Bryce Canyon National Park: History and Hoodoos in Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park

If I were limited to just one word to describe Bryce Canyon, it would be otherworldly.

Bryce Canyon just doesn’t fit the description of planet Earth. We’re a blue planet, boasting lush green landscapes and deep cobalt oceans under fluffy, white clouds, an anomaly in a galaxy where liquid water is a rare find. Bryce Canyon stands in direct, defiant contrast to that imagery. It is deep red, harsh, and jagged. It appears uninhabitable. It looks more like Mars than anything you might find on our planet.

Hiking trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
Hiking trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
Our visit to Bryce Canyon came at the end of a long day. We started our morning by departing Monument Valley en route to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, and from there we drove to into southwestern Utah to see the final National Park on our itinerary. We expected to spend just a few minutes taking photos before retiring to our hotel to rest up for the final leg of our Southwestern trip, a weekend in Las Vegas. Four hours later we had to tear ourselves away, agreeing that on a future trip we would commit much more time to exploring all the park has to offer. If you are thinking of a trip to Bryce Canyon—or wondering what makes it so special—here is what we loved the most during the time we spent there.

What is Bryce Canyon?

Bryce Canyon’s formation began some 70 million years ago, the magnificent result of a depositional environment in which sediments were layered on top of each other to form the geological features of the region. The rocks reflect hues not seen often enough on such an impressive scale; instead of the grays and browns you might expect, the colors run the spectrum from deep red to burnt orange to rosy pink. Patterns emerge as you look out at the landscape, and it’s easy to see how the millions of tiny sandstone and shale layers combine to share the region’s history.

When visiting Bryce Canyon, the most notable features you immediately recognize are the hoodoos. Hoodoos look a bit like stone towers, and they range in height with some being close to 10 stories tall. Hoodoos formed from the same sedimentary layers encircle the landscape, but they are softer and more susceptible to erosion. At Bryce Canyon, a process called frost wedging created the hoodoos responsible for the unique landscape. Bryce Canyon sits at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet, and that altitude means the region can experience close to 200 freezing and thawing cycles each year. During the day, water and snowmelt flow through the canyon, but at night the liquid freezes and expands, which forces the rocks to give way and leads to erosion. Thousands of years of this behavior created the thousands of hoodoos that dot the horizon and fill the canyon.

Bryce Canyon: a History of Habitation

There is evidence people lived in the area as early as 10,000 years ago; archaeologists have found items that likely belonged to the Anasazi tribe in what would have been one of their most northwestern homesteads. When the Anasazi moved on, the Paiute tribe moved in. Their legends about Bryce Canyon are some of the most interesting, with one tale proposing that the thousands of famous hoodoos were once people turned to stone by the mythical Coyote (often depicted as a deceptive swindler).

Viewing point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Viewing point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon gained recognition by explorers in the late 1800s when a mapmaking expedition led by Major John Wesley Powell surveyed the area. By then, Native American tribes had all but abandoned the region, but many of the Paiute’s names were retained and integrated into the maps Powell’s team created. The next group of settlers to call the canyon home was the Bryce family. In 1873, Ebenezer and Mary Bryce settled within what is now the national park after being sent to live there by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; church leaders believed Bryce’s carpentry skills would be beneficial when establishing a community. The Bryce family didn’t stay for long; the formidable extremes of drought paired with flooding drove all settlers (including the remaining Paiute tribe) out of the area and into more desirable locations within 10 years. Even though their time there was short, many settlers referred to the area as Bryce’s Canyon, and the name stuck.

By the early 1920s Bryce Canyon hosted a steady stream of tourists bolstered by a promotional campaign and train service that delivered visitors to Bryce Canyon’s doorstep. With interest in the area rising, concerns about enthusiastic travelers negatively impacting the canyon’s delicate features also started to climb. In response, the park’s infrastructure was improved by building roads and pathways to more easily accommodate tourists and encourage them to stay in designated areas. In 1928, the United States Congress voted to establish Bryce Canyon National Park, which afforded the area additional federal protections. Many of the roads that connect viewpoints within the National Park today are the same roads built for tourism close to a century ago.

What to See at Bryce Canyon

Whether you have a few hours or a few days, Bryce Canyon is full of incredible vistas that tell a story of geological wonder. Here are a few of our favorites.

Bryce Canyon Viewpoints
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park. One of the viewpoints is in the top left.
Inspiration Point. There is probably no more iconic view of Bryce Canyon than Inspiration Point. From any point along the three-tiered trail that runs along the canyon you will see the amphitheater filled with hoodoos that fade from warm pink to icy white. Start at the bottom of the trail and walk uphill toward the second and third levels, where you’ll be surprised by how elevation changes your perspective. It’s a bit of a steep walk, so if journeying past the first viewpoint seems unmanageable, you’ll be treated to plenty of magnificence without taking a single step more.

Sunrise Point. Sunrise Point glows brightest in the early morning hours (hence the name!), and if your journey takes you through Bryce Canyon at daybreak it’s a great first stop in include on your itinerary. From Sunset Point you’ll be treated to great views of the Sinking Ship and Boat Mesa, both of which are rock formations set in front of the Aquarius Plateau. When you stand there, feeling like some rocks are close enough to touch, remember perspective can be deceiving: the natural features you see are as far as 50 miles away from you.

