BRYCE CANYON CITY, Utah — For many years, I have been eager to take a trip to the Grand Canyon. My wife Sue Kittelson had visited a long time ago, and I longed to personally witness one of the seven wonders of the world.
The stars aligned this year and we made the necessary arrangements to fly to Las Vegas, rent a car and head to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
At the behest of others who have made this trip, we included trips to two other popular national parks within driving distance of the Grand Canyon: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.
The Grand Canyon was as magnificent as anticipated. No question about it.
But what was unexpected was the overwhelming sense of awe we encountered during our visit to Bryce Canyon. While I can now check the Grand Canyon off my bucket list, I am eagerly anticipating the next time I will be able to visit Bryce Canyon. It is truly that unique and impressive.
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The star of Bryce Canyon is the strange, almost ethereal, mostly reddish rock formations called hoodoos.
While the word itself conjures up something other-worldy, it means, according to the National Park Service, “tall skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins and ‘broken’ lands.”
You aren’t in the national park long before you hear, repeated over and over, that while you can find hoodoos elsewhere in the U.S., Bryce has the hoodoo mother load.
The rock layer itself, the Claron Formation, is an amalgamation of several types of rocks dominated by limestone. Hoodoos are formed, according to a park ranger who gave a very entertaining presentation after we hiked into and out of the canyon, because the area is perfectly located for what is called “frost wedging.”
This area of the Colorado Plateau, while generally arid, gets enough moisture to seep into cracks in the rocks. There also are upwards of 200 nights of freezing temperatures in the canyon.
We know what happens to water that freezes in cracks in our roads. At Bryce, instead of getting potholes, this continual melting and freezing process produces hoodoos. The variances in the hoodoo colors come from the minerals that have accumulated over the 30 to 40 million years the canyon has been forming.
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While it is possible to become enchanted by Bryce without ever venturing below the rim of the canyon — plenty of vistas are wheelchair accessible — true immersion happens on one of the many trails that take you down among the hoodoos.
Our favorite was the challenging Queens Garden/Navajo Combination Loop, which a writer for the National Geographic Magazine has called “the best three-mile hike in the world.”
Be advised, hiking three miles into and out of any canyon is hard enough, but at 8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level, it is even harder to catch your breath on the ascent out of Bryce.
But if you are in decent shape, take your time, drink plenty of water, eat some trail-appropriate snacks, wear decent shoes and watch your step, you are in for a memorable experience.
The Queens/Navajo loop has about 600 feet of elevation change over its three miles and is considered a moderate hike. Shorter — and longer — hikes are available for visitors of all abilities and inclinations. Horseback rides down the trails also are possible to arrange in town.
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Of the “Big Three” parks in this area — Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce — Bryce is far the least crowded.
In 2017, according to the National Park Service, Grand Canyon drew 6.3 million visitors; Zion, 4.5 million; and Bryce, 2.6 million.
Besides being less crowded, we found Bryce the easiest to access — once you figure out where the canyon is in the first place.
If I have one beef with this national park, it is with the signage, or lack thereof. Navigating takes a little experience and some fairly serious map reading. But it is worth the effort.
Like a lot of national parks, officials prefer that you enter the park and get around by shuttle bus. Most people stay in hotels or campgrounds right outside the park, and shuttle buses run through the small town — less than 200 in the 2010 census — of Bryce Canyon City, which is on Utah Highway 63, just off Utah Highway 12.
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Like most national parks, it is possible to stay inside the park, either at a campground or the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, which is owned by the National Park Service but is operated by a private concessioner.
There are times when it is advantageous to stay inside the park, including the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where we had a wonderful time at the rather rustic but historic and clean Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins. I’m not sure staying inside the park at Bryce would have added much to the visit.
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I hope that I haven’t left the impression that our visits to either the Grand Canyon or Zion national parks were not worthwhile.
I will always remember the sunset we saw at Hopi Point in the Grand Canyon and the hike we took up to Angel’s Landing in Zion.
But it was Bryce Canyon National Park that stole our hearts and made us look forward to the day we can return.
Doug Mell is a freelance writer living in Eau Claire.
If You Go
Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park takes a bit of doing.
The park is about 270 miles from Las Vegas and a similar difference from Salt Lake City. We flew into Las Vegas because we were going to the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks as well. I also have to think that rental cars are more plentiful and therefore less expensive in Las Vegas.
We experienced very pleasant weather during our visit the weekend after Memorial Day.
The National Park Service says the weather is quite variable during the year: From October to May temperatures fall below freezing nearly every night, and spring storms in March and April can produce heavy snowfalls. Daytime June highs are in the high 60s to low 70s, with high 70s to low 80s in July and August. September is similar to June. In July and August there are frequent but brief afternoon thunderstorms.
There are a variety of fee structures to enter the park, but the main one is the $35 it costs for each car and all of its occupants to enter for a week. Individual passes cost $20.
But the real deal is the America the Beautiful — National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Senior Pass for people 62 and older. It now costs $80 and is good forever; I was fortunate to purchase it for $10. It is good for me, my wife and everyone else with me.