A First-Timer’s Guide To Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park
As I shared in my post on how to spend an amazing weekend in Zion National Park, visiting more of America’s national parks has been on my “to-do list” for…years. Seriously, SO MANY YEARS. But it was one of those things that kept getting back-burnered because it required actually planning ahead (vs. just finding a last-minute ticket).
And then I kind of got my crap together. No, I didn’t plan and book a year ahead (HA!), but my parents and I decided to forego our usual little jaunt to Europe and instead see some more of our country’s native beauty. And as I started planning a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, I got lucky and found exactly the housing I wanted with less than two months’ notice…in “shoulder season”, but that was perfect because it meant fewer crowds and less heat.
Other inspiration & tips for visiting this area:
We had an awesome trip to both parks and all the road-tripping in-between, and what’s crazy is that it was just a long weekend—we saw and did SO MUCH, but it was really just a 4-day weekend! So I’m going to tell you all my tips for planning your own trip, where my favorite spots were, and dazzle your eyes with some gorgeous pics…
What this post covers:
- Why Bryce Canyon?
- Basics (hours, costs, etc.)
- Getting around the park
- Our favorite views and stops
- Where to eat and stay
Sadly we weren’t able to do any hiking beyond the Rim Trail, so this post won’t cover any of the hikes beyond just walking the Rim Trail.
Why Bryce Canyon?
I mean, WHY NOT?! Have you seen the pics?? Bryce is one of the smaller national parks (just under 36,000 acres, in the bottom 10) and also one of the busiest—in the top 10, with over 2.7 million visitors a year, but nowhere near Zion’s 4.3 million. It’s famous for its fascinating geological erosion-created rock formations called hoodoos.
The Mormon settler after whom the park is named called it “one hell of a place to lose a cow” (literally still makes me laugh every time), and he wasn’t wrong. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon Amphitheater are…otherworldly. They just look like something from another planet. Bryce is a perfect national park for a short visit, and very unique in terms of landscape. It’s a must-visit!
“The canyon’s remarkable collection of whimsical hoodoo spires were believed by the early Paiute Indians to be people frozen in stone by the mischievous spirit Coyote. Early geologists feared the hoodoos would transform into humans.” – Nat Geo
If you missed it, here’s a Weekend Guide to Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park basics
Entrance fees for a car were $35 last I checked, though if you have the annual national parks pass that would be covered (I want to say it’s around $85 for the year?).
The park is open usually 8a-8p in the peak season and more like 8a-6p during the fall and spring (winter hours are even shorter). We didn’t see anyone at the fee booth when we returned after hours—we were staying in the park—so my assumption is that the booth is unmanned when the park is closed.
The temperatures at Bryce are typically cooler than Zion due to its higher elevation. Your time in the park will be around 8,000 feet, whereas you’ll spend most of your time in Zion in the 4,000-6,000 feet range.
You can plan your trip using the official website, which will be up-to-date on everything from weather to road and trail closures as well as hours and fees.
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Getting around Bryce Canyon
It’s a really easy place to get around, with one long road running through the park. The turn-offs are well-marked and nothing is too far away. There is a shuttle system that runs much of the year (roughly April 12 – October 20), which you can find out more about here. It’s good to use the shuttles when possible, to cut down on car traffic in the park (and also because it will help you get around easier). Since we were in the off-season, it hadn’t started up again so we used our car.
One of your first stops should be the Visitor Center, where you can get some good maps and recommendations for best vantage points, which trails are closed, and more. I even asked the ranger where her fave sunrise view was.
Here’s a map of the whole scenic highway, courtesy of The Armchair Explorer. Natural Bridge was the furthest that was open when we visited in early April, due to the snow (they shut parts of the park down during the winter both due to maintenance/upkeep and safety considerations).
And here is a closer-in view of the core part of the park around the lodge, and where a lot of the most famous viewpoints are (courtesy of npmaps.com). Sadly most of the trails were closed while we were there due to ice, snow, and mud, but we could walk the Rim Trail from Sunrise Point out to Inspiration Point. We still saw tons of gorgeous views…while I was sad we couldn’t get down to walk among the hoodoos, the trip was still worth it.
