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2 days in Bryce Canyon National Park (2020)

D and I spent our anniversary in 2020 on a short, week-long road trip to Utah to see two of the "Mighty Five" National Parks: Bryce and Zion. This is the second half of our trip in Bryce Canyon National Park. You can read about the hikes we did in Zion by going to my first post, 3 days in Zion National Park (2020). The park is relatively small compared to Zion, so I didn't feel that we really needed three days like we did for Zion to properly enjoy what it has to offer. My plan for Bryce Canyon was to check off the quintessential, "must-do" hikes of the park: the Navajo Loop and Queen's Garden Trail, the Peekaboo Loop Trail, and the Fairyland Loop Trail.

Feel free to skip around to any of the sections below:

  1. Bryce Canyon: a short history
  2. Day 1: Navajo Loop, Queen's Garden, and Peekaboo Loop
  3. Day 2: the Fairyland Loop
  4. Natural Bridge & some sunset views
  5. Stargazing at Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon: a short history

Bryce Canyon is part of the Colorado Plateau, a region that encompasses the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico and parks such as the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, and Bryce Canyon. Bryce Canyon is comprised almost entirely of sedimentary rock deposited over millions of years from when the Colorado Plateau was part of a lake and floodplain system.

There's evidence of early human habitation of Bryce Canyon going back 10,000 years! Basketmaker Anasazi artifacts dated several thousands of years old have been found south of the park. The Fremont and Pueblo-period Anasazi peoples inhabited the nearby area around 200AD. The Paiute peoples moved in after the Fremont and Anasazis left around 1200AD and used Bryce Canyon seasonally for hunting and gathering.

The Paiute name for Bryce Canyon is Unka-timpe-wa-wince-pock-ich, which translates to "red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped recess". Indian Dick, a Paiute elder living on the Kaibab Reservation, tells the legend of Bryce Canyon's famous pinnacles and hoodoos here:

“Before there were any Indians, the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. There were many of them. They were of many kinds-birds, animals, lizards, and such things, but they looked like people. They were not people. They had power to make themselves look that way. For some reason the Legend People in that place were bad; they did something that was not good, perhaps a fight, perhaps some stole something…the tale is not clear at this point. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces, with paint on them just as they were before they became rocks. The name of that place is Angka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces). This is the story the people tell.”

Day 1: Navajo Loop, Queen's Garden, and Peekaboo Loop

We drove out from Zion bright and early so we could make time for our two hikes for the day: the Navajo and Queen's Garden Loop and the Peekaboo Loop. The trail is about 9 miles total, so our goal was to start around noon, if not earlier.

My parents and I did the drive down Highway 89 from Zion to Bryce over a decade ago -- it's hands down one of the most beautiful drives in the US. You can drive as far south as Arizona, where you can stop at Kanab and Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ. Even though it's been over ten years, I can still vividly recall our car winding up the red rock cliffs towards the Colorado Plateau and seeing this deep orange mesa rise like a tower out of the flat, green plains below: a literal and figurative, monumental geologic step. I have a couple photos that I'm still kind of proud of from that trip that I took on my lil' baby Canon point-and-shoot from back in the day, but that's a post for the future!

Needless to say, there's no way this drive won't take your breath away, no matter how many times you do it. I highly, highly recommend adding this to whatever road trip bucket list you're keeping.

A drive-through arch on the highway road.
This is one of the most fun features on the drive from Zion to Bryce -- a drive-through arch!

We got to Bryce Canyon at around 11AM and decided to have our lunch in the parking lot so we wouldn't have to spend time eating on the trail. We had just bought our backpacking Jetboil stove and were super excited to use it. There weren't any picnic tables around the Peekaboo Loop trailhead parking lot, so we worked our way into a deep Asian squat and made ourselves comfortable on the sidewalk. Lunch was delicious. You can fight me on this, but you won't win: I think Kraft makes better mac-and-cheese than any other brand and pretty much any mac-and-cheese I've ordered at a restaurant. Something about the fluorescent, orange, powdered cheese just makes it taste so much cheesier.

