Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park sees more than 2.5 million visitors each year

Bryce Canyon National Park is a geological amphitheater on the Paunsaugunt Plateau with hundreds of tall, multicolored sandstone hoodoos formed by erosion. The region was originally settled by Native Americans and later by Mormon pioneers.

Things To Do

Bryce Canyon National Park has something for everyone!

From our more adventurous visitors, who are looking for a backcountry adventure, or our more laid back visitors, who just want to take in some beautiful scenery, there are options for all. Here are a few of our favorite things to do in the park.

See the Canyon on Mule or Horseback

Bryce Canyon is an incredible vista, with gorgeous views of the canyon from many different viewpoints. There are many beautiful outlooks where you can see the sights, but if you are looking for a unique, exciting, and adventurous way to explore the canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park offers mule and horseback trail rides. These trips are led by Canyon Trail Rides wranglers, and last two to three hours, costing between $65 and $90 a person. The wranglers will lead you into the Bryce Amphitheater along a horse trail, and parts of the Peek-a-boo Loop Trail. Depending on the weather, these guides trail rides begin in April and end in October.

Rainbow Point

Rainbow Point is one of the most incredible viewpoints in the Bryce Canyon National Park, and is an essential stop for anyone visiting the park. Rainbow Point is located at the southern end of the park, and from this area you can see the entirety of the park stretching out. The southern overlook is Yovimpa Point, from which you can see the Grand Staircase, an incredible sequence of rock layers named for their different colors. At Yovimpa Point, you are standing on the top steps of the Grand Staircase, the Pink Cliffs. Directly below are the Grey Cliffs, and in the distance you can see the White Cliffs. The Pink Cliffs are what the Hoodoos, the unique rock structures in the canyon, are sculpted out of.

Rainbow Point is the highest elevation in the park at 9100 feet. This viewpoint is home to many different plants and animals, including Blue Spruce, Douglas Fir, and White Fir trees, as well as grouse, woodpeckers, owls, and Steller’s Jays.

Rainbow Point is also an access point for a few different trails, so this is a great starting point for hikers. One of these trails is the Riggs Spring Loop Trail, which is a 7.5 mile backcountry loop, a highly strenuous hike. The Under-the-Rim trail is a 23 mile backcountry trail system. For hikers looking for a less strenuous hike, the Bristlecone Loop is accessible through Rainbow Point. This trail is 0.8 miles long, and winds through the forest.

Hike the Rim Trail

The Rim Trail offers a beautiful view of the Main Amphitheater from above, as hikers wind around the rim of Bryce Canyon. The trail stretches from Fairyland Point to Bryce Point, and is 5.5 miles long, or 11 miles round trip. There are several steep elevation changes, so be prepared!

Hike to Mossy Cave

Mossy Cave trail is the northernmost hike in the park, and is one of the lowest elevation hikes available. The trail is 0.4 miles long one way. There are two final destinations on this trail- the trail forks off, going to Water Canyon in one direction and Mossy Cave in the other direction. The area is home to many different mosses in the summer, and lots of icicles in the winter. An irrigation ditch, dug in the early 1890s, causes water to flow through Water Canyon seasonally from the Tropic Reservoir to the Praia Valley.

While animals tend to avoid the busier trails in the daylight hours, the water in Water Canyon draws many different species to this trail to quench their thirst. It is expected that more riparian trees will grow in the area as the ecosystem gets used to the influx of water.

Navajo Trail

Navajo Trail is one of the more popular trails in the park, and begins at Sunset Point, finishing in the main amphitheater. If you are looking for a longer hike, this trail can be combined with the Queen’s Garden Trail. This is a beautiful hike, and is highly recommended. One thing to keep in mind is that there are more rock falls on this trail than any others in the park, including a major rock slide in 2006. Be sure to exercise caution and awareness for your own safety.

Peek-a-boo Loop

Beginning at Bryce Point, the Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail is a quick drop to the canyon floor. This is a strenuous hike due to the elevation changes. This trail is part of the guided horseback and mule trail rides, so please be respectful of riders and their animals.

