North America

Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks

Thor Hammer, Bryce Canyon, Utah
Photo credit: Davey Nin on Flickr

Masterpieces of erosive scenery caused Bryce Canyon and Zion to be established as Utah’s first two National Parks. The pink spires of Bryce and the red canyon walls of Zion, both colored by iron oxide, attract visitors from all over the world.

Let’s consider them one at a time, starting with Bryce, and then we’ll touch on Scenic Byway Highway 12, between Bryce to Capitol Reef, the next park to the east. On that eastern road, Escalante is a good base of operation. In the western sector, between Bryce and Zion, Cedar City would be a choice location from which to begin your adventures.

Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is in southwestern Utah, 268 miles from Las Vegas and 363 miles from Salt Lake. The fastest route is along U.S. Highway 15 and then Highways 20, 89, and 12.

 

 

The 35,840-acre terrain of Bryce Canyon is one of Utah’s most inviting National Parks for the study of wildlife and plants. The park is on a high plateau running north-south, gradually rising in elevation from 8,000 feet to 9,100 feet. The northern half of the plateau is a vast grassland in a ponderosa pine forest. Here you’ll see hundreds of deer grazing on a typical evening. The southern half of the plateau, higher in elevation, is a mixed forest of Douglas fir, blue spruce, and aspen. At the southern tip of the plateau, there are even examples of the famous bristlecone pines, within easy walking distance. The bristlecone pines have been core dated as the oldest living things on the earth, known to survive for as long as 4,500 years. (The bristlecone in Bryce are old, but not as old as the oldest specimens, which are in the White Mountains of eastern California.)

Once you arrive at Bryce Canyon, turn south on Highway 63, the road that enters the park. You pass several lodging and camping places, such as Ruby’s. Within the park there is rustic Bryce Canyon Lodge, which has several new motel-type units, plus attractive

Ruby’s is a multi-faceted and historic operator of services at the north edge of the park. Ruby’s offers all services, such as lodging, dining, horseback riding, camping (including in teepees), RVing, and even entertainment (nightly cowboy-music-with-dinner performance at the Ebenezer Barn & Grill). The word Barn rather than Bar is a humorous nod to a historic fact. Cattle rancher Ebenezer Bryce owned this land before Bryce Canyon became a National Park. Ruby’s Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel is the most modern facility in the area.

Stop first at the Visitor Center and ask a ranger to orient you to the park, and be sure to get a detailed park map. Because all of the major vistas are facing the east, one pattern for visiting the park is to drive the 18-mile length of the road and then start at the southern end with a look at the vistas, proceeding north with a stop at each notable turnout. The terrain you explore at Bryce is actually an amphitheater rather than a canyon.

Both dawn and afternoon light offer times to see the erosive splendor, with the two hours before sunset especially spectacular. However, morning or mid-day light presents some of the pink spires just below the cliff edges, which are shaded in late afternoon.

One special Park Service ranger talk to experience is star gazing discussions, given at night. Bryce Canyon is a particularly good place to enjoy stargazing because of the altitude, clear skies, and total lack of city lights, which obscure the night sky in more urban locations.

Because of the compact size of Bryce Canyon and the roadway leading to the major vistas, you can see the park in a half day if you want simply to look at all the vistas. However, you could easily spend a week here if you wish to hike the trails or study the natural environment. The park offers an active program of naturalist-led hikes. There are also 35 miles of backcountry trails with backpacking camps for the energetic. The hiking takes place at high altitudes, 8000-9000 feet, so be aware of the need to pace yourself as your body adjusts to the altitude. Always go easy the first few days at high altitudes.

History of Bryce Canyon National Park

Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Photo credit: Davey Nin on Flickr

The primary story at Bryce is geologic rather than human. The average visitor, gazing at the pink limestone pinnacles and cliffs, asks the simple question: how were these formed?

The rock of Bryce is younger than rock of other national parks in Utah. Youth to the geologist is an unimaginable span to the layperson. About 60 million years ago sea-level basins covered the Bryce area. This body of water, which geologists call Lake Flagstaff, changed in size and shape over time, sometimes forming a single lake and sometimes several. Rivers and streams carried sediment into Lake Flagstaff. The stones of Bryce were laid – as sediment – a grain at a time when seas and sand dunes covered Utah. Pressure and lime in the mineral mix bonded the particles into rock. Sometimes layers of harder rock, especially the limestone, ended up on top of softer rock, mainly sandstone.