I was planning on just pushing through the hike to make sure we had enough time to squeeze in the Navajo Loop and Queen's Garden trail in the late afternoon, but I had to take so many pictures because the scenery was so gorgeous.

Right at the start, you get a glimpse of what's the come. A full view of the northern section of the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater. Those dense clusters of little nubby-headed towers are called hoodoos. Did you know that Bryce Canyon houses the world's largest collection of these spires? Now you do!

Northern section of Bryce Canyon Amphitheater
You can see this right from the parking lot
A massive white and red plateau rising from low valleys in the distance.
This plateau reminds me of fatty meat

These hoodoos are Bryce Canyon's most distinctive feature and are pillars of sandstone and other sedimentary rocks created by the process of uneven weathering and erosion: rain and moisture seeps into the spaces between and within the rock, and when the water freezes and expands it breaks apart the rocks. This expansion is called ice wedging. As this cycle of ice wedging continues over long periods of time, you'll see the rocks break down walls, then windows will form within the wall, and eventually, you'll get a fully-formed hoodoo that is separated from the rest of the wall.

Trail goes through a window cut into a wall of hoodoos
You can see how a window has formed on the trail path, and the hoodoos that comprise the wall
D walking through the window in the wall
D walking through the window in the wall, also known as Peekaboo Arch

Everything is always in evolution and changing, and I think what makes visiting a place like Bryce Canyon so mind-blowing. You're not only seeing formations that were created tens of millions of years ago, but you also get to bear witness to the different stages of this formation process as it's ongoing and will continue on for however many thousands of millennia. It's like you're viewing time -- past, present, future -- collapsed into this space, this moment that you are standing on the canyon rim. It is a truly incredible feeling.

The trail cuts along the edge of the canyon the entire loop
The trail cuts along the edge of the canyon the entire loop
The window in the wall is glowing with light in contrast to the wall in the shadow
I really like this photo of Peekaboo Arch backlit
A photo displaying examples of windows, hoodoos, and canyon erosion.
You can see all stages of erosion in this photo, from windows to walls *cue Get Low by Lil Jon*.
A hiker walking down the trail toward the camera
That rock formation on the wall looks like a blobby camel lying down
Looking down into the amphitheater, hoodoos dropping into the valley and ponderosa pines at the bottom
You forget how high up you are until you look down

The Peekaboo trail is pretty low effort, with mostly flat grade and wide, well-maintained paths. It's a lot of bang for your buck given the panoramic views you get around each corner. Landmarks on the trail have really cool names like the "Wall of Windows", the "Fairy Castle", the "Cathedral", and the "Hindu Temples". I feel like it's so difficult capturing -- and recalling -- the scale of landscapes like this, even when I have D as my scale model. All of these pinnacles, towers, walls, windows...etc. that you see are several stories tall! If you've been to skyscraper-dense cities like New York City or Tokyo, that feeling of being dwarfed by your environment is very similar.

Full view of a side of Bryce Canyon, walls top to bottom
Such a stunning array of colors, shapes, and textures -- look closely and you can find a couple natural "bridges"!
Purple and blue hues of rock in the shadow
This bridge is just one collapse away from creating two hoodoos
D walking down the trail around some tall hoodoos
D against some hoodoos for scale
The Wall of Windows
The Wall of Windows
A mostly-eroded wall, curving upwards towards the canyon rim
I really like the curvature of this wall
The trail bending 180-degrees to follow the canyon rim
A martian landscape
A particularly tall hoodoo stands above all others
This hoodoo looks like a joystick
A lonely ponderosa pine sits atop the canyon wall
This photo is one of my favorites from the series; the lighting was incredible
Layers of plateaus stretching to the horizon
The crazy thing about this shot is that the trail takes you out to that plateau in the middle, but looks so far away!
A series of round hoodoos, backlit by the sun
It looks like some holy spirit is descending to meet us here
D walking through a window, glowing in bright orange
D walking through the gates of Hell
The tops of the canyon wall with multiple natural bridges
The other side of the Wall of Windows
A peekaboo view of the canyon as the trail continues
Many of these "peekaboo" views as the trail cuts between the canyon walls
A view of the Sinking Ship in the middle horizon
That upturned plateau in the center horizon is called the Sinking Ship, which you encounter on the Fairyland Loop