Camping

Camping is a great way to feel in touch with the natural splendor of the park, and have easy access to the many activities offered in the area. There are two campgrounds in the park, North Campground and Sunset Campground. They are both located in close proximity to the Visitor Center, Bryce Canyon Lodge, and the main amphitheater. During peak season, the campgrounds accept reservations on a 6 month rolling basis, so be sure to reserve in advance!

Snowshoeing

If you are planning a winter visit, and are worried about not being able to enjoy the beautiful hikes, never fear! During the winter, snowshoeing is allowed on all of the trails in the park. Snowshoeing is highly strenuous, so even easy hikes may be more of an endeavor than expected. The most popular trails for this activity are the Rim Trail, Bristlecone Loop, Fairyland Road, and Praia Road. There are also ranger led programs available, for both new and experienced snowshoers!

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Wildlife

Home of  three distinct climatic zones: spruce/fir forest, Ponderosa Pine forest, and Pinyon Pine/juniper forest.

This diversity of habitat provides for high biodiversity. Here at Bryce, you can enjoy over 100 species of birds, dozens of mammals, reptiles, and more! Here are some of the animals you may encounter in the park’s borders.

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel

The Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel is one of the two species of ground squirrel located in Bryce Canyon. The Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel is about half the size of the Rock Squirrel. They have chipmunk like stripes and coloration, but have no facial stripes. They have biological and behavioral similarities to chipmunks as well. They are hibernators, and store up body fat to slumber in the winter, though they have been known to store food in their burrows during the cold months. Like chipmunks, they have cheek pouches for food storage and transportation. They live in shallow burrows, up to 100 feet in length, and often live in hollow logs or under tree roots.

These squirrels are highly abundant throughout their range, including the Bryce Canyon area. They live in forest and rocky meadow habitats mainly, though they can also live in sagebrush flats. There is no danger of extinction to this species- however, individuals can suffer from human actions, mostly from feeding. Feeding wildlife, while coming from good intentions, often does more harm than good.

In Bryce Canyon National Park, these animals can be found nearly everywhere. They are very common in picnic areas and overlooks in particular.

Mountain Lion

Mountain lions are also known as cougars and pumas. These essential predators are solitary and shy, and avoid park visitors when at all possible. Ranging in size from 7-8 feet, mountain lions are the second heaviest large cats, closely following the jaguar. Mountain lions are slender and agile, making them ideal ambush predators.  Mountain lions hunt nocturnally for smaller mammals. As ambush predators, they use stealth to trap and hunt their prey. They have the largest range of any land mammal, spanning from the Yukon to the Southern Andes. This large range is made possible by their extreme adaptability, allowing them to adjust to virtually any environment. Mountain lions face threats from habitat fragmentation and loss, and loss of prey due to poaching.  They mainly occupy undeveloped areas. When they do pass through developed areas, they do not linger. It is unlikely that park visitors will encounter a mountain lion, but if you do, there are precautions you can take. Do not run, shout in a low voice and  make yourself look larger, and maintain eye contact.

Pronghorn Antelope

Despite its name, the Pronghorn Antelope is not an antelope! It resembles the antelopes, and due to parallel evolution, it fills a similar ecological niche, leading to this name. In reality, this animal is the last surviving member of the Antilocapridae family. Pronghorn antelopes have white fur on their behinds, sides, bellies, and their throats. Adult males range in size from 4 feet to 5 feet long, and from 32-41 inches tall at the shoulder. Females are generally the same height as males, but weigh less.

The pronghorn antelope is the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere. They depend upon their speed to avoid predators. They can run 35 mph for 4 miles, 52 mph for 1 mile, and 55 mph for 0.5 miles. While they are technically the second fastest land mammal, behind the cheetah, they can actually sustain high speeds for longer than this big cat.

Utah Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents known for popping their heads up out of their burrows. The Utah Prairie Dog is limited to the southwestern quarter of Utah, which is the most restricted range of all prairie dog species. They range in color from tawny to reddish brown, and have white tipped tails and black markings that resemble eyebrows.

