Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah isn’t a canyon, but a series of carved out natural amphitheaters. It’s known for the colorful formations of hoodoos, fins and natural bridges. Visitors find numerous things to do at Bryce Canyon like viewing the vast landscape from the overlooks along the Scenic Drive, photographing the stunning scenery and hiking the trails to get a close-up view of the stone structures.
Here’s a quick geology lesson about Bryce Canyon. The creation of the formations begins with rain water seeping into cracks in the rock. The nights are cold at Bryce Canyon due to the high elevation. The water that found its way into the stone cracks freezes, expands and breaks the rock apart. The narrow ‘fins’ in the canyon are created by rain and snow melt running down the slopes from the rim of the canyon. Further erosion in the fins creates holes or ‘windows’, and as they grow large they collapse and create the hoodoo towers.
To avoid lines at the entrance gate and congestion at the parking lots, arrive before 8 am or after 3 pm. Enjoy the overlooks and trails during the early morning and evening with less crowds and when the light is best for photography.
During the summer, there is only one parking space for every four cars. Use the free shuttle so you don’t waste time waiting in lines or fighting traffic. The following holidays and weekends are very busy:
Easter week (date varies: in late March or April)
Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
Labor Day (first Monday in September)
Utah Education Association break (dates vary: usually mid-October)
Don’t forget to purchase the US National Park Pass – it’s a good deal!
We recommend you begin your visit with the Scenic Drive viewpoints then visit the Amphitheater Viewpoints. Start at Rainbow Point at the southern end of the road. When you begin at Rainbow Point, all overlook stops will be on your right so you avoid left turns on a busy and winding road.
The Scenic Drive main road is 18 miles one way. The scenery and geological formations dramatically change as you drive from Rainbow Point to the Amphitheater.
At the visitors center the elevation is about 8,000 feet. The elevation at Rainbow Point is 1,100 feet higher. Along the drive you may notice the trees change from ponderosa pine to spruce, fir, and aspen. On a clear day, you can see 100 miles in all directions from the viewpoints.
The combined parking area for Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point is where the Scenic Drive ends. Look down into Rainbow Canyon and see a colorful scene of hoodoos.
The Bristlecone Loop Trail takes you to an 1,800-year-old bristlecone pine. This tree is believed to be one of the oldest living things at Bryce Canyon.
PHOTO TIP: The light around Rainbow Point at the southern end of the park is best from mid afternoon through sunset.
We didn’t realize you access the Yovimpa Point trail from the Rainbow Point parking lot. Learn from our mistake.
A short, paved walkway takes you past the picnic area to one of the best spots to see the “steps” which give the Grand Staircase its name.The top step is where you are standing, the Pink Cliffs. The next step is the Gray Cliffs then the White Cliffs. On a clear day, you can see 85 miles to the south, the Kaibab Plateau which is part of the Grand Canyon.
PHOTO TIP: Sunset at Yovimpa Point is serene and calm, making you feel you are the last person on Earth.
The first stop after Rainbow/Yovimpa point is an unnamed viewpoint a short distance to the north.
Black Birch Canyon overlook is a roadside pullout. From here, look to your right and you can see Rainbow Point where you just were.
There will be another unnamed viewpoint after Black Birch before you reach the next official stop.
From the Ponderosa Canyon overlook you can see views to the north and south, some hoodoos and huge Ponderosa Pines on the canyon floor. Some of the trees in the canyon are over 150 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter, which is hard to see from the top of the canyon.
Don’t be confused by the name. The trees along the overlook are Blue Spruce and Douglas-fir, but the name references the Ponderosa you can see down below.
The color contrasts in the earth at Agua Canyon are some of the best in the park. Be sure to look for the two prominent hoodoos named The Hunter (with a hat of evergreens) and The Rabbit, just to the right.
PHOTO TIP: The hoodoos and fins along the right of the Agua Canyon overlook are best photographed during early morning light.
Technically, Natural Bridge is an arch. It is one of the most popular stops on the scenic drive.
PHOTO TIP: Mid-morning light is best when photographing Natural Bridge. The sun will illuminate the features around the arch and bounce light onto the underside. Stay behind the railing as you search for vantage points to photograph the arch. The green Ponderosa trees are a nice pop of color through the arch.
From Farview Point you can see sweeping panoramas, which makes it the perfect name. Take the dirt path several hundred feet north to Piracy Point. At this point you can see two buttes that look like a pair of ships engaged in a battle at sea.
Drive carefully from Farview Point to Swamp Canyon as there are steep grades, sharp curves and mule deer in this area.
Ponderosa Pines line the forest between the walls of red rock in Swamp Canyon.
The most concentrated grouping of hoodoos is found in The Amphitheater section of Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Point offers one of the most scenic vistas of the hoodoo-filled amphitheater. You can see the rich colors of the Boat Mesa to the north and east. This location is also a popular birding spot.