I'll be honest here -- it's been so long I'm not sure which of these photos are the end of the Peekaboo trail and which are the start of the Navajo Loop and Queen's Garden trail. You can actually combine the two if you wanted to do the ultimate day hike by using the Tropic and Rim trails as connector trails between the Peekaboo and Navajo Loop/Queen's Garden trails.

I'm pretty sure that's not what we did, since we started so late in the morning. I think we did both loops separately. Regardless of which configuration you choose, none of these trails are difficult and length is really the only factor. The Navajo Loop and Queen's Garden trail is probably the most popular trail in the park and you get to see a lot of famous features such as the "ET Hoodoo", the "Queen's Victoria Hoodoo", and "Wall Street".

There is actually a split at the start of the loop (or the end of the loop, if you choose to go clockwise like we did), where you can choose to either see Thor's Hammer and The Two Bridges, or Wall Street. What we did was go up the path for Wall Street, and then descend back in the canyon to see the other features. It's a bit of backtracking, but the trails are so short, it honestly didn't matter too much how you played it. I chose the route based on the lighting we were getting during the late afternoon.

Sunrise Point
Sunrise Point
View from the start of the Navajo and Queen's Garden trail
View from the start of the Navajo and Queen's Garden trail

One of the most striking features about hiking anywhere in Utah and Arizona are the gradient of reds, yellows, golds, and whites of the sedimentary rock layers. The way the various colors are so distinct layer to layer and "sit" on top of another evokes memories of making a "density" column in chemistry class, where we would dye different liquids of different densities (e.g. honey, corn syrup, oil, water) and pour them into a plastic tube.

A close up of the hoodoos at Sunrise Point
The way these hoodoos light up in the afternoon sun is real, y'all. No photoshop magic here.
Another peekaboo view from the Navajo Loop
Peekaboo views continue regardless if you're on the Peekaboo trail
Red and white hills undulating across the landscape
The contrast between these beautiful, sloping hills, and the rugged textures of the hoodoos is amazing
A close up of the different colored dirt on a hill
Such beautiful colors brought out by the shadows

PSA and friendly reminder while we're here: drones are illegal in national parks! They're a disturbance to the natural environment (and also to everyone around you). Just follow the easy rule of don't be an asshole. We actually reported a group of people using a drone to the ranger, and the ranger was so excited for the action (they literally said "sweet this never happens!" before phoning in other rangers and running off).

A hoodoo in black and white
If you told me this was an alien satellite tower, I'd believe you
A large tower with hoodoo formation in the works
You can really see where ice wedging is starting to whittle away at the rock to form hoodoos
A ponderosa pine bent into a tetris tile shape
This was a really cool, bendy tree. Looked like some tetris tile.

I don't think I fully appreciated the beauty of using black and white for my own photos until editing the ones I had from this trip. I feel like it really forces me to focus on the shape of the landscape rather than being overwhelmed by the details exposed in a colored version. That said, the vibrancy of the colors from the millennia of sedimentary dust and rock is absolutely breathtaking.

My favorite part of the trail is Wall Street. It left a pretty deep imprint on me from the first time I saw it with my parents years ago. The loop gradually leads you into one of the canyons within the Bryce Canyon amphitheater. The canyon walls surround you on both sides, growing taller as you drop down further to the bottom. I personally found that going mid-to-late afternoon was the best time to be in the Wall Street section of the trail. The way the sunlight reaches into the canyon provides this magical, orange glow, and it feels like some magical force is guiding you down this lighted path.

