The landscape at Bryce Canyon National Park is outlandish. This is a place that looks like it has been gouged out of the earth, then filled with orange and red rock pedestals so fancifully and bizarrely formed that they look like the inhabitants of a dreamworld.
Endless rock towers called hoodoos take on all kinds of shapes, resembling castles, bridges, towers, presidents, prime ministers, and even Queen Victoria. The questionable practice of affixing names to geological formations is forgivable here.
Bryce Canyon is the scalloped edge of a huge mesa and not a true canyon. It is a series of great amphitheaters eroded out of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southwestern Utah. On a grand scale, the geological formation containing Bryce resembles a loaf of bread that has been chewed away on one side. Erosion has taken about a dozen big bites out of the pink cliffs that form the plateau's eastern rim.
Any direction you turn in the park, there are wonders to behold. To the east, there is a broad sweep of mesas and buttes; to the north, the Aquarius Plateau; and to the south, a descriptively named peak called Mollie's Nipple.
Bryce Canyon in the Winter
Many people choose to visit the park in the winter months when Bryce Canyon becomes a fairyland (and the crowds dissipate). Its thousands of rock hoodoos take on the appearance of magical figures made of red and orange with mantles of white. The park service clears the 15-mile-long scenic drive to Rainbow Point, making this winter wonderland accessible by car.
Best of all, in any season, are the fantastic trails of Bryce Canyon, including the Riggs Spring Loop, which drops deeply into the rock spire country, and the Wall Street Trail, where photographers often come to take photos of the Douglas firs, which tower distinctly upward from the steep canyon bottom.
With a permit, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can sleep out-of-doors in designated winter campsites along the Fairyland Loop Trail, the Under-the-Rim Trail (which connects with many of Bryce's shorter paths), and the Riggs Spring Loop Trail. Cross-country skiers cruise along the rim through manzanita, pinon, and ponderosa pines.
Skiers who don't mind getting a little snow down their collars venture down the steep trails leading to the canyon floor. There is also winter hiking below the rim for those willing to posthole up to their hips through Utah's deep light powder in exchange for some of the most spectacular winter scenery anywhere on earth. Snowshoes are provided at no cost at the visitor center.
Bryce Canyon National Park Photo Opportunities
There are 13 overlooks that survey this wonderland, so there are plenty of chances for you to snap some incredible photos. Here are some you shouldn't miss:
- Wall of Windows: The Peekaboo Loop Trail goes from Bryce Point into the heart of the Bryce Amphitheater, where the mystery and magic of the Bryce escarpment are at their greatest. As you walk down into the canyon, a formation called the Wall of Windows appears above you. This monstrous slab of limestone has been punctured with gaping holes that let the bright blue sky show through. Below, there is a fantastic array of natural rock carvings that resembles the guests and attendants at a fancy masked ball. The dancers, waiters, musicians, and jesters are presided over by a trio of red-cloaked figures.
- The Grottos: Farther on along the Peekaboo Loop Trail, a broad span of yawning cave mouths called The Grottos appears just beneath the rim. The caves have been carved out by water seeping down from the plateau above. Virtually inaccessible to people, the caves offer refuge to red-tailed hawks, ravens, and golden eagles. In the canyon, it is easy to get the feeling that this vast piece of the earth was pried open for your personal inspection.
- Yovimpa Point: One of the overlooks in the park is Yovimpa Point, a magical rock spur nearly two miles above sea level. From there, more than 3,000 square miles of desert fall away to the south.
Bryce Canyon's hoodoos and ampitheaters evoke a sense of majesty and timelessness. Visitors are inspired to imagine the passage of time that created these stark formations. On the next page, we'll examine what the landscape looked like millions of years ago and how the elements slowly shaped the canyon we see today.