Hiking Trails in Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park - Overview

65 million years ago a giant inland lake covered much of southwestern Utah. Feeding this lake was a network of rivers and streams that transported a variety of sediments and minerals, including iron, manganese and dissolved calcium-carbonate. As waters receded, this combination of minerals formed a uniquely colorful and durable type of limestone called dolomite. This rock formation, known as the Claron Formation, held the geologic ingredients from which Bryce Canyon would be born.

10-15 million years ago the Colorado Plateau - much of which was covered by the inland lake and succeeding Claron Formation - began to rise, stressing and fracturing the earth's surface. The large plateau was subsequently split into smaller plateaus.

Two adjacent plateaus - The Paunsaugunt (west) and Table Cliff (east) - were separated by an active fault system that created vertical fractures in the land, driving them further apart and leaving the exposed portions of each to the forces of erosion. Overlapping fault lines created horizontal fractures, resulting in a checkerboard pattern of fractures now fully exposed to the elements.

Bryce Canyon National Park was carved from the eastern edge of the receding Paunsaugunt Plateau. Technically, the canyon is an escarpment of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, defined as a steep slope or long cliff created by erosion and/or faulting that has separated two relatively level areas of differing elevations.

There are about a dozen amphitheaters in the Park - or small horseshoe shaped escarpments - carved from the eastern slope of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The largest of these amphitheaters is called Bryce Canyon.

Despite a modest 18 inches of rain per year, water has had the most profound effect on the landscape you see today. Bryce Canyon's elevation range endures extreme temperature changes on a daily basis. Temperatures in Bryce Canyon rise and fall above freezing approximately 200 days per year.

Water seeps into cracks during these regular freeze-thaw cycles, expanding up to 9% as it freezes and breaking apart rocks. Such a process is known as frost wedging, or Mechanical Weathering.

Chemical Weathering - while less of a factor - also helps to break down the rocks of Bryce Canyon. Water picks up weak acids from the air and soil, dissolving the calcium-carbonate 'cement' that binds the canyon's clay, silt and sand particles together.

The Park's iconic Hoodoos - or rock pinnacles - are the result of the sedimentary deposition, faulting, uplift and erosion sequences described above.

These vertical rock columns enjoy some protection from erosion by their harder dolomite (limestone) caprock. Alternating hard and soft layers beneath the caprock erode at different rates (a process known as differential erosion), thus varying the appearance of hoodoos. Eventually the softer layers beneath the caprock wear away, and the hoodoos collapse. This cycle continues today, as Bryce Canyon is in a perpetual state of geologic transformation.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Geology

Bryce Canyon is not a "real" canyon. It is not carved by flowing water. Water is the active ingredient here, but in the form of "frost-wedging" and chemical weathering.

For 200 days a year the temperature goes above and below freezing every day. During the day, melt water seeps into fractures only to freeze at night, expanding by 9%. Now as ice, it exerts a tremendous force (2,000-20,000 pounds per squarte inch). Over time this "frost-wedging" shatters and pries rock apart. In addition, rain water, which is naturally acidic, slowly dissolves the limestone, rounding off edges and washing away debris.


It is the uniqueness of the rocks that caused Bryce Canyon to be designated as a national park. These famous spires, called "hoodoos," are formed when ice and rainwater wear away the weak limestone that makes up the Claron Formation.

Hoodoos are tall skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins and "broken" lands. Hoodoos are most commonly found in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains. While hoodoos are scattered throughout these areas, nowhere in the world are they as abundant as in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park. In common usage, the difference between Hoodoos and pinnacles or spires is that hoodoos have a variable thickness often described as having a "totem pole-shaped body." A spire, on the other hand, has a smoother profile or uniform thickness that tapers from the ground upward.

At Bryce Canyon, hoodoos range in size from that of an average human to heights exceeding a 10-story building. Formed in sedimentary rock, hoodoo shapes are affected by the erosional patterns of alternating hard and softer rock layers. The name given to the rock layer that forms hoodoos at Bryce Canyon is the Claron Formation. This layer has several rock types including siltstones and mudstones but is predominatly limestone. Thirty to 40 million years ago this rock was "born" in an ancient lake that covered much of Western Utah. Minerals deposited within different rock types cause hoodoos to have different colors throughout their height.


