We were mid-way in our tour of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks and were in store for more surprises as we made our way to Bryce Canyon National Park. We were told to prepare for snow in the higher elevations, a radical change from our sunny day in Capitol Reef National Park. The suggestion to pack multiple layers was a good one.
On our guided van trip with Southwest Adventure Tours out of Salt Lake City we explored five breathtaking national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. But, as we found, it was some of the adventures on the way that created even more memories for us.
Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park
After the beautiful sunrise seen from our balcony at the Capitol Reef Resort in Torrey, Utah, we packed up and headed into the mountains. We were traveling on Utah’s Highway 12 Scenic Byway, one of the most scenic roads in the United States. As the road gained altitude, the trees changed from piñon to stark white aspens and tall evergreens. There was increasing amounts of snow on the ground.
We stopped at several places for views of Capitol Reef and the Henry Mountains in the background.
After passing the 6,900 ft. summit, we traveled down the other side of the mountain. The terrain changed and the day warmed.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Burr Trail
We stopped at Burr Trail Outpost in the small town of Boulder. The outpost consisted of a weathered vintage gas station, coffee shop and gift shop.
The Trading Post, frequented by locals, was serving up coffee and house-made pastries. The gift shop turned out to be a treasure trove of local crafts, jewelry and paintings.
Across the street were black cows in a corral and a red sign pointing to Burr Trail. We were to be going down that trail in search of a slot canyon to investigate. I discovered the route was named for cattleman John Atlantic Burr. Burr developed a trail to move cattle back and forth between winter and summer ranges and to market. The trail, which runs all the way to the Colorado River, is known as Burr Trail Scenic Backway.
We were only going 12 miles on that road but it turned out to be a memorable trip. We entered the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and first passed a sandstone formation that I named “marshmallow rock.” It actually was a Navajo sandstone formation, white in color, that had a checkerboard pattern of striations making the pillow shapes.
We slowed for cattle on the road and entered Long Canyon with tall walls on both sides of the road.
At that point, we parked and headed for a small slot canyon known as Cathedral Canyon or Singing Canyon. It is quite narrow and obscured by trees at the entrance…easy to miss. It was an enjoyable walk on the sandy floor of the towering canyon. There didn’t appear to be an outlet as we reached the end so it felt more like a cave.
Once we reached the end and turned around we saw how the light played on the weathered canyon walls and the spring green tree rustled with the wind. It was a beautiful stop.
As we retraced our route back to Hwy 12, our guide pointed out an interesting house built into a Navajo sandstone cliff. It is the work of a couple who farm and run Escalante Canyon Outfitters. According to their website, the rock house is the owner’s on-going art project and a demonstration in sustainable architecture. Started in 1995, the interior space, over 5,000 square feet, is now carved. Slowly it is being finished room by room. The interior of the rock, an amazing thermal mass, is cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Scenic Highway 12 and Kiva Koffeehouse
As we wound through the sandstone landscape, often looking down into the canyon from hairpin turns, we came upon a beautiful coffeehouse constructed on the side of a cliff. The address is Escalante, but there was no town in sight. With 180 degree windows to maximize the views, this is THE place to stop for coffee, pastry and locally made gifts. We noticed that the Kiva Kottage was available as a vacation rental.
Fun and Funky Ruby’s
We continued on the beautiful road into the Bryce Canyon area and stopped for lunch and a “look-see” at the famous Ruby’s Inn Restaurant. While the buffet lunch was forgettable, it was a great stop for the history, kitsch and large gift shop.
Ruby’s Inn was founded by rancher Reuben C. (Ruby) Syrett in the early 1900s. It was originally located on the rim of Bryce Canyon and then moved to the ranch site when the National Park was founded. They have quite a complex outside the park with an inn, restaurant, cowboy entertainment and activities.
Our hotel was right across the street and we had a chance to check in and freshen up before heading into the park.
About Bryce Canyon National Park
You’ve no doubt seen pictures of the Hoodoo formations for which Bryce Canyon is so famous. That is what sets the terrain apart from the canyons, layered formations and cliffs of the other Mighty 5 we had visited.
Bryce Canyon is considered to be at the top (youngest) of the Grand Staircase of rock layers in the Colorado Plateau. From the Grand Canyon at the bottom, through Zion National Park in the middle, to Bryce Canyon National Park near the top, this rock record recounts a history of 525 million years.
All along our journey we had seen various layers representing different eras of the earth’s development and marveled at the upheaval of the layers due to the shifting earth. But the wow moment at Bryce is always approaching an overlook or hiking down to see the Hoodoo formations.
Hoodoos are ever-changing. As the stone collapses around them, the tower-like hoodoos are left standing—until they collapse from erosion.
Discovering the Wonders of Bryce Canyon National Park
Our first exposure to the beauty of the spire-like formations was at Inspiration Point. Looking down into the valley and out over the mountains as storm clouds rolled in was truly inspirational.
Part of our group hiked from this point to the next overlook, but I opted to ride in the van because, as we finished photographing the hoodoos, it started to snow. We drove over to Sunset Point and knew we wouldn’t be seeing the sunset that evening. It was beautiful there anyway. We investigated Sunrise Point and the Fairyland Overlook before heading back to the hotel.
Where to Stay and Dine Near Bryce Canyon National Park
I was surprised at the size and quality of the hotel where we stayed at Bryce. The Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel had spacious rooms and a lobby with western style furniture. I enjoyed the western artwork in the hallways and the sumptuous buffet breakfast, much better than the average motel fare.
That evening we chose to return to the park to the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge for dinner. You can stay at the lodge. Most of the 114 rooms are situated between the main lodge and the amphitheater rim in a fragrant stand of old-growth Ponderosa Pines. Historic Western cabins give guests a rustic experience with the comforts of home. More contemporary hotel rooms are available in two-story lodges located on Sunrise or Sunset Point.
We walked into the main lodge to be greeted by a roaring fire in the stone fireplace. As we waited for a table, we checked out the gift shop and noticed that it was snowing outside. We were seated in the 180-seat dining room and I couldn’t help but look outside as the “winter wonderland” developed.
The meal, starting with house-baked bread, was excellent. They feature healthy options and seasonal vegetables. My Piracy Point Chicken Picatta, topped with a creamy lemon caper sauce, was flavorful and accompanied by seasonal vegetables. There were equally creatively named steaks, fish dishes and appetizers. I enjoyed a glass of California wine with my dinner and noticed they offered Utah microbrews. I’d definitely return to dine at Bryce Canyon Lodge and, perhaps, stay in one of the cabins on a future trip.
We returned safely to our hotel and slept well as the snow continued to fall throughout Bryce Canyon National Park.
About Southwest Adventure Tours
Southwest Adventure Tours is a Utah-based business providing individuals and groups with scenic, photography, and adventure tours throughout the Southwestern US. Their specialty is focusing on small group experiences… usually between 14 and 25 passengers. They offer a wide range of multi-day tours and day tours from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and other local areas adjacent to the National Parks. Our group numbered six and we enjoyed the comfort of a new Mercedes touring van with driver/guide. Our guide took care of all the details and made sure that everyone, no matter what their physical ability, had an enjoyable adventure along the way.
The next day we discovered the beauty of Zion National Park.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.