PHOTO TIP: Bryce Point is known for extraordinary sunrise photos because the tops of the hoodoos glow with light. The light at this overlook is good throughout the day as well.
The view from Inspiration Point is awe-inspiring. The light creates glowing colors of reds, oranges, and pinks to illuminate the fins, spires and hoodoos. At sunrise you may have the overlook to yourself. This is another wonderful spot for wildlife and bird watching.
PHOTO TIP: Inspiration Point is the best location for panoramic photography. Be sure to explore beyond the designated overlook. Walk along the Rim Trail to find the perfect composition you imagine.
WARNING! The cliffs of Inspiration Point are exceptionally dangerous and it’s important that you remain on trails and behind railings.
Some of the most dramatic and breathtaking of Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos are found at Sunset Point.
The famous Silent City is a close grouping of hoodoos and fins directly below the point and to the south.
Thor’s Hammer is one of the most well-known formations at Bryce Canyon. It’s just below the overlook on the northern edge, but it’s best viewed along the Navajo trail.
If you want to see the hoodoos up close, the Navajo-Queen’s Garden Trail is the best hike to do this. If you don’t want to do the complete loop trail, at least go down the Navajo trail far enough to see Thor’s Hammer and other interesting formations up close.
Sunrise Point offers a view to the northeast of Boat Mesa and the Sinking Ship. The easy to moderate Queen’s Garden Trail begins at this point and descends into the Queen’s Garden and the famous Queen Victoria hoodoo. This viewpoint is the end point for the Navajo-Queen’s Garden Trail, one of the most popular hikes in the Park.
Fairyland Canyon is geologically much younger than the main Bryce amphitheater area so the hoodoo clusters are fewer and more subtle. The 8 mile Fairyland Loop Trail takes you through hoodoos, a hoodoo graveyard of eroded clay mounds, a spur trail to Tower Bridge and offers the best chance to see wildlife such as mountain lions, fox and bobcat. This hike is considered strenuous due to the length and multiple elevation changes along the trail.
The Mossy Cave trail is not accessible along the main road into the park. You must take Highway 12 past Bryce Canyon. Mossy Cave is not a cavern but a grotto created by an underground spring. You will either see a large overhang filled with moss, or filled with giant icicles depending on the season. Go back to the main trail to access the waterfall.
What!? A chocolate milk river and waterfall!?
We experienced a unique occurrence along the Mossy Cave trail one wet, rainy April where it seemed the water had turned to chocolate milk!
The muddy water was fun to photograph, but reminded us how important it is to understand the terrain and weather of the location you visit. Flash flooding in Southern Utah is a serious concern during rainy weather. (Dave learned the hard way in his story about the Flooded Patrol Car.)
We rely on our Camera Gear Checklist to make sure that all necessary, and possibly needed, equipment is packed in our camera bag ready to go. We recommend the following items to photograph Bryce Canyon National Park:
Headlamp – For the best sunrise shots, you must arrive at your designated location well before the sun rises, which usually means total darkness. Wearing a headlamp allows you to be hands free to set up your equipment. A red light headlamp is best. Be sure to keep the beam pointed on the ground in front of you so your light doesn’t disturb other photographers in the area taking long exposure shots.
Keep Body and Camera Warm – Due to the high elevation, Bryce Canyon gets very cold after the sun goes down, even during the summer. The cold can drain camera batteries fast so be sure to cover the camera when you are not using it. Also keep a spare set of batteries close to your body. Layers, hats, gloves and hand warmers are important to keep you warm as well.
Sunrise – Anywhere along the rim of the Bryce Amphitheater is a dramatic place to watch the sunrise. Most of these overlooks and canyons face east so you will be shooting into the sun at sunrise. Watch as the formations in the canyon produce a soft, warm glow of reflected light. Use a tripod and remote shutter release during this low light time in order to get a blur-free photo.
Focus on Details – As the sun rises, the distant vistas become washed out. But reflected light continues through late-morning. This is the best time to focus on the hoodoos, fins, windows and trees in the canyon. Be creative with framing and composition by utilizing the rock holes, tunnels, windows and between cliffs.
Afternoon and Sunset – Beginning late afternoon as the sun sets, shadows are cast into the canyon and light is only apparent on the tops of the hoodoos. If there are clouds in the sky, they may reflect light into the canyon and reduce the shadows. Otherwise, focus on telephoto shots of the vast landscape from any viewpoint in the amphitheater during sunset.
The Golden Hour – The late dusk glow after sunset may provide a pastel pink and blue sky above the canyon. Remember the hoodoos still reflect light not seen by the human eye. Use a longer exposure time for the camera to capture images during this ideal time.
Here are the best options for accommodations close to Bryce Canyon.
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