The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. Dutton divided this layer cake of Earth history into five steps that he colorfully named Pink Cliffs, Grey Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs, and Chocolate Cliffs. Since then, modern geologists have further divided Dutton's steps into individual rock formations.

What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on Earth. Geologists often liken the study of sedimentary rock layers to reading a history book--layer by layer, detailed chapter by detailed chapter. The problem is that in most places in the world, the book has been severely damaged by the rise and fall of mountains, the scouring of glaciers, etc. Usually these chapters are completely disarticulated from each other and often whole pages are just missing. Yet the Grand Staircase and the lower cliffs that comprise the Grand Canyon remain largely intact speaking to over 600 million years of continuous Earth history with only a few paragraphs missing here and there.

Unfortunately, the Grand Staircase is such a vast region of rock that no matter where you stand on its expanse, most of it will be hidden behind the curvature of Earth. Places such as Yovimpa Point and the north slope of the Kaibab Plateau are the exception where even a non-geologist can discern the individual chapters of this colossal history book--these immense steps of Dutton's Grand Staircase.


Windows or arches are natural holes that form along cracks and weak spots in thin walls of rock called "fins." By convention these holes must be at least 3 feet in diameter in two perpendicular directions to earn the name arch or window. An imprecise distinction is often made between bridges and arches in terms of the processes that form them. It's important to remember that gravity is the key factor in either case. Nevertheless, the distinction is that bridges are carved by flowing water, whereas arches can be carved by everything else except flowing water. Indeed, in very few circumstances is it possible to say that flowing water had zero contribution in the development of one of these natural holes. Therefore, geologists often prefer the term window to collectively describe any large hole in a rock. At Bryce Canyon most of our windows are carved by frost wedging.


Walls or fins are narrow walls of rock, bound by joints or fractures on either side. As weathering and erosion open the cracks wider and wider they form narrows or slot canyons. The wall left standing in between two slot canyons is called a fin. As fins develop, differential erosion accentuates different rock hardness leaving them with a rugose appearance.

Erosion follows fractures in the sides of the Paunsaugunt Plateau called joints. Joints are common in all types of sedimentary rock and are created while the rock is lithifying in the same manner that cracks form in mud as it dries. At Bryce Canyon, these joints undergo additional stresses created by the huge amounts of energy released during earthquakes along the Paunsaugunt fault and Ruby's thrust fault. While these fault lines are currently dormant, many millions of years ago their activity widened and deepened the existing joints.

Snow in the winter melts a little every day and flows into joints. At night it freezes and expands, breaking the rock into smaller pieces. This is called frost wedging. Bryce Canyon experiences over 200 days of freeze/ thaw during the year. The frequency of frost wedging in this region makes it the most important type of weathering at Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Ecology

There are many plant communities in Bryce Canyon National Park. Surrounded by deserts, Bryce's highland plateau gets much more rain than the lowlands below and stays cooler during hot summers. The relatively lush ecosystems that result are like fertile islands towering above a vast arid landscape.

A special area of notice are the "breaks" of the amphitheater, better known as the pink cliffs, they are exposed, nearly unforested areas. Meadows, seeps and springs are home to a different, grassy and deciduous plant community. Many of the meadows in the park are high and dry, home to sagebrush, rabbitbrush and grasses.

Forests dominate the upper altitudes of the Paunsaugunt Plateau containing white fir-spruce-aspen forest. Bristlecone pine lives in the high limestone knolls. Ponderosa pine and manzanita dominate the middle altitudes. Forest health and return to historic density are managed with prescribed fire. Pinyon pine-juniper forest dominates the lower elevation areas of the park. Gambel oak, cactus and yucca punctuate the lower elevation juniper forest. In the next few pages you will find information about the many trees and shrubs that populate Bryce Canyon.

The diversity of wildflowers is a sensory palette of colors, sizes, seasonality, pollinators and specific growing needs. Those plants which live in the forest differ from the the plants which flower in the "breaks", the pink cliffs of Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Wildlife

The canyons and plateau of Bryce Canyon National Park are home to many animals. Park boundaries mean little to the migratory hummingbirds, nesting Peregrine Falcon, Rocky Mountain Elk and Pronghorn which daily cross through the forested plateau and barren amphitheater. The search for food and water leads them to the best place to find sustenance and shelter. Many animals share habitats. Ebb and flow of populations is interdependent on all the members of the wildlife community.


