See the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Lisa Fritscher October 9, 2011 No Comments

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is visually stunning

When Dad and I decided to spend the summer of 2011 exploring the American Southwest, we had a few specific destinations in mind. Near the top of the list were the best-known national parks in UtahZion, Arches and Bryce Canyon. For a variety of reasons, our visit to Utah was significantly delayed, but when we finally made it to Bryce Canyon in September, it turned out to be well worth the wait.

About Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon Hoodoos

The tall pinnacles are known as hoodoos

Technically speaking, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. Canyons are carved by rivers, while Bryce Canyon was carved by an endless cycle of freezing and thawing. As the official website points out, though, “the world’s biggest pothole” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Once covered by a vast body of water, the rocks of Bryce Canyon began rising approximately 15 million years ago as part of the Colorado Plateau. Roughly 8 million years ago, the Bryce Canyon area broke off to form the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Since then, the rocks have been shaped by ice and snow.

Approximately 200 days each year feature temperatures warm enough to melt the ice and snow during the day, only to refreeze at night. The constant expansion and contraction chisel and shape the rock formations, creating vast pinnacles known as hoodoos. Over time, the hoodoos erode, eventually collapsing altogether.

Bryce Canyon Overlook

Humans have occupied the area since at least 200 A.D.

Bryce Canyon is home to nearly 40 species of animals including birds, mammals and reptiles. Pronghorns, Utah prairie dogs and mountain lions are among the animals you might spot. But by far the most commonly sighted are the squirrels, which regularly approach tourists to beg for food. Do not feed them or any wild animal in the park. It is against park regulations and is dangerous for both you and the animal.

Bryce Canyon was named for Ebenezer and Mary Bryce, Mormon pioneers who settled in the area in 1875, but the human history around Bryce Canyon is much older. The Paiute people used the location for seasonal hunting and gathering beginning around 1200 A.D., while there is evidence of Fremont and Anasazi use as early as 200 A.D. Ancient peoples populated the Colorado Plateau as far back as 12,000 years ago, but it is not yet clear whether they ranged as far as Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon Visitor Center

Visitors began pouring in during the early 20th century

In 1915, US Forest Service supervisor J.W. Humphrey viewed Bryce Canyon for the first time. By 1916, he secured government funding to improve the road and add vehicle accessibility at the canyon rim. Local tourists began to visit soon after, staying in tents erected by entrepreneurs eager to cash in on the new market. The first lodge was built in 1920.

Bryce Canyon became a national monument in 1923 and a national park in 1928. In 1930, the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel linked Bryce Canyon with Zion National Park and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Today the park encompasses 35,835 acres and welcomes 1.5 million visitors per year.

Zion to Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon Entrance

Entering the park

We chose an RV park in Hurricane, Utah, 12 miles from Zion National Park. The park offered a fantastic nightly rate for members of the Thousand Trails membership camping system, so we decided to use it as a base camp for exploring the area. Our drive to Bryce Canyon was approximately three hours, though there are, of course, accommodations available much closer to the park.

The road from Zion to Bryce goes through Zion National Park, and you must pay the admission fee for both parks. As of 2011, the fee for each park is $25 per vehicle, and is valid for seven consecutive days. National park passes admit the pass holder and everyone in the vehicle free of charge.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel

The tunnel was exciting!

The road goes through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel. There is no additional fee for standard vehicles to use this tunnel. If you plan to take an RV or other oversized vehicle through the tunnel, however, you must pay an additional $15 for a park escort.

Oversized vehicles, defined as those 11 feet 4 inches or taller, or 7 feet 10 inches or wider, cannot safely navigate the tunnel while remaining within the designated lanes. Therefore, the park service closes the tunnel to opposite-direction traffic while oversized vehicles pass through. The $15 fee is valid for two trips through the tunnel within seven days.

The road through Zion is narrow and winding with steep drop-offs and tight switchbacks. It was a lot of fun, but a bit of a white-knuckle adventure! Pay close attention to speed limit signs, as the speed limits change rapidly as you approach a switchback. Expect delays at the tunnel, particularly during traditional rush hours.

The tunnel was quite an experience! At 1.1 mile long, it was the longest tunnel in the United States when it opened in 1930. Dark and somewhat claustrophobia-inducing, it must be seen to be believed.

At Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon Museum

The small museum was very well done

Bryce Canyon National Park is packed with hiking trails and ranger programs. With such a long commute, though, we opted to focus on the scenic drive. A free park shuttle is available during the summer months, but we decided to take our own vehicle. We started at the visitor center, where a free 22-minute film explains the history and geology of this unique area. There are a few museum exhibits, and the friendly park rangers are full of advice and suggestions.

Bryce Canyon Scenic Overlook

Take the time to stop at the scenic overlooks

The scenic drive is 18 miles in each direction, with a total of 14 overlooks. We drove out to the furthest point first, putting all the scenic pull-offs on our right as we drove back. The furthest overlook, Rainbow Point, is also the highest, at 9,115 feet. Dad has some chronic health conditions including asthma, and 9,000 feet is about the top of his comfort zone. So we walked around a bit and took a few photos, but did not linger too long. The rest of the pull-offs were well under 9,000 feet, and Dad did just fine.

We did not participate in the additional activities such as hiking or horseback riding, and spent approximately three hours exploring the scenic overlooks. Bryce Canyon offers a wide range of hiking options, from easy paved trails of less than a mile to a strenuous 23-mile overnight trek. Expect to add an hour or so to your stay for each mile of hiking. Ranger programs are offered throughout the day, from guided hikes to evening chats. Programs last  45 minutes to several hours.

Tips for Parents

Bryce Canyon Light and Shadow

The play of light and shadow are a photographer's dream

Bryce Canyon is completely unlike any other national park we have experienced, including the Grand Canyon. The hoodoos and other rock formations are simply breathtaking, and the visibility in the crisp, clean air is phenomenal. It is not unusual to be able to see 100 miles or more in every direction. The play of light and shadow makes Bryce a photographer’s dream.

If you have the time, consider letting your kids participate in the Junior Ranger program. Workbooks and information are available at the visitor center. Junior Rangers must complete a series of activities including attending at least one ranger program. When they have completed all the requirements, your kids can turn in their workbooks at the visitor center for a free Junior Ranger badge. Patches are available for $1. The badges and patches are unique and can only be obtained by those who have completed the program.

Keep a close eye on your children at all times, especially when hiking the trails. Steep drop-offs and slippery footing create inherent hazards. Do not let kids run ahead or get off the designated trails. Honestly assess everyone’s abilities and choose trails that are appropriate for your entire family.

Carry plenty of water and a few salty snacks. It is often hot and dry at Bryce Canyon, and dehydration is a common ailment. Hats and sunscreen are absolutely essential. Choose sturdy footwear such as hiking boots rather than flip-flops or sandals.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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