The animals that visitors to Bryce see most frequently are deer, which feed in large numbers on the grasslands. The physical setting of the grasslands and the presence of game invite comparison with Yellowstone, but at Yellowstone the kinds of big game are more varied. Within Bryce there remains a small, stable number of mountain lions, or cougars. A cougar in its prime can cull out as many as 50 deer per year from the herd. The old, sick, and weak deer are the first to be killed.

Beyond the cougar and deer cycle, another major food chain starts with the large rodent population, which supports a vigorous night-hunting weasel, coyote, ring-tail cat, skunk, and gray fox cluster of predators.

In the far-distant past of 12,000-15,000 years ago there is evidence that primitive gathering clans of Indians preyed upon mammoths, including camels, horses, and giant sloths. They were migratory peoples who survived also from seed-gathering.

Paiute and Ute Indians hunted these upper regions in more recent centuries. Game is plentiful amidst the grasslands at the base of the ponderosa pines, lords of the forests. The ponderosa pines are spaced with a stately distance between them to allow for adequate water. In the light that filters through, much grass and many shrubs are able to grow. Sagebrush flourishes and proliferates because it is too bitter for browsing animals to find inviting.

The Paiute word for Bryce translates as “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped canyon.” The intrepid John Wesley Powell, of Colorado River fame, accomplished the first scientific survey of the Bryce region. Mormon pioneers in the 1880s grazed cattle and sheep heavily at Bryce while a few visionaries pushed for National Park status. Mormon cattle rancher Ebenezer Bryce gave his name to the place, but his only surviving comment about the region is that it was “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

With the coming of the automobile age and a passable road to Bryce Canyon, the tourism traffic began. Bryce Canyon is a year-round park, with cross-country skiers using the trails in winter.

Main Attractions of Bryce Canyon National Park

Every viewpoint along the Bryce Canyon park road offers lovely vistas. Close to the north entrance, one good option for dawn viewing of the parade of sunrise light creeping along the rock is at Bryce Point. Bryce Point also has a good example of a bristlecone pine tree, clearly marked for identification. The Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point is a popular place for a steep descent into the rock formations. Hikers need to realize that they are above 7,000 feet altitude. Every step down will later require a step up. Consider doing a hike early in the day before the sun becomes intense. Be sure to carry plenty of water. Sunset views are particularly lovely at Fairyland Point and Paria View.

If you have time for only one view, go to Bryce Point at the north end of the park and gaze out at the erosive majesty in front of you.

If you have more leisure time, start at Rainbow Point, the southern end of the drive and work your way north. You will see many striking panoramas of pink cliffs and forests. At Rainbow Point you can take a short hike to below the rim or a somewhat longer hike to see more bristlecone pines.

There are several other vistas and views to explore such as Ponderosa, Agua Canyon, Natural Bridge and Farview …

Zion National Park

Zion National Park, Utah
Photo credit: Jankgo on Flickr

Zion National Park is a complement to Bryce Canyon. Allow a day minimum to explore the wonders of this magnificent national treasure, which was declared a national park in 1918. The park is about an hour’s drive from Cedar City, which many visitors use as their base for exploring both Zion and Bryce.

Today Zion is one of the more visited U.S. parks, attracting almost three million people each year.

Zion has implemented a shuttle bus for travel within the southern part of the park from April to November, allowing you to hop on and hop off at determined points. Private cars are not allowed during these months. Without cars, but with dependable shuttles arriving every 10 minutes, the visitor experience is superior, due to the quiet and absence of congestion.

There is one road in and out of the southern part of the park. Park your car at the Visitor Center or in the small town of Springfield at the southern entrance and catch the shuttle into the park. Stop at the Visitor Center for an introduction and then proceed to the Zion Human History Museum for your first stunning views as well as an orientation to the early Indian and Mormon pioneer legacy. Approximately 10,000 years of human habitation have been documented in the park, starting with paleo-Indians hunting woolly mammoths. The view from behind the Human History Museum is a taste of numerous visual treats to come. Names for the landforms, such as West Temple and Altar of Sacrifice, suggest the biblical passion that the early Mormon pioneers brought to the landscape. The word Zion itself suggests that the terrain possesses a heavenly and otherworldly beauty.