Sunset Point. If Sunrise Point is the place to be when the sun rises, Sunset Point is the perfect place to experience twilight. The shadows cast by the setting sun give the hoodoos a more ghostly feel, and the amphitheater is stunning. It’s a great spot to see features such as Thor’s Hammer and Wall Street.

Bryce Point. The viewpoint named for Ebenezer Bryce is one of the most impressive, and you’ll enjoy sweeping views of Bryce Canyon at any time of day. Most visited at sunrise, when the rock colors are at their most vibrant, Bryce Point stands at an altitude of 8,300 feet and offers a great point to see many of the natural features that make the location so magical.

Bryce Canyon Features to Find

The Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park
The “Hoodoos” at Bryce Canyon National Park

By far the most popular Bryce Canyon feature, the amphitheater is the expansive area where you’ll see a huge collection of hoodoos. Visible from all viewpoints, the amphitheater is the image you’ll have in mind when you arrive—and the one that will be unforgettable when you leave.

Thor’s Hammer

One of the best known features at Bryce Canyon, Thor’s Hammer is unmistakable in its resemblance to the mythical hammer used by the Norse god Thor. A large, wide stone sits on top of a longer, thinner stone, and from Sunset Point it’s easy to locate.

Wall Street

If you’re up for a good hike, the Navajo Trail will connect you to Wall Street. Wall Street, closest to Sunset Point, features a narrow path enclosed by bright red walls—an incredible sight if you don’t might tight spaces and moderate exercise.

Silent City

Referring to the hoodoos that stand in collective silence, Silent City is visible from Sunset Point and is the perfect place to admire the pink spires topped with white caps.

Wall of Windows

Hoodoos and sandstone arches characterize the Wall of Windows, an impressive feature at Bryce Canyon. Like hoodoos, windows form from erosion and frost wedging, and from the Peek a Boo Trail the Wall of Windows is easy to find.

How Long Should You Spend at Bryce Canyon?

Hiking trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
Hiking trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
The amount of time necessary for a great experience is subjective—but whether you have a few hours or a few days you won’t be disappointed.

With just a few hours, it’s possible to drive throughout much of the park and explore scenic viewpoints like Inspiration Point and Sunset Point. It’s also possible to fit in a quick hike, as a number of well-trafficked trails connect some of the major viewpoints. It’s a good idea to build in time to stop at the visitor’s center, where you’ll find wonderful educational material as well as a gift shop.

If you have a full day—or multiple days—you can easily fit in a variety of hikes and enjoy more sightseeing. Bryce Canyon National Park offers several trails including the Navajo Trail, the Peek a Boo Trail, and the Queen’s Garden Trail. Nature lovers, bird watchers, and fitness enthusiasts will find no shortage of activities to challenge and inspire you.

Tips for Visiting Bryce Canyon

Go Early—or Stay Late

Bryce Canyon’s colors are most dynamic during the early morning and late afternoon hours, when the sun illuminates them and causes them to look even more vibrant than they do at high noon. Time your visit with sunrise or sunset to enjoy some of the most majestic sights nature has to offer. Morning is the park’s most popular time, so set your alarm a little earlier than usual to experience the best it has to offer.

Driving into Bryce Canyon National Park
Driving into Bryce Canyon National Park
Prepare for Crowds

Bryce Canyon has been a popular destination for close to 100 years, and that’s doubly true during the summer months when most people have vacation days to spend and outdoor activities are more desirable. The park has a shuttle service that connects visitors to park highlights, and if your visit is during a peak tourist week it’s a great idea to leave your car behind and make use of the park’s transportation system. Crowds also mean longer waits for prime viewing spots, so patience is key—but worth it. You might spend longer than you intended, but there is plenty of nature for everyone to enjoy. If you are hoping to avoid the crowds but still want good weather, September and October are often good months to consider.

Check the Weather

Bryce Canyon is at a high elevation, which means it can be much colder than you might expect. In addition to taking sunscreen and a hat, consider wearing layers that you can take off or put on depending on changing weather conditions. It may be warm and sunny at midday, but if you arrive at sunrise you could be shivering in shorts and a t-shirt!

More Views of Bryce Canyon

If you’re looking for more views of Bryce Canyon, we love this video, which shares some great footage of the park.


Where to Stay in Bryce Canyon

While there are limited lodging options in the park itself, there are plenty of hotels within a short drive of the park. Here are a few you might want to consider.

Visit Bryce Canyon!

If I were limited to just one word to describe Bryce Canyon, it would be otherworldly. Fortunately, I’m not limited to just one word. Colorful. Inspiring. Magnificent. These are words that contribute to its description. Still, those words—even combined with many more—don’t do it justice. Bryce Canyon National Park is best experienced in person, seeing majestic hoodoos rise from the ground with your own eyes. If your travels take you to the western USA, or if you’re looking for a special experience almost incomparable to any other, this location is for you. Leave a comment below and let us know what words you would use to describe Bryce Canyon—or if, like us, you think it defies explanation and benefits most from the experience of just being there.

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Bryce Canyon National Park: History and Hoodoos in Utah