If there’s one word that sums up Bryce Canyon in southern Utah, it’s vast. It’s a vast area filled with unique geology and limitless opportunities. It’s also an area that doesn’t show up on most people’s radar. 250 miles north of Bryce Canyon is the world renowned Salt Lake City. The same distance south east is Las Vegas which, much like the Grand Canyon 250 miles due south of Bryce, really needs no introduction. But nestled between these three iconic landmarks is a real adventure destination.
The area itself may initially seem confusing, not least because there isn’t a single canyon in Bryce Canyon from which it takes its name. Rather, it’s a series of gigantic natural bowls, or amphitheatres. Further adding to the confusion is that there is a national park called Bryce Canyon within the area known as Bryce Canyon (or Bryce Canyon Country, a name that makes things rather easier to distinguish). And within Bryce Canyon, there are more State Parks than just Bryce Canyon National Park. Simple, right?
"Hoodoos are tall, pillars of rock that point up to the heavens."
Bryce Canyon is famous for its Hoodoos. They are tall, pillars of rock that point up to the heavens, misshapen and gnarled like a pensioners finger. Of course, these geological features aren't unique to Bryce Canyon. However, nowhere else on the planet comes close to the amount you can find in Bryce.
If you’re looking for an adventure that offers peace and quiet, or dare we even say solitude, along with a host of opportunities to really explore, then Bryce Canyon is a must.
Why Go To Bryce Canyon?
Bryce Canyon looks both familiar and completely alien at the same time. The gigantic rock formations, seemingly endless planes, and wood-built settlements are dripping in Americana. You can drive for hours without seeing another vehicle, but when you do, they're often massive trucks or ageing pickup trucks driven by men in mesh baseball caps.
The tiny towns have General Stores, community fire houses, a gas station, and not much else. The occasional trappings of 20th century technology aside, the views are straight from a Western. And yet, the burning orange rocks, with thick veins of white running through them are positively Martian.
Finding adventure among these magnificent geological oddities, crafted over milenia, is really what makes adventuring in Bryce Canyon so special. The area is an absolute haven for hiking and trail running. Byway 12 is the main road that serves Bryce Canyon, and along it you’ll find enough trail heads to keep visitors doing something different for months. At risk of toppling into cliche, there are trails here to suit everybody from elite level trail runners to families with young children.
Head to Red Canyon and not only will you find the most photogenic fiery archways reaching out over the road, blasted out of rock by early pioneers, but you can hike the trail once frequented by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Called the Cassidy Trail, it’s just short of 16 miles long including the return back to the trailhead and small carpark, so requires a good level of fitness and plenty of water, especially in the warmer months.
For an easier hike, Lower Calf Creek Falls is along Byway 12, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - an area of such outstanding natural beauty that President Trump reduced the size of the area protected by Monument status in late 2017.
At just under six miles to the end of the trail and back, it’s a walk that can be done in just a few hours, although it does require some scrambling up rocks, which the less mobile will struggle with. Along the route, you’ll be treated to Hoodoos and ancient petroglyphs painted onto the striped sandstone, and at the end is a 130 foot high waterfall that was enough to bring a tear to this writer's eye (although I did claim it was simply the spray from the falling water on my face).
Mountain biking is also incredibly popular in Bryce Canyon, attracting people from all over the world to its array of trails that take in a whole range of environments. By far the most famous (and, as a result, most popular) is the Thunder Mountain trail. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Disney named a ride after it in one of their theme parks.
Situated just outside Bryce Canyon National Park, the start of this incredible eight mile trail begins through dense woodland, as you pick your way through ponderosa pines, before it opens out and you find yourself dashing past the magnificent red rocks this area is so famous for. If you’ve got the minerals, take your fingers off the breaks for the final mile of the trail and hoon down the singletrack at skin-peeling speeds as the car park approaches.
Road cycling is also popular here, with the Tour of Utah often having sections along Byway 12,not least because of the magnificent scenery along the way. Canyoneering, camping, fishing and, in winter, ski touring are also available throughout the area.
Drinking In Bryce Canyon
A post-hike pint is a rare thing in Bryce Canyon, as it is anywhere in Utah. The state regulates the sale of alcohol quite tightly.
A pack of low alcohol beer, no stronger than 3.5%vol, can be purchased from most general stores, but anything harder than that needs to be bought at a state licensed liquor store, which are few and far between.
The closest one to Bryce Canyon is Heathers’ Liquor Store some 20 miles east in Panguitch, should you feel the need to stock up for your evening tipple.
Aside from that, alcohol can be sought in restaurants, but only when purchased in conjunction with some kind of food. Maybe one day somebody will import tapas style small plates and make a boozy fortune.
Where To Eat in Bryce Canyon
In truth, fine dining isn’t high on the agenda in Bryce Canyon. But silver service would hardly be in keeping with the area anyway. However, good, hearty meals are plentiful in the road side restaurants along Scenic Byway 12, which takes you through the heart of Bryce Canyon.
Portions are invariably large, and meat appears to be central to everything. Produce comes from the seemingly endless patchwork of farmland in Bryce Canyon, which goes some way to explaining why meat and wheat are never far away in a restaurant.
A ten minute drive along Highway 12 from Bryce Canyon National Park is Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant. From the outside it looks like a slightly modernised Old West townhouse, but inside it’s a strange sort of wooden paradise, full of the charm and country spirit of an America that’s long since disappeared in many other areas of the country.
The walls are filled with nostalgia-inducing pictures and battered old signs. Rifles that we rather suspect may be more than ornamental hang from the walls.
"Meals here are so typically large that we’ve never found room for the signature desert"
The menu offers things like biscuits and gravy, breakfast steak, patty melts, and hot hamburger sandwiches. Look closely and there are vegetarian options as well. The signature dish is a desert - a strawberry and banana pie that’s made to a closely guarded family recipe (although we can guess at least two of the ingredients). However, portions here are so typically large for our British sensibilities that we’ve never found room to try it.
Where To Stay In Bryce Canyon
On the road towards Bryce Canyon is Ruby’s Inn. As old as the National Park itself, it was founded by a farmer called Ruby, back in 1916, after he realised that one day, a lot of people would want to come and view the large hole in the ground just down the road.
Today, the Inn still stands, but most guests stay at the Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel literally over the road from Ruby’s. Although it enjoys a heritage from which many a tale has no doubt been told, the hotel is actually a Best Western and, as such, enjoys the kind of comfortable mod-cons you’d expect, including incredibly comfy beds, power showers and a large restaurant.
If you prefer your accommodation a little more rustic, Ruby’s also has a campground and an RV park. There are 200 pitches, shaded by large ponderosa pine trees, while cabins and tipis are also available.
Norwegian fly a winter service from London Gatwick to Las Vegas using brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, with a choice of Premium or Economy cabins.
Economy fares start from £200 one way, £350 return. For more information see the Norwegian website.
Bon Voyage offer a seven night stay in Utah, flying from London Gatwick to Las Vegas with Norwegian from £1095 per person, based on two people traveling. The price included the above mentioned flights, three nights B&B at Inn on the Cliff, St. George, three nights room only at Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel and one night room only at the Canyon’s Boutique Hotel in Kanab. The price is valid for travel between November 2018 and March 2019
From Las Vegas, Bryce Canyon is about a four hour drive north-east along Interstate 15, via a 50 mile stretch of Arizona (for which you’ll still want to keep your camera handy) and on to Byway 12. We used Rhino Car Hire to rent an SUV. A seven day car rental starts from £190. For more information see RhinoCarHire.com
For more information about Bryce Canyon Country and Utah, see visitutah.com
Click here to read more from the March 'Space' issue