Some of our favorite spots/views:
Natural Bridge (mile 12)
The first thing we did was drive as far down the scenic highway in the park as possible, and then started working our way back toward the entrance. As parts of the park were still closed for the winter, the furthest viewpoint we could see was Natural Bridge—this was a bit early in the tourist season (early April), and they hadn’t opened up the entire park again yet.
It was also a bit jarring how much snow was still on the ground…we’d just spent two days in Zion National Park which is at a much lower elevation, and it had been hot and dusty in Zion. Bryce was cool and refreshing, and our view of Natural Bridge really set the tone for our time in the park. The red of the stone against the white snow and deep green trees and blue sky was absolutely perfect!
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Next stop down the road (back toward the Visitor Center) was Farview Point. We didn’t spend a ton of time here, but I really loved these little tree- and snow-capped mountains on the horizon! It’s named because you can…see far. Seriously. But what’s cool about this is that you can see some of the big landmarks of the Grand Staircase Escalante in the distance.
This pic is terrible but helps you see how high the snow was piled up—taller than me in some places! Despite all that, it didn’t feel cold most of the time, especially when the sun was out.
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Bryce Point has a few different types of views available, but the one below was my favorite. We were bummed that one of the walkways was closed, which would have afforded us a much better photo angle, but overall this is worth a few minutes of your time.
We spent quite a bit of time at Inspiration Point, both during the day and then the following morning at sunrise (more on that below!). On your left, you’ve got the very traditional hoodoo formation in a tight amphitheater. As you scan toward the right, the horizon opens up a bit and you get great near and far perspectives, pops of snow and trees, and generally just an amazing vista!
I’ve written a whole post about sunrise at Inspiration Point here!
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We went and checked in at the Lodge and parked the car (and left my dad behind), and then my mom and I decided to hike around the Rim Trail to catch some of the other great views.
You can see here how all the trails leading down into the canyon—where you’d be able to walk among the hoodoos—were totally snowed in.
Excluding my sunrise pics, I think my Sunset Point photos are my favorites from this trip. There is just such a DRAMA in the contrast of the spiky hoodos, the different layers of height, the blue sky, and the snow!
We did go to Sunrise Point, but at that point it kind of felt like we’d seen it all and there wasn’t anything new to photograph or really see. Plus it’s right across the street from the big campground, so it was crowded and just not my vibe.
Sunrise at Inspiration Point
I’ve written an entire post about watching the sunrise wash over Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, jam-packed with gorgeous photos and tips for when and where to make sure you make the most of it. Here are a few just to whet your appetite. I can’t recommend it enough!!! It was a stunning, cold, perfect morning and the most special thing we did the entire trip.
Where to watch sunset in Bryce Canyon
Meh. Because of the direction the amphitheater faces, sunset is kind of a big “womp womp”. Give it the old college try (we did) and then realize that you’re starving and make a decent dinner reservation…
Where to eat in Bryce Canyon
Yeeeesh this is a tough one. Particularly because we were there during low season, but given the limited options I imagine it’s tough for crowd reasons during high season
We grabbed lunch in LITERALLY the only place we could find in town, but it was terrible. I’m not even sure of the name, but it offered chicken strips and pizza basically, and gave us awful tummy aches.
After our sunrise adventure, we went to Bryce Canyon Lodge‘s dining room for coffee and breakfast. The breakfast was quite good, though the coffee was basic (I was jonesin’ for a latte). Definitely a good choice.
For dinner we went to Bryce Canyon Pines, which gets pretty good reviews. I had a decent burger and some pie, and this delicious Polygamy Porter. It wasn’t an earth-shattering meal but I think it might have been one of the best options.
Mmmm that porter is delish.
Tips for visiting Bryce Canyon National Park
- Where to stay: Bryce Canyon Lodge (the only one inside the park)
- Must-see / must-do: Honestly it’s not that complicated. Sunrise is a must if it’s clear. Walk the Rim Trail, make sure to visit several of the viewpoints and take loads of pics. If weather permits, take a hike down into the canyon as well.
- Where to sunrise: Inspiration Point
- Where to eat: Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant, Bryce Canyon Lodge Restaurant (though overall it’s slim pickin’s)
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- Sunset at Yant Flat & Candy Cliffs Near St. George, Utah
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