Bryce Canyon is home to 59 species of mammals. Mammals are classified as higher vertebrates that have hair and nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands. Viewing mammals is a favorite activity of another mammal we know as humans, and Bryce is a great place to see a lot of different kinds of mammals. Species include: Mountain Lion, Pronhorn, Coyote and Fox.


Birds are feathered vertebrates, most having flight capability, that reproduce from hard-shelled eggs. While everybody knows what a bird is, few think of Bryce Canyon when they think about birds. Nevertheless, 175 different species of birds have been documented to frequent Bryce Canyon National Park. Some are just passing through. Others stay for an entire season. Fewer still make this their year-round home. Birds calling Bryce home include: the California Condor, Clark's Nutcracker, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Raven and the Stellar's Jay.


Being a cold and high altitude park, Bryce Canyon is not the best habitat for Reptiles and Amphibians. However, 11 species of reptiles and four species of amphibians can be found at Bryce. Of note, the park is home to one poisonous reptile: the Great Basin Rattlesnake. Other notable reptiles include: the Short-horned Lizard, Side-blotched Lizard, Striped Whipsnake and the Tiger Salamander.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Camping

Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds, North and Sunset, located in close proximity to the visitor center, Bryce Canyon Lodge and the geologic wonder that is the Bryce Amphitheater. Both have restrooms with flush toilets, and drinking water. During the summer months coin-operated laundry and shower facilities are available at the general store nearby. There are no hook-ups in the campgrounds, but a fee-for-use dump station is available for RV users at the south end of North Campground.

NOTE: Dump-station is closed during winter because of freezing temperatures.

Both campgrounds are located in Ponderosa Pine forest habitat with equal amounts of shade and sun, giving them a similar appearance. All sites are limited to 10 people (with no more than 6 adults (adult=16 and up)), 3 tents and 2 vehicles and cost $15 per site/per night. Holders of special Park Passes; Senior Pass, Access Pass (part of the America The Beautiful - National Park Service & Federal Lands Pass System) or the Golden Age & Golden Access Passes, receive a 50% discount. Sites fill by early afternoon during the summer months. Click here for a map of both campgrounds. A Group Site is available at Sunset Campground.

North Campground: is located across the road to the east of the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center and is comprised of 107 sites in 4 loops; A, B, C, D. Cost is $15 per site/per night.

32 sites are reservable during certain times of the year (See Reservation Dates below). Cost is $15 per site/per night.

North campground is closest to the general store. Loops A & B are for RV campers. Loops C & D are for tent campers.

There are no sewer, water or electrical hook-ups available. A dump station is available south of the campground for a $2 use fee.

Reservation Dates:

2008 - May 12-September 29
2009 - May 8-September 27
2010 - May 7-September 26
To make reservations for 32 sites call (877) 444-6777 or click www.recreation.gov. Reservations for theses sites can be made from 240 days to 2 days in advance (minimum advance reservation is two days).

NOTE: During winter months all sites/loops may not be open due to winter weather conditions, such as freezing temperatures and deep snow.

Sunset Campground: is located west of Sunset Point, approximately 1.5 miles south of the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center, and is comprised of 101 sites in 3 loops; A, B, & C.

All sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are not accepted. Cost is $15 per site/per night.

Loop A is for RV campers. Loops B & C are for tent campers. Two wheelchair-accessible sites are located in Loop A.

This campground is closest to the best hiking trails which begin and end at Sunset Point.

RV and trailer combinations over 45 feet are discouraged, but not prohibited.

There are no sewer, water or electrical hook-ups available. A dump station is available at North Campground for a $2 use fee.

The Group Site: is located in Sunset Campground complex and closed during winter. The Group site is for a minimum of 7 individuals, cost for 7 individuals = $40.00 + $3.00 per individual (age 16 yrs and older), Maximum of 30 people. Cost is per night.

Call (877) 444-6777 or click www.recreation.gov to make reservations. Reservations must be made at least 2 days in advance and can be made up to 240 days in advance.

