• Steve E

Hiking in Bryce Canyon: 5 Trails for Beating the Crowds

How To Get Off the Beaten Path in one of Utah's Finest Gems


red sandstone rock formations stretch for miles under the setting sun in Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


 

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We love exploring the otherworldly landscapes of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks. But that certainly doesn’t make us special: the surreal scenery and unforgettable hiking in Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion attracted a total of 11.3 million visitors in 2021 alone.


Crowded trailheads, long lines, and reservation systems have become the norm at Zion, the most popular of the five parks. As a result, some visitors seem to be skipping its iconic cliffs and canyons in favor of nearby Bryce Canyon.


Bryce Canyon, long considered a quieter alternative to Zion, is quiet no more. 2022 was its busiest spring ever, even as Utah’s other parks experienced dips in traffic following the pandemic boom.


Bryce Canyon’s famous orange hoodoos, desert arches, and twisted bristlecone pines make for some of the best hiking and photography opportunities on the planet, so the bump in traffic is certainly not unwarranted. Partly to mitigate the effects of high traffic on fragile desert ecosystems, dogs are only permitted on paved trails — so unfortunately your canine companion can’t join you on the routes detailed here.


But for human visitors still seeking some desert solitude, do