Looking up from the bottom of Wall Street
The view from the bottom of Wall Street
Three large trees in a triangle formation
The canyon rim and the trees in triangular formation create some pretty cool negative spaces here
The roof of the canyon wall creates a deep shadow in the shape of a mountain peak.
One of my favorites from this series: regardless of if you focus on the shadow or the light, the shapes created all look like mountain peaks!
Hikers walk down the center of Wall Street
These random hikers show how deep the canyon is! Also, dogs are not allowed on National Park trails.
A portrait shot of Wall Street bottom up
The shadows of the canyon walls create such cool, natural framing of the hoodoos
A selfie of D and I
One of the rare DSLR selfies we did that was actually in focus
A selfie of D and I in portrait
This is actually an iPhone selfie and it's a shame the background is blown out, but we look cute
D looking up towards the canyon rim
D ready for the cover of your next REI newsletter
Looking through the narrow canyon to the switchbacks
A glimpse of the switchbacks ascending the canyon
Bulging layers of sedimentary rock
I love the wavy, bulging textures of each of the layers of the sedimentary rock
The author walking down Wall Street
A rare photo of the author
The pointed tops of hoodoos arranged in a semicircle
I feel like I'm on trial in the court of gods here

The trail encompasses two aptly named view points: Sunrise Point and Sunset Point. Go to both. We didn't make the effort to see Sunrise Point during sunrise, but it was still beautiful in the late afternoon. Funnily enough, the photo below is of us at Bryce Point and not at Sunrise or Sunset Point.

D and I at Bryce Point
We never remember to bring a tripod or don't want to carry the extra weight, so we don't have many photos of us together on our trips. It was really nice to have someone offer to take one for us!
A selfie of D and I at Bryce Point
An iPhone selfie just because

I read online that Rainbow Point was one of the best spots for sunsets, and also tends to be less crowded than the obviously-named Sunset Point. I guess you could say that Rainbow Point didn't disappoint (pun intended).

Sunset at Rainbow Point
An absolutely breathtaking sunset at Rainbow Point. You can see the edge of the Paunsagunt Plateau stretching across here.

Erosion at the Paunsagunt Plateau has been happening much longer than within the Bryce Amphitheater. Paunsagunt is a Paiute word meaning "home of the beaver". Rainbow Point and Yavimpa Point are the two highest viewpoints in Bryce Canyon, at around 9,000-feet.

Yavimpa Point in sunset glow
Yavimpa Point on the right

In the photo above, you can see the limey mudstones of the Pink Cliffs, the marine shales of the Gray Cliffs, and the sandstones of the White Cliffs further south. The large plateau in the distance and to the left are the Pink Cliffs of the Table Cliff Plateau, which rises to 10,000-feet in elevation! A spectacular ending to the first day.

Day 2: the Fairyland Loop

We got up bright and early for our 8-mile hike through the Fairyland Loop, which for us, is starting the trail at 10am. Expect to compete for parking when doing the Fairyland Loop. The Rim Trail shares the same trailhead, and Fairyland Point is also a popular photo spot, so you'll be jostling with casual travelers stopping for a photo, and different groups of hikers. The number of spaces are few, but we lucked out with a spot since a couple cars were just leaving as we arrived.

Don't park on the section that is one-lane, since it makes it really hard for anyone else to get through and there really is not much of a shoulder for anyone to work with if you do. We had some trouble getting out of the lot for this reason. (Again, don't be an asshole).

I read on AllTrails that the best way to do the loop is to go in a clockwise direction, and I would say that I agree. This allows you to do the descent and ascent through the canyon in the beginning and middle of the trail, and to finish the trail walking on the flat Rim trail. It also makes for better views and lighting since you get to see the canyon illuminated by the sun at all times, rather than backlit.

Hoodoo towers at Fairyland Point
Hoodoo towers at Fairyland Point
Layers on layers of plateaus and mountains from Fairyland Point
Layers on layers of plateaus and mountains from Fairyland Point

The trail descends pretty quickly through a series of switchbacks, with sweeping vistas the whole way down. The stacked layers of hoodoos reminded me of pictures I've seen of Italy (sadly haven't been yet), where fortresses are built into the mountainsides. Some of these hoodoos can be as tall as 200-feet high!