One good strategy for exploring the park is to take the shuttle all the way to the end of the road at Temple of Sinawa and start by walking along the Virgin River. Then work your way south, pausing at each shuttle stop to enjoy the views. Gradually, work your way south to Zion Lodge, a good place to pause for lunch. In warm weather, get an early morning start to hike in the canyon before noon, by which time the heat and the beating sun can be formidable. In Zion you are at about 4,000 feet, as opposed to 8,000 feet at Bryce, so the temperature will be higher. Also, in Zion you are at the bottom of the canyon looking up. In Bryce you are at the top of the ridge looking into an amphitheater of varied landform features.

Here are the highlights to savor at the named shuttle stops:

At Temple of Sinawava there are stunning views of the red rock walls arising on both sides of the Virgin River. A paved path leads a mile up the canyon and then ends, allowing you to proceed walking in the river itself.

At Big Bend, the purpose of the stop is the view. There are no trails. The view is of the Great White Throne, an imposing white monolith, one of the iconic visual elements of the park.

Weeping Rock is one of the most popular and fascinating stops because of all the flora and fauna that flourish when abundant water is present. In a compact space you can see a range of the 900 plants found in the park. Rain percolates down through the red Navajo sandstone, but then may hit an impervious layer of shale. When that happens, as at Weeping Rock, the water moves sideways and oozes out of the canyon wall. The dripping wall has a multicolored beauty and hosts such water-loving plants as maidenhair fern. Wildflowers are numerous, one of which is the Colorado columbine. Birdlife is abundant, from robins to black-chinned hummingbirds.

The Grotto is a pleasing stop because here the river valley widens to host a cottonwood forest. You can walk out to the river and stand on a bridge, giving you a perspective above the water. The Grotto is a starting point for a strenuous but popular hike to a high point known as Angels Landing.

At Zion Lodge there is a hike across the road to the Emerald Pools, which starts with a bridge across the Virgin River, offering another pleasing view of the river and lovely cottonwood trees. An enormous cottonwood on the lawn in front of Zion Lodge shows just how large these trees can grow when they receive optimal water. Zion Lodge provides a full spectrum of services, such as lodging, dining, and horseback rides. If you lodge at Zion Lodge, you will receive a permit allowing you to drive your car into this central park location and park it there during your stay. After an ambitious morning of scenic viewing and hiking, it is possible to relax in the upstairs air-conditioned lounge at Zion Lodge with a chilled glass of hand-crafted pale ale. Because this is Utah, you must order food with your drink, but chips and salsa will suffice to satisfy the legal requirements.

If looking for an ideal place to witness the setting sun on the red rocks in Zion, consider Kolob Canyon, a remote wilderness section in the northwest corner of the park. Kolob Canyon has its own entrance road. In the final hour before sunset, this canyon is aglow as the sun lights up the red Navajo sandstone into vibrant rust reds. Kolob Canyon has some of the reddest rocks in the park, due to the high concentration of iron oxide. Drive in to the end of the road to enjoy the most compelling viewpoint. This road in Zion always allows private cars. Kolob Canyon immerses you in a wilderness terrain with relatively little human presence. About 80 percent of Zion is officially classified as wilderness. For solitude and contemplation, far from the maddening crowd, Kolob Canyon is outstanding. Although Zion is the seventh most-visited national park in the U.S., only between 6 to 8 percent of those visitors get to Kolob Canyon.

Not all the attractions of the Zion area are within the park. One popular but strenuous hike nearby is the Kanarra Creek Falls hike up a “slot” canyon. Slot is the term used to describe the narrow and twisting red-rock canyons that have been carved, over time, by the flow of streams. This hike goes through knee-deep water as you scramble over rocks and walk up the stream or adjacent trails. One waterfall can be passed only if you climb up a log ladder. For the physically fit, this slot canyon hike offers exceptional aesthetic value as the light filters through the rock and tree landscape.

Cedar City as a Base for Exploration

Cedar City and St. George are the two substantial cities in the southwest region of Utah. Cedar City has a fly-in airport, but most visitors tend to fly into Las Vegas, to the west, and rent a car for the drive east to the national parks area. A scheduled shuttle runs from the Las Vegas airport to St. George. A local shuttle can take you from St. George to Cedar City. Cedar City is known for its cultural assets, such as the Frontier Homestead State Park, which presents the Mormon pioneering heritage. Cedar City’s Utah Shakespeare Festival offers an eight-play season each June-September. Three of the selections are from Shakespeare. There is one musical. The other four plays are classic plays or theatrical adaptations, ranging from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A festive pre-performance “Green Show” draws a family crowd, outdoors and adjacent to the theatre.  Cedar City is conveniently near the two great parks, Zion and Bryce Canyon, making it a plausible base for exploring on day trips.