Utah Prairie dogs are a hibernating species, and sleep through the cold months. Males emerge from their burrows in march, earlier than females, who come out later in the month. They are highly social animals, and live together in large colonies, or towns. They have connected burrows, with multiple different entrances, for both easy retreats and quick escapes, depending on the predators that they are avoiding. Colonies post lookouts, who watch for predators, alerting their colonies so that they can escape.

Utah Prairie Dogs were listed as an endangered species in 1973. As a response, the species was reintroduced to Bryce Canyon National Park. There are approximately 200 of them in the park today, which is the largest protected population of the species! Populations are still low, but conservationists are hopefully regarding the reintroduction of the species in the Bryce Canyon.

Within the park, you can often find Utah Prairie Dogs in the meadows on the northern portion of the canyon. Please exercise respect and caution around the colonies. View them from a safe distance, at least ten feet away, and do not approach or feed them.

Violet-Green Swallow

The violet-green swallow is distinguishable by its slender body and long, pointed wings, as well as its splendid coloration. They have bright, metallic green backs with purple necks. They are adept aerialists, able to perform incredible feats to catch and eat flying insects. They are generally found in woodland habitats, with their nests in hollow trees and rock crevices. Their nests are built of grass and weeds, and are lined with feathers. They can be built by a male-female team, or by a solo female. They are very defensive of their nests.

The largest threat to this bird comes from the removal of dead trees. Violet-green swallows often use dead trees as their nest sites. To compensate for this loss, conservationists have experimented with nest boxes, to some success.

Some swallows have been harmed by well-meaning individuals. Swallows will often go into a hibernation-like state, known as tupor. This happens mainly during cold and cloudy weather out of season, where they cannot find enough insects to maintain their energy. If this happens, they will become dormant, and appear semiconscious. If you happen across a swallow in this state, it is natural, and the best thing you can do is leave it alone. You can move it gently if it is in a dangerous location, but only if absolutely necessary.

Visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park can find these birds along the Rim Trail, and at Sunset Point. They are common between early April and September.

Great Basin Rattlesnake

The Great Basin Rattlesnake can be identified by its light brown or gray coloration, with brown spots down their backs. They have large, flat scales. They can be found in many different locations, including southeast Oregon, southern Idaho, Nevada, and Western Utah.

Rattlesnakes, while referred to as poisonous, are actually venomous! Poisonous means that they are unsafe to eat, which is false when it comes to the rattlesnake. Venomous means that they are able to inject poison, which a rattlesnake does through its fangs.

A Great Basin Rattlesnake can live up to 19 years. They hibernate in the winter in communal burrows. They are sit and wait predators, meaning that they hide and wait for prey to come to them, rather than actively hunting.

The rattlesnake is best known for the tail that gives it its name. People often see the rattle as aggressive, but it is actually a defense mechanism. When a rattlesnake shakes its tail, it is trying to scare away a potential predator. A rattlesnake only strikes at a human as a last resort. While people are often afraid of snakes, they are more afraid of you than you are of them. Rattlesnakes are protected animals in all national parks, and they serve an important role in the ecosystem, controlling rodent populations. It is illegal to harass or harm a rattlesnake in the national park, so keep your distance, for your safety and the safety of this species.

Rattlesnakes will usually avoid trails, so if you stay on the trails, you can reduce your chance of encountering one. Avoiding rocky slopes and tall sagebrush is also recommended. If you do see one, simply give it a wide berth- there is no need for a confrontation. Rattlesnake bites are seldom fatal, but do require medical attention. If a bite does occur, remain calm, contact help, and avoid physical activity. Only 30%-40% of rattlesnake bites include venom injection, so don’t panic!

Rattlesnakes are most often seen on the Under-the-Rim Trail, Riggs Springs Loop, and the Fairyland Loop, but they are seldom encountered within the boundaries of the park.

Tiger Salamander

The tiger salamander is the largest land dwelling salamander! They are identifiable by their broad heads and small eyes. They come in a variety of colors, including yellow or tan spots or stripes on an olive, black, or brown body. The species ranges from southern Canada to Florida and Mexico. Tiger Salamanders are the only type of salamander you will see at Bryce Canyon.

