By Dan Kidder
Nestled in the Soutwestern corner of the state of Utah is a well known National Park that attracts visitors from around the globe. Zion National Park attracts nearly 4.3 million visitors annually. But just 72 miles to the northeast is a lesser-known park with its own unique majestic beauty. Bryce Canyon is less visited landmark with only half the visitors each year as Zion, but word is starting to get out about the amazing hiking trails and natural wonder of the Bryce Hoodoos; majestic natural sandstone fingers that protrude from the valley floor below.
Bryce Canyon is located in the recently incorporated Bryce Canyon City. Established in 2007, the city is home to multiple hotels, restaurants, gift shops, and attractions, centered around the National Park just two miles to the south.
Visitors to Bryce Canyon have multiple options for accommodations in the local area, from off-park campgrounds with RV parking and hookups to authentic Native American teepee lodges with swimming pools and convenience stores to on-park campgrounds nestled among the tall pines to chain hotels and motels providing travelers of all budgets with rooms. There is even wide swaths of public land that allow dispersed camping for up to 16 days at a time, though these camps have frequent fire restrictions due to the dry desert climate.
To get the full Bryce experience, myself and Sportsman’s News Television videographer and producer Sam Staudt hit the road and paid a visit to this amazing attraction just 75 miles from our home base in Cedar City.
I had been to Bryce Canyon, or Bryce as it is referred to by locals, about 12 years before, on a visit to the area just prior to moving here from Washington, DC. At that time, there was no city, and very few hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. Sam just moved to Utah from Oklahoma, and this was his first visit to one of our National Parks.
The park itself surrounds a massive 35,000 acre canyon with sandstone pinnacles reaching skyward from the canyon floor 200 feet below. These spikes are called hoodoos and form through erosion and expansion and contraction caused by frost, which flakes off the sandstone in little bits each year. Several hiking trails and horse trails take visitors to the canyon floor below and are ranked by length and difficulty, to give visitors of all fitness capabilities an opportunity to visit the canyon floor and see the hoodoos from their base as they reach skyward.
To visit the canyon, you must pass through the gates at the park entrance and plop down your $30 per vehicle fee, $25 for a motorcycle, and $15 per person on a bus or on foot, for a seven-day pass. Or, you can utilize an America The Beautiful multi-agency annual pass.
We opted to camp inside the park at the North Campground, one of two campgrounds inside the park. The fee for camping here was another $30 per day. If you had a park pass, the fee was only $10 per day. Since the annual pass was $80 and we would be spending four days in the campground, it was actually cheaper to purchase the annual pass and take the discount for camping. By going this route, we saved $30 on our visit and now we have a pass that will allow us to visit all of the other parks in the National Park System, as well as many monuments and other public lands.
Payment of your visitor fees also gives you unlimited access to the park shuttles, which will deliver you to various trailheads, scenic overlooks, and park features.
Amenities in the park include a large visitor’s center with information on the local landscape, history of the canyon and the National Park, and a gift shop filled with all of the same kitschy Chinese made knicknacks as the off-park shops. There are also restrooms and maps of the park and surrounding area to be had here. Further into the park, there is a camp store with basic groceries at a premium price, a lodge with cabins and a restaurant, a horseback riding concession, showers for $2 per 8 minutes but with ample hot water, and a few hotel rooms at the visitor center’s Sunset Hotel. Well maintained roads wind through the park, but parking at the various scenic views, trailheads, and park services are at a premium. If you plan to visit another area of the park during the summer peak months, you may be better off using the shuttle to get there.
Outside of the park, there are a few options for supplies, but they are also more expensive than swinging by a full grocery store in Cedar City or St. George and stocking up before you get on the road to Bryce. In nearby Panguitch there is a small town grocery store. Along Route 12 into Bryce, there are a few restaurants and motels, and many of these have small stores, but they are much more expensive than a typical grocery store away from the tourist center. Just to the east of Bryce City is the town of Tropic, and they have a small, but very well stocked grocery store right on Rt. 12.
The main business in Bryce Canyon City proper is owned by Ruby’s Inn. There is the Ruby’s Campground, hotels, restaurants, and gift shops, all part of a massive sprawling complex that makes up the bulk of Bryce Canyon City. In 1916, Reuben C. (Ruby) Syrett brought his family to Southern Utah and established a ranch. Shortly after, locals told him of the natural wonder two-miles to his south. With permission from the government, Ruby built a Tourist Rest near the rim of the canyon, at the location of the current lodge. When the National Park Service designated Bryce Canyon as a National Monument in 1928, Ruby moved his business back to his ranch, opening an inn. From there, his business grew and Ruby’s Inn provides more than 500 rooms through Ruby’s Inn, the Best Western, the Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel and their other hotels and campgrounds in the complex that has become Bryce Canyon City. Ruby’s even provides a nightly rodeo during the summer months.
Bryce Canyon itself sits at the top of a vast National Monument called the Grand Staircase-Escalante. This 1.8 million acre area stretches from the Grand Canyon to the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau where Bryce Canyon is located. In the center of this is Zion National Park. The Grand Staircase is a majestic landscape that provides the world’s most complete sequence of sedimentary rock formations and showcases the process from deposit in vast lakes, to uplifting of the tectonic plates to erosion of this rock to reveal the distinct layers. In the late 1800s when Mormon pioneers settled the region to the early 1900s when the final maps of the United States and its territories were being drawn, the remote region was so little known that it contained the last blank space on the map, and near Bryce Canyon was the spot where the final expedition to map the last remaining uncharted area was finalized.
The Paunsaugunt Plateu is filled with wildlife, and the Paunsaugunt unit is one of the most coveted hunting units in the nation for trophy mule deer, with tags hard to draw and animals that grow to amazing sizes. While visiting Bryce, you will be visited by the park’s resident scavengers, little plump and greedy chipmunks. One managed to get in the open door of the truck while were setting up camp and within a minute or two found an unopened bag of peanut M&Ms and gnawed through the bag. We named him Beauregard and he became our constant companion when we were in camp. Other wildlife you might see include pronghorn antelope, which are in ample supply throughout the park, Steller’s jay, which is a blue jay with a black tuft of feathers on their head and black tipped wings, as well as mountain lions, and the Great Basin rattlesnake.
In addition to the fauna, there is a wide variety of beautiful flora such as Bronze evening primrose, the Utah state flower the Sego lily is abundant here, and the breathtaking Scarlet gilia that resembles bright red stars. While the terrestrial beauty is stunning, the celestial magnificence of the region is unparalleled. Minimal light pollution from Bryce Canyon City, coupled with proactive efforts in the park to minimize light bleed, allows the tremendous canvas of the night sky to showcase its stellar beauty on full display. The high altitude contributes to the darkness of the sky to reveal stunning detail and makes it an ideal area to scan the stars with a telescope. We even were paid a visit from a ranger, inviting us to a talk he was presenting on the moon in one of the many amphitheaters scattered around the park.
Every contact we had with park staff and volunteers was met with warmth and welcoming, and each and every employee we encountered seems very pleased to be working in such a beautiful surrounding. We even trailed behind one worker in the gentle rain shower that came as we finished our first hike, as she played her wood flute to the rain, the haunting melody rising up to meet the gentle raindrops as they descended upon us.
The campgrounds inside the park provide potable water, flush toilet, and spacious sites with parking for RVs or for tents. The North Campground has 107 sites and the Sunset Campground 109. Park hosts are always on duty, splitting shifts between several other hosts that frequently patrol the campground to ensure your serenity and take care of any maintenance needs. Dumpsters are located throughout the campground for easy disposal of trash. A picnic table and fire ring are provided in each site.
There are fifteen hiking trails at Bryce, each designated by difficulty level, length, and the amount of time they are expected to take. We chose for the first day to hike the Queen’s/Navajo Combination Loop, a mixture of two trails that overlap. The 2.9 mile trail is rated as a medium difficulty hike and estimated to take 2-3 hours. At the bottom, where the two trails meet, is a large flat ravine, where hikers pause to grab lunch or a break for their feet, before heading back up the trail to the rim. Along the trail we passed a hoodoo named for Queen Victoria and on the way back up, one named for Mjölnir but called simply Thor’s Hammer. As the landscape is in a constant state of flux, we were saddened to learn that one of the park’s most famous hoodoos, the Sentinel, had fallen earlier in the year and was no more. Along the trail are several natural bridges as well as some breathtaking vertical drops and soaring cliff faces above you. The trail is well maintained and easily passable. We even encountered some elderly folks with mobility assistance devices, and many small children.
On the next day, Sam opted to try for the hardest and longest hike in the canyon, the Fairyland Loop, which stretches 8 miles and is estimated to take 4-5 hours. He made it 6 miles before heading to the nearest shuttle stop and hitching a ride. I opted to use that time for a more practical pursuit; trout fishing.
About seven miles from Bryce Canyon is the idyllic Tropic Reservoir. The deep crystal clear water, ample shade, and remote location of this 29-foot deep, 180 acre lake is ringed with tall Ponderosas and aspen trees. There is a campground nearby as well as a small beach where people were playing and wading. Standup paddle boards, canoes, and tubes were dotting the placid lake surface. I spent about 3 hours casting various baits and lures before quickly landing two nice rainbows in a few minute span. I quickly released them back into the smooth waters and headed down the 4-mile long dirt road back to Rt. 12.
Just to the east of the turnoff for the reservoir is a true wonder that would be worth seeing anywhere on the planet. The Bryce Wildlife Adventure is a 14,000 square foot facility filled to the gills with some of the most realistic displays of wildlife you have ever seen. Robert Driedonks is a world renowned big game hunter and has taken trophies all over the globe. He has several records from Boone and Crockett, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and Safari Club International. The museum contains more animals than you can count, from large rams and the world’s largest alligator, to sheep, elk, deer, and more exotic species such as giraffe and zebra. Each exhibit is painstakingly detailed and has small animals like hummingbirds and bumblebees flitting around in the scene. No glass separates you from the more than 800 animals, so you can see each and every detail. The museum also houses more than 14,000 butterflies and moths, as well as other insects. A wide selection of African tribal weapons and musical instruments, as well as artifacts from local native Americans are also on display. It is well worth the $8 for adults and $6 for children 4-13 (under 3 years of age is free). The museum also offers group rates for tour groups and busses. Outside, Robert offers ATV and mountain bike rentals, and a petting zoo where you can feed mule deer.
With everything considered, gas, camping, admission, and a five-star meal at a world class restaurant, the total cost for the two of us was around $350. The biggest expense was the meal at Hell’s Backbone Grill. That story is in the sidebar and was an experience all on its own.
If you ever head to Southern Utah to tour Zion National Park, make sure you also take the journey to Bryce Canyon. Combined tours are available out of St. George, UT and Las Vegas that will take you to both parks on comfy motor coaches with a few hours in each park to hike and explore. The breathtaking views, the friendly park staff, and the remote darkness of the sky at night, all make Bryce Canyon a must-see destination on your wanderings.
A slice of Heaven in the middle of Hell
Hell’s Backbone Grill is the number one rated restaurant in the state of Utah. It is also listed as one of the top restaurants in the nation by Zagat. Those facts in and of themselves are not all that extraordinary. What stands out is that they have all of this going on and are located in a very remote slice of Utah with a population of 300 people, nearly a hundred miles from any other town. And the road to get there is a narrow strip of asphalt 500 feet above a deep canyon straight down on either side of you.
The restaurant itself has the appearance of a small summer bungalow and would not be out of place on a beach in Barbados or deep in the Himalaya Mountains. Screened porches, wide windows, and cobblestone walks, with meandering streams and delicate fountains surround the airy restaurant. Jezebel the cat lounges on the porch railing, providing company to diners as they enjoy the cool mountain breeze.
The restaurant was started by owners Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle, two transplants from Flagstaff, Arizona, who chose to open a culinary oasis in the midst of their favorite place on earth; the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
During our visit, we were serenaded by some special guests who are hosted each year by the restaurant and the attached Boulder Mountain Lodge. The Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Drepung Loseling monks were chanting their prayers over their evening meal, a simple soup served out of a variety of kitchen bowls, eaten in the dining room surrounded by those partaking of much more complex fare. These simple men of faith invited anyone who wished to join them, and were also crafting a delicate and intricate mandala out of colored sand as an expression of gratitude.
Initially, the journey to this out of the way place began with some bad intel. I had been told by a friend that the journey was only about 40 miles from Bryce Canyon. As we began to head down the winding road, we realized that it was closer to 75. Each way! The road was scenic and the views astounding and soon, we had arrived at our destination.
Hell’s Backbone Grill runs a 20-acre farm where much of their produce is grown. Most of their other ingredients comes from local farmers.
The food consisted of fresh vegetables, and natural meats blended in unique recipes that offered a glimpse of the complexity amidst the simplicity of preparation, and that really showed off the ingredients. Not to say the genius of the chef was absent, but the presentation really placed the emphasis on the food. Forty miles or 75, it is really irrelevant. If you ever go to Bryce Canyon, get in the car and go visit this excellent dining destination in the middle of nowhere. The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but at the end is chocolate chili mousse that is to die for.