Reservation Dates:

2008 - May 12 to September 29
2009 - May 8 to September 27
2010 - May 7 to September 26


-Camp in designated sites only.
-Camping is limited to 30 days per calendar year and 14 consecutive days from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
-Each campsite is limited to a total of 10 people; with no more than 6 adults. (Adult = age 16 and up).
-Gatherings in individual campsites which exceed 12 people are prohibited.
-Moving or altering campsite facilities, i.e., picnic tables, fire grates, etc. is prohibited.
-Keep tents a distance of 20 feet (6m) or less from the fire grate.
-Trenching, digging or disturbing the soil/vegetation is prohibited.
-Gathering firewood, pine cones or pine needles found within the Park boundaries is prohibited. Fire wood is available at the General Store.
-Fires MUST always be contained within the fire grate and MUST be attended at all times.
-Quiet hours are from 10:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m. Unreasonable noise is not allowed at any time. The use of generators is allowed in RV areas only.
-Generator hours are between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.
-The speed limit in the campground is 15 mph (20 kph). Vehicles must yield to pedestrians and bicycles in the road.
-Dispose of wash water in the service sinks adjoining the campground restrooms, not at freshwater taps.
-ONLY dispose of gray water/sewage at the dump station.
-ONLY fill fresh water tanks at the dump station.
-Dispose of garbage/recyclables in the dumpster's at the campground entrance.
-Keep all food and trash stored inside your vehicle, not outside where it will attract wild animals, such as skunks or bears.
-Pets must be on a leash and under the owner's control AT ALL TIMES. Owners are responsible for disposing of pet excrement.
-Bicycles are not allowed on trails, in meadows or in campgrounds except on paved roads.
-Skateboards, rollerblades and both motorized and non-motorized scooters are prohibited throughout the Park.


Bryce Canyon's backcountry trails offer solitude, forests, meadows, wildlife, wildflowers and interesting geologic features. There are 8 campsites on the 22.9 mile (36.9 km) Under-the-Rim Trail. There are 4 campsites on the 8.8 mile (14.2 km) Riggs Spring Loop Trail. The trails are strenuous, with multiple changes in elevation. Elevations range from 6,800 feet (2,073 m) to 9,115 feet (2778 m).

Permits are required for all overnight stays. Permits may be purchased at the Visitor Center from 8 a.m. until one hour before closing. We do not accept advance reservations via the internet or mail. Reservations may be made up to 48 hours in advance, in person, at the visitor center.

$5 - per permit / 1-2 persons / 7 nights maximum
$10 - per permit / 3-6 persons / 7 nights maximum
$15 - per permit / 7-15 persons (Group sites ONLY) / 7 nights maximum
Camp only at designated campsites. Leave no trace.

Please check with the park for potential seasonal shuttle service which serves the backcountry.

Water can be found at Right Fork Yellow Creek, Yellow Creek Groupsite, Yellow Creek, Sheep Creek, Iron Spring, Riggs Spring and Yovimpa Pass. Water must be purified by boiling (10 minutes), filtering or iodine treatment.

Open fires are not permitted. Camp stoves are permitted.

The 10 regular backcountry campsites are limited to a maximum of 6 people per site. The 2 group sites can have up to 15 persons.

Important: Bear Canisters now REQUIRED. Bryce now requires that backcountry campers store their food in bear-resistant canisters. Hanging food is insufficient! Please bring your own approved bear-resistant canister with you, or you may borrow a canister (free-of-charge) from the visitor center when you obtain your backcountry permit.

Bryce Canyon National Park - Contact

Bryce Canyon National Park
PO Box 640201
Bryce Canyon UT 84764-0201

Park Telephone Number - 435-834-5322

The park is open 24 hours per day through out the year. There may be temporary road closures during and shortly after winter snow storms until plowing is completed and conditions are safe for visitor traffic. Road maintenance may require brief closures of individual areas at other times.

Visitor Center Operating Hours
Summer 8am - 8pm (May - September)
Fall (October) 8:00 am - 6:00 pm
Winter (November - March) 8:00 am - 4:30 pm
Spring (April) 8:00 am - 6:00 pm
Phone: 435-834-5322