Tiger salamanders are shy animals, and spend most of their time hidden. They come out and travel at night to avoid predators. They can live to be up to 25 years old. The tiger salamander is not in danger from humans, though in some places the sale of their larvae is restricted due to disruption of native populations outside of their natural range. The welfare of this species within the park is mainly dependent on the annual rainfall. They are rare to spot in the park, but have been seen in Swamp Canyon and other locations in the backcountry. Your best chances of seeing them come at night or twilight after heavy rainfall.

Plant Life

There are many plant communities in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Surrounded by deserts, Bryce’s highland plateau gets much more rain than the lowlands below and stays cooler during hot summers. The relatively lush ecosystems that result are like fertile islands towering above a vast arid landscape. There are over a thousand plant species in Bryce Canyon- here are a few that you might come across during your visit.

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone pines have been around for a long, long time- they are among the oldest living organisms on earth. The oldest living bristlecone is named “Methuselah”, and is 4,765 years old. They are found in six states. Bristlecones have five needles per bunch, and can grow up to 60 feet tall. They have a twisted appearance, which is caused by the tree dying in sections- first the roots, then traveling upward. These trees are used in dendrochronology, which compares tree rings of known ages against environmental conditions. This allows us a glimpse into the past, and allows scientists to document environmental conditions in an area going back thousands of years.

The needles of the bristlecone pine stay on the tree for over 40 years. Most other pines lose their needles and replace them every couple of years. This is an advantage to the bristlecone, as it will sometimes stop growing if environmental conditions are suboptimal, so it will not shed its needles without being able to regrow them. The Bristlecone is a protected plant, like all plants in the National Parks Service areas. Bristlecones are a unique case, however- the location and age of older Bristlecones are kept secret to prevent harm from visitors.

You can see these trees on the Fairyland Loop Trail and the Bristlecone Loop trail at Rainbow Point. They grow mainly on the rim of the canyon, not in the interior of the park. The oldest in the park is located at Yovimpa Point, and is over 1600 years old.

Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosas are large coniferous trees, identified by their unique bark structure. The bark grows in “plates” that are often referred to as puzzle pieces, giving the tree a unique appearance. The scent of the ponderosa is a debate topic, and could vary depending on different factors. Some say that the bark smells like turpentine, while others catch hints of vanilla, or no distinguishable scent at all. The tallest ponderosa on record is over 80 meters tall. The ponderosa pine is the official tree of the state of Montana.

Greenleaf Manzanita

The Greenleaf Manzanita is the most common shrub in the ponderosa pine forests in this national park. The shrub is distinguishable by a wide spread with green, smooth edged leaves and reddish brown bark. It has flowers in the spring that are light pink and urn shaped. They grow berries after the flowering season, which start as green and become a rusty red when they are ripe.

Blue Spruce

The Blue Spruce is the state tree of Utah, but is the least abundant member of the pine family in Bryce Canyon. This is due to the lack of flowing water in the park- blue spruce often grows in moist soil and along streams. These trees are identified from other species of spruce, such as the Engelmann spruce, by their rigid, sharply pointed needles. The needles are a blue green color with silver undersides. Blue spruce have grey bark, ranging from pale grey to dark grey, with a furrowed texture. Their cones grow over three inches long, with thin papery scales.

Blue spruce trees are often used as ornamental trees in homes and commercial landscaping. They require about the same amount of water as a lawn, making them relatively easy to grow. Blue spruce are also very popular Christmas trees, due to their beautiful colors.

The main threat to the blue spruce is heavy grazing, as saplings are often eaten by livestock. However, this tree is not in any particular danger- they are highly popular, and the range is expanding rapidly. This is made possible by the lack of competition observed in areas where the blue spruce is introduced, so it is not a threat to any native trees.

You can spot this beautiful tree along the Swamp Canyon Loop and in the backcountry, usually where springs emerge from the rocky cliffs of the canyon.