Scenic Byway Highway 12 to Capitol Reef via Escalante

The descent on Highway 12 to Capital Reef, Utah
Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek

Besides the great national parks themselves, the scenic drive between them is a subject unto itself, especially Scenic Byway 12, along 124 miles of Highway 12, mainly between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. Consider this drive and be sure to visit the town of Escalante. The road is a designated National Scenic Byway, with many appealing red rock close-ups of Navajo sandstone rock as well as sweeping geology-rich vistas of the “staircase” of mountain ranges. At some of the frequent roadside scenic turnoffs, you can view for some 50 miles. Highway 12 skirts the immense Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, set aside in 1996 during the Bill Clinton presidency. The National Monument’s size is difficult to grasp, dwarfing the national parks themselves. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is about 1.9 million acres. Another 300,000 adjacent acres are national forest lands.

In this immense landscape there are many competent, small-scale, mom-and-pop-scale providers of services for a traveler. You could base yourself in Escalante for a few days and explore the countryside. For a one-of-a-kind lodging, consider staying at Mark Gudenas’s Shooting Star Drive In, where you bunk in classic Airstream trailers, complete with outdoor barbecue decks, and spend the evening at a re-created drive-in watching classic movies from the 1940s-1960s while seated in vintage convertibles. Perhaps the movie of the night will be Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Each of the Airstream trailers is devoted to memorabilia from a noted silver-screen actor, such as John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe.

You could devote several days in Escalante to various outings.  For the first day, consider a horseback ride with local wrangler Jamie Barnson and his son Cash to a high meadow area, called The Gap. You climb the mountain on horseback through ponderosa pine and aspen forests and emerge in a high meadow with spectacular views in all directions. On another day, you might rent local resident Dale Henrie’s jeep and do some nearby off-roading with his hand-drawn GPS-enabled maps. To stay on paved roads, consider the scenic “backway” (the main road is the scenic byway, some offshoots are called scenic backways) from the town of Boulder east to Capitol Reef on the Burr Trail Road. After 66 miles of pavement, you will hit gravel and can continue if you feel inclined. On a third day in Escalante, you might walk the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park’s steep, one-mile loop trail to enjoy compelling vistas and observe the extensive petrified wood strewn along the path.

The small town of Escalante, founded in 1867 by Mormon pioneers and now home to 800 people, also hosts the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center, where a traveler can get information from all the various government entities managing the region, such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In town, Escalante Outfitters offers a range of services. They have a gourmet restaurant specializing in sourdough crust pizzas with Utah-ingredient toppings, such as goat cheese and smoked trout. They also have log cabins for rent, a package liquor store (wine and beer sales are tightly controlled in Utah), and an outdoor gear shop. Escalante Outfitters can guide you on their own fly-fishing trips for catch-and-release trout, especially the native Colorado cutthroat, and arrange trips with other providers, such as for horseback riding. They also host natural history outings and emphasize “quiet use” encounters with the landscape, where a walk rather than an ATV is the encouraged mode. Outings from Escalante often proceed to the high meadow country of the 11,000-foot Aquarius Plateau, the highest forested plateau in North America.

For a satisfying adventure in Southern Utah, immerse yourself in the two great national parks, Bryce and Zion, and add a drive on scenic Highway 12 if you have the time.

If You Go …

Most visitors drive their own car or a rental car arranged at airports in Las Vegas, Salt Lake, or Cedar City within the region.

For information about the two National Parks, see the official Park Service Websites for Bryce at nps.gov/brca and Zion at nps.gov/zion

The official Utah Tourism Website is visitutah.com

The overall state tourism office is utah.com

The official Cedar City Website is scenicsouthernutah.com

A main organizer of lodging and activities along Highway 12 is the Shooting Star Drive-In at shootingstardrive-in.com

And … Have a great time

Award-winning travel writer Lee Foster

Lee Foster is an award winning veteran travel journalist. He has won awards for travel writing and photography from SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) and BATW (Bay Area Travel Writers). He has also published 10 travel-related books, including his newest The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and The Photographer’s Guide to Washington, D.C.

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All content © 2014 Sarah Eaglesfield unless otherwise noted