Layers on layers of hoodoos rising at each elevation
Pretty-in-pink hoodoos rising at each elevation
View descending the trail at Fairyland
View descending the trail at Fairyland
The canyon is painted in such a deep red in the morning
The canyon is painted in such a deep red in the morning

Something I learned while writing this post is that Bryce Canyon isn't technically a canyon! Canyons are formed by a central stream, e.g. the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Bryce Canyon was formed by headward erosion, i.e. the ice wedging explained earlier in this post. It is also the youngest part of the Grand Staircase, a mega-sequence of sedimentary rock layers that start at Bryce Canyon and stretch into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I wrote about it a little bit in my Zion post, but you can also read more about it here.

Skyscraper hoodoos in early morning pink hues
These hoodoos look like a royal court presiding over the kingdom
A dense collection of hoodoos
This looks like the entrance to a pharaoh's tomb or the entrance to Petra
The trail looking up to the tower of hoodoos
Looking up at "Petra" from the trail
A fortress built from hoodoos
This looks like it could be a fortress
Distinct layers of pink and white sediment with the Sinking Ship on the horizon
Another favorite photo of mine: the Sinking Ship on the horizon and the Pink and White Cliffs of the Claron Formation exposed
A landscape view of Fairyland loop
An overview of where the Fairyland loop takes you -- you'll hit all the sights in this photo!
Eroded fins of Fairyland canyon
My favorite part of this photo is the barely-visible trail running down the bottom and through two gates of hoodoos
Hoodoos shaped like tall smokestacks
Hoodoos shaped like tall smokestacks
Fairyland Castle
Fairyland Castle: seeing stuff like this makes it easy to understand why early peoples thought gods lived among us
Pink and White Cliff hoodoos
This collection of hoodoos looked like a meeting of bishops in the Vatican
D hiking the trail with Fairyland Castle in the background
D hiking towards Fairyland Castle
Fairyland Castle and a city of hoodoos below
Another perspective of Fairyland Castle: don't the hoodoos below look like a city of skyscrapers?
A rock in the shape of a seal
This looks like a seal lifting its tail
D looking up at Fairyland Castle
D once again nailing the "adventurer looking at a magnificent view" vibe

The most annoying thing about this trail is trying to find a place to pee. The trail is super exposed and most of the vegetation are low bushes scattered far apart. When you're descending Fairyland Canyon, there's not much of a shoulder on either side. I remember holding my pee for the first two hours until we reached the wash for lunch. And even though it was flatter, I was hard-pressed finding a spot that wasn't overlooked by the trail. I probably went like 500-feet off the trail before I found just enough hiding room among some small trees to cover me from clockwise trail traffic (but not the other way or from Tower Bridge traffic). Luckily the trail isn't super trafficked and I'm really good at peeing fast. Pee privilege is real, y'all -- D had it way easier.

A picture of the trail, with Tower Bridge in the distance
No good pee spots anywhere here. Side note: you can see Tower Bridge to the center left of the photo.

One of the main attractions on the Fairyland Loop is the Tower Bridge. It's named after the Tower Bridge in London because that's the way it looks. The feature isn't on the Fairyland Loop and requires a short out-and-back detour off the main trail. I think it added about 1.5 miles RT to our hike. I remember we stopped for lunch in the wash right before the turnoff for the Tower Bridge.

Hoodoos with little mushroom hats
If you stare long enough, these hoodoos look like they could be people on the cover of a rap album, looking standoffish and cool.
A close-up shot of the gnarled trunk of a Ponderosa Pine
In love with the gnarled trunk of this pine.

One of the most famous features along the Fairyland Loop is the Chinese Wall. It was named so because a series of freestanding walls guards the edge of the trail, much like the Great Wall of China. You start to catch glimpses of it from pretty far away: after you've come around Boat Mesa, the Chinese Wall makes its appearance from a distance.