Quaking Aspen

Aspens are medium deciduous trees that can reach 49-98 feet tall. They are native to cold regions with cool summers, and are generally found in the northern hemisphere. They can grow in southern regions if the climate is right, usually in high altitude areas like mountains. Aspens are often referred to as “quaking aspens” in North America, due to the movement of their leaves in the wind. Aspens thrive in environments with large populations of coniferous trees, and with few other deciduous tree species. They have several adaptations that allow them to thrive in these environments. These include a flattened leaf petiole, which reduces drag during high winds, protecting the branches and trunks from damage. They also drop their leaves in the winter, preventing damage from heavy snows that are common in these regions. They have photosynthetic bark, which allows the tree to grow even without leaves!

Aspens have a unique rhizomatic root system, which means that they grow in colonies derived from a single seedling. The colony expands through root suckers, allowing new trees to grow anywhere from 98-131 feet away from the original tree. The root system lives longer than any individual tree- while a tree may live from 40-150 years, the aspen root systems can endure for thousands of years under the right conditions. A healthy aspen root system is often indicative of ancient woodlands. There is one colony in Utah, called Pando, that is believed to be 80,000 years old, possibly the oldest living aspen colony. These root systems allow the colonies to survive forest fires, due to the roots being below ground.

Aspen seedlings have difficulty growing in the shade, and a new seedling can have difficulty growing in an already established colony. Aspens are a popular forestry cultivation species, due to their fast growth and ability to regenerate from sprouts.

Recently there has been a phenomenon known as “sudden aspen death”, which is the rapid decline of aspen populations in certain areas. There are a number of factors which may contribute to this phenomenon. Climate change is one, due to exacerbated droughts and modified precipitation patterns. Overgrazing can also contribute, as it prevents new trees from coming up from the root system. Replacement by coniferous trees can also pose a challenge to aspens.

Aspen bark is a crucial host for bryophytes due to its base rich nature. They also act as food plants for butterfly larvae. The bark is a seasonal forage for the European hare and other animals, especially in early spring. Beavers, moose, deer, and elk also feed on this tree, both the bark and the leaves.

Wyoming Paintbrush

The Wyoming Paintbrush is an unusually tall member of the figwort family, with narrow, green leaves, scarlet tube shaped flowers, and colorful stems, ranging from green-grey to crimson to purple. As you can imagine, this variety of colors really makes this flower stand out in a landscape, which explains the name! The Wyoming paintbrush lives in moist areas, but is drought tolerant.

While beautiful, this plant is semi-parasitic. The Wyoming paintbrush penetrates other plants with its roots, stealing nutrients and water. It is thought that American Indians in the area used the plant for healing purposes- specifically as a blood purifier and to treat nosebleeds.

The Wyoming Paintbrush is widely spread in the park, so you will likely spot one nearly anywhere you go. The most common growing areas are along trails and roadsides. They often grow among manzanita, bitterbrush, and sagebrush plants.

Western Iris

The western iris is a beautiful wildflower, boating blue to violet blooms with yellow marking the center of each petal. They have sword shaped leaves, and prefer moist soil for growing. While this plant is beautiful, don’t be fooled by its appearance- the western iris is poisonous. Its leaves have a high concentration of irisin, which is poisonous to both livestock and people.

The western iris is most commonly found in open, grassy meadows in the park, usually in higher elevations. In drier years, your best chance of spotting them is in the Tropic Reservoir.

Many-Flowered Stoneseed

As you can probably guess, the many-flowered stoneseed is named for the numerous yellow flowers that it grows. They are trumpet shaped and droop from the plant. The stoneseed has slightly hairy leaves that are light to medium green. The seeds give this plant the second part of its name. They are hard, shiny, and white, resembling stones. This plant was used by Native Americans to make purple dye for clothing and feathers.  You can find the many-flowered stoneseed throughout the park. Look out for them at trails, roadsides, and tree lines.

Park History

Bryce Canyon National Park has a rich history.

Here is a brief overview of the most important moments in the history of the park.

Native American Habitation

Archeological surveys have shown that the Bryce Canyon area, including the Paunsaugunt Plateau,  has been inhabited for at least ten thousand years, though little is known about these earliest inhabitants. There have been Basketmaker Anasazi artifacts found south of the park that are several thousand years old. There have also been other artifacts found, mostly from the Pueblo-Period Anasazi and the Fremon culture.

After these cultures left the area, the Paiute Indians moved into the surrounding valleys. The Paiute were primarily hunter-gatherers, with some cultivated foods to supplement their diet. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are heavily featured in the mythology of the Paiute. They believed that the Hoodoos were the Legend People, turned to stone by the trickster Coyote. The hoodoos were known as Anka-ku-was-a-wits, or “red painted faces”.

European-American Exploration and Settlement

The first European settlers reached the Bryce Canyon area in the late 18th and early 19th century. The first visitors were Mormon scouts in the 1850s, who examined the area for its potential agricultural uses. The first major expedition was led by Major John Wesley Powell, in 1872. This group surveyed the Sevier and Virgin River area. The mapmakers in this expedition kept many of the original Paiute names. This expedition was followed by a group of Mormon pioneers, who settled east of Bryce Canyon along the Praia River.

Bryce Canyon received its name from a Scottish immigrant, Ebenezer Bryce. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent Bryce and his wife, Mary, to settle in the Praia valley. They settled directly below Bryce Amphitheater, and grazed cows in the area. Bryce built a road to the plateau to retrieve supplies, and dug a canal to irrigate crops and water his animals. He was so influential in the development of the area that it was referred to as “Bryce’s Canyon”.

The Paiute left the area due to drought, overgrazing, and flooding. Settlers took over the area, attempting to build a water diversion channel, which ultimately failed. Many of the settlers, including the influential Bryce Family, left the area after this attempt.

Creation of the Park

In 1916, the public first became aware of the scenic beauty of the Bryce Canyon through magazine articles published by Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. While these descriptions, as well as promotion from influential individuals like Forest Supervisor J.W. Humphrey, sparked interest in the area, visitation was still at a bare minimum. The area was very remote, and lack of transportation and accommodations dissuaded many potential visitors.

The accommodations niche was filled by Ruby Syrett, Harold Bowman, and the Perry brothers, who built lodging and set up touring services in the Canyon area. This addition increased visitation. The increased interest caused the Union Pacific Railroad to expand rail service into southwestern Utah in the early 1920s.

Around this time, conservationists became concerned about the effect overgrazing, logging, and visitation are having on the canyon. They moved to protect the area. Park Service Director Stephen Mather proposed that Bryce Canyon become a state park. The governor of Utah was not satisfied with this, and lobbied for national protection. In response, Bryce Canyon was declared a national monument on June 8th, 1923 by President Warren G. Harding.

Shortly after this declaration, in 1924, members of Congress began work on upgrading the status of Bryce Canyon to a national park. On February 25, 1928, Bryce Canyon National Park was established.

Land continued to be added to Bryce Canyon National Park in the following years, bringing the total park acreage to 35,835 acres. Park administration was conducted through Zion National Park until 1965, when the first superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park took their post.

Geology

Bryce Canyon is full of unique geological features- and those features give scientists a look into the formation of the park

Here are the most important things to know about the park’s geology.

The exposed geology of Bryce Canyon provides a unique and in depth look at the geological history of the area. It shows a record of deposition, beginning in the last part of the Cretaceous Period and the first half of the Cenozoic era. Dakota Sandstone and Tropic Shale were deposited from the warm shallow sea, known as the Cretaceous Seaway. Other sediment contributing to the Claron Formation that you see in the park’s amphitheaters were deposited by cooler streams and lakes.

Over the years, formations were created and eroded away by the uplift from the Laramide orogeny, starting 70 million years ago. This is the event that formed the Rocky Mountains. The Bryce Canyon area was stretched into the high plateaus around 15 million years ago. Following this, uplift of the Colorado Plateaus 5 million years ago altered the drainage of the Colorado River and the Praia River. The Praia River contributed to the erosion that formed the Bryce Canyon and the hoodoos, badlands, and monoliths in the park today.

The exposed formations in the park are some of the largest draws to the area. The Grand Staircase is a supersequence of rock units that stretches miles. You see only the newest layers in Bryce Canyon, with the oldest members in the Grand Canyon.

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