bryce Canyon Hikes
The are so many trails that can be considered as the “best hikes in Bryce Canyon”. However, the superior one’s are those that let you witness the unique features of the park’s landscape first-hand. Bryce National Park is a canyon made up of rock formations known as hoodoos. These spires are made from thousands of years of erosion from melting snow and ice as narrow walls split off from the canyon cliffs. These walls eventually grow larger and larger holes within them (known as windows) and the hoodoos emerge. These hoodoos look just as mythical as their name sounds (one hoodoo in particular is even known as Thor's Hammer). Some look like a massive boulder balancing on top of a thin rock needle while others look like massive sets of elephant teeth. Either way, it's pretty insane to be surrounded by these naturally formed structures as they tower upwards to the sky.
The Navajo Loop Trail is your best option for seeing all types of hoodoos in all shapes and sizes. This 1.3 mile loop will take you from the top rim to the canyon floor. The trail starts and ends at Sunset Point and begins with a stunning descent that leads to a winding path taking you even further downward. Throughout this hike you will be surrounded by orange, almost as if you have actually stepped onto Mars. We were absolutely speechless from this hike and much like the other people trekking around us, could not stop looking in every direction to take in the scenery. To make you way down and into the orange abyss of the canyon and rock formations is a very surreal experience. Traveling in March, we encountered snow throughout our hike, but it acted as a beautiful addition to the view, making the rock seem ever more orange in contrast.
Explore the Underrated Bryce Canyon Trails
One trail within Bryce National Park that doesn't get as much love from tourists is actually outside of the entrance gates to the park. The Mossy Cave Trail is an easy 1 mile hike that will take you through a bit more vegetation than the canyon as it weaves along a small riverbed. With wooden bridges and chipmunks scattering around, this is an easy hike to hit on your way out of the park. As you walk further from the main road, you'll come along a waterfall and a deep cave, two elements of nature that aren't as common within the boundaries of Bryce Canyon itself. This trail is more likely to be void of other visitors, so you’ll be on parts of the trail alone: a welcome change from other National Parks in the area.
Bryce Canyon National Park is a gorgeous stop for Utah hiking and is one of the best of the five National Parks located within the state's borders. Even just a day-long trip gives you enough time to really explore the canyon either by one of your own personal Bryce Canyon tours in your car or if you hike deep into the canyon by foot. Either way, these Bryce Canyon hikes and experiences can be tackled year-round. Now that you’ve witnessed the less-visited Bryce Canyon, keep your National Park experiences going and head to Zion National Park next!