The Chinese Wall in black and white
Our approach to the Chinese Wall
The full length of the Chinese Wall
The full length of the Chinese Wall
A hoodoo looking like the profile of Queen Nefertiti
A hoodoo looking like the profile of Queen Nefertiti

A very satisfying aspect of the Fairyland Loop is how visible your progress is as you move through the trail. You see these fantastic, gargantuan monuments far off on the horizon, and at some point it occurs to you that you are walking right next to these once-distant formations! All those idiomatic phrases about "realizing how far you've come" and "it's about the journey and not the destination" are so tangible on this trail, and it makes you feel really accomplished.

Looking down at the Chinese Wall from the top of the trail
Look at how far we are from the Chinese Wall already!
A massive plateau showing the Pink and White Cliffs
Just crazy to see how a plateau rises and falls
A window in the wall looking out to a view of the canyon rim
A little peeping window looking out to the part of the Fairyland we've hiked through
D looking down at the canyon
D assessing the drop off from the trail
The trail runs along the canyon rim, with forest on one side and hoodoos on the other.
I really like this photo because the trail visually divides the hoodoos and the canyon on the left from the Ponderosa forest on the right

Natural Bridge & some sunset views

After we finished the Fairyland Loop, we still had a couple hours before sunset, so we decided to check out the Natural Bridge at the end of Bryce Canyon. Similar to how Bryce Canyon isn't a true canyon, Natural Bridge isn't technically a bridge -- it's an arch. The arch is sculpted from the reddest rock in the Claron Formation, rich with iron oxide minerals, and it provides a stunning contrast to the evergreen Ponderosa forest below.

Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge at sunset
Rainbow Point at sunset
We returned to Rainbow Point for sunset
A large mesa with steep drop offs on each side
Incredible how steep the drop offs are at each level of the canyon
A large mesa with steep drop offs on each side, in portrait view
It's such a small part of the photo, but my favorite aspect is the shadow lining the base of the mesa
A smattering of trees at the top of a thin edge of canyon wall
The trees look so tiny! And then you remember how small you are compared to the tree, and that's wild.
A colored view of the east canyon at Rainbow Point
I really like how all the little "feet" of the hoodoos forming are white, like they're wearing socks

Stargazing at Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon is rated as a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park, so don't miss out on this opportunity to do some top tier stargazing here. About 1/3 of the world's population has never seen the Milky Way, including 80% of Americans due to light pollution!

Even though it's been over a decade, I still remember stargazing at Bryce Canyon with my parents and being blown away by how clear the Milky Way was. Our eyes didn't even need to fully adjust before the creamy clouds and dense twinkles of starlight were visible. It was also one of my earliest memories of seeing several shooting stars over the span of an hour.

I was super excited to go stargazing again at Bryce Canyon because of those memories. We went to Inspiration Point to do our stargazing, although I hear that Sunrise Point is really good as well. I can't remember if we made it to the actual Inspiration Point or only to Lower Inspiration Point; it was really cold in late October, somewhere in the low 30's, so I don't think we ventured too far from the car. I do remember both of us getting spooked by some weird growling sounds and rustling in the nearby trees -- it sounded like some bigger animal, maybe a mountain lion? -- and so we didn't spend too long outside because we didn't want to get eaten.

Stargazing at Inspiration Point
So many stars! Couldn't quite get them in perfect focus with the zoom lens; I didn't bring my prime, unfortunately.
Stargazing at Inspiration Point with Bryce Canyon visible
I'm REALLY happy with this one, even though it's not completely in focus.

I'm not the most experienced with astrophotography, but still pretty pleased with these shots (particularly the first one)! To be honest, I actually wasn't as impressed with the stargazing this time around. The town of Tropic, UT is right outside the border of Bryce Canyon NP and there was actually a significant amount of light pollution coming from the town. Kind of a bummer, but glad we got to see some stars regardless.

And that's all, folks! I've managed to sneak in about a 100 photos into this post, and if you've read through this whole thing and looked through all of them, I value you and appreciate you. Thanks for taking this trip down memory lane with me!

Next up: the final act to our road trip, 1 Day in Great Basin National Park (2020) in Nevada.