Let me start off by saying I loved Bryce Canyon even more than I thought I would. Bryce Canyon National Park is about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Zion National Park, both of which are in southern Utah. People often visit both places during the same vacation because of their proximity to each other. However, while they may be only less than 2 hours apart, they are worlds apart in many other ways.
Zion National Park is a behemoth compared to Bryce Canyon National Park. Zion is 229.1 square miles while Bryce is 56 square miles. The main town outside of Zion, Springdale, also seems like a relatively “big city” compared to Bryce Canyon City, even though Springdale is still what most people would call a small town. Zion National Park has 18 trails, while Bryce Canyon has 9 day-hiking trails, 4 “easy,” 2 “moderate,” and 3 “strenuous.” Finally, the coloring of the rock formations is very different in Zion National Park compared to Bryce Canyon National Park. Zion has the prominent red rocks from iron in the rocks, while Bryce has lighter hues of red, orange, and white rocks and the famous hoodoos. Hoodoos are geological structures formed by frost weathering and stream erosion of the river and lake bed sedimentary rocks.
Advantages of Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park During the Winter
As I said in my post on hiking in Zion National Park in late winter, Bryce Canyon also has advantages of visiting during the off-season winter months. The most obvious advantage is there are less crowds during the winter than summer months. When we were at Bryce Canyon in late February, we saw maybe 10 or 15 people all day on the trails. I’m sure this would never happen during the summer months.
When we visited Bryce Canyon it had been snowing before we got there, and it snowed off and on the day we hiked there. I have to admit, I’m not a cold weather person at all. I grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and moved south to escape the cold as an adult. However, I absolutely loved hiking in Bryce Canyon in the winter. It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.
When I was planning my family’s vacation here, I came upon several blog posts and websites where people said the best time of year to visit Bryce Canyon is during the winter. While I haven’t been to Bryce Canyon during the summer and can’t compare, I will say it was absolutely stunning with the snow.
Disadvantages of Visiting Bryce During the Winter Months
The only real disadvantage I can see is the trails can be slick with icy patches. However, I was wearing my Merrell waterproof hiking shoes, which have good tread, but I didn’t wear YakTrax, crampons, or even use hiking poles and I never fell on the trails. Just be cautious and watch your footing.
Another disadvantage to some people could be the cold weather itself. Bryce Canyon is at a higher elevation than Zion National Park (it varies at Bryce from around 8000-9000 feet), so I knew it would be colder and I planned accordingly. I wore wool thermal underwear under waterproof and wind-proof pants and a warm shirt, all under a warm ski jacket with a hood, hat, scarf, and gloves so I was well-dressed for the weather. If you’re dressed for the weather, as you should be regardless of what time of year you go hiking, you’ll be fine.
Trails in Bryce Canyon
As I said earlier, Bryce Canyon National Park has 9 day-hiking trails. Many of them are fairly short, so you can easily combine them to make a longer hike. One of the more popular combinations is Queens Garden (1.8 miles) with Navajo Loop (1.3 miles). This allows views of Wall Street, Two Bridges, and Thor’s Hammer. You can also combine Navajo Loop (1.3 miles) and Peekaboo Loop (5.5 miles) trails into a figure-8 and get views through the heart of Bryce Amphitheater and see the Wall of Windows. This is all do-able in a day if you’re in good hiking shape but would be a bit too ambitious if you’re not used to hiking. For more information on the trails, the National Park Service has this.
Where to Stay and Eat
As I mentioned above, Bryce Canyon City is a small town, with limited options for lodging and dining. When we arrived around lunchtime, we had trouble finding a restaurant that was open and finally chose the restaurant in the Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn. For lunch, there actually is an extensive salad bar that’s pretty good. We also spent the night here, and the rooms are a bit outdated and in need of some TLC, but nonetheless they were clean, quiet, and within 15 minutes to the park. During summer months, there are shuttles running to the park, which you can pick up at Ruby’s Inn, or further down the road, closer to the park.
Bryce Canyon Lodge is only open late-March to early-November and also offers a restaurant, gift shop, cabins, and suites. Motel suites are open year-round. The Bryce Canyon Lodge dining room and General Store are open when the Lodge is open. Valhalla Pizzeria is open May 17-October 9. Other options for restaurants and lodging are in Bryce Canyon City, Tropic, Panguitch, and the Junction of Highway 12 and 89.
There are a couple of campgrounds, with only North Campground open year-round and Sunset Campground open late-March to early fall. You can find more information here. Tent sites are $20 per site per night and RVs are $30 per site per night. You’ll receive 50% off with the Golden Age & Golden Access pass, America the Beautiful Federal Lands Access pass, and America the Beautiful Federal Lands Senior pass, but not with any other pass.
How to Get to Bryce Canyon National Park
Although you could take an all-day tour from Las Vegas such as this one, which starts at $330 per person, you could easily rent a car in Las Vegas and drive here yourself. Driving distance from Las Vegas is 270 miles, or around 4 and a half hours. With a rental car, you could also visit Zion National Park on your way to Bryce Canyon, and these two parks are 78 miles or about an hour and 45 minutes apart. As I mentioned above, many people combine these two parks into one vacation.
What to Bring
Dress appropriately for the weather but remember it’s cooler here than other parts of southern Utah even in the heat of the summer because of the higher elevation. Even during the summer, bring a jacket just in case and depending on the season, dress in layers. July, August, and September is the rainy season here and afternoon thunderstorms occur most days.
Bring enough water and snacks to get you through several hours. There are water refill stations at the Shuttle Station, Visitor Center, General Store, North Campground, and Sunset Point.
You’ll want sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses year-round.
Bring a first-aid kid with Band-Aids, antiseptic, moleskin, and Ace wrap.
Bring the maps that they give you at the gate with you.
Don’t forget your receipt for re-entry or even better get an Interagency Annual Pass to allow access to all national parks for $80, good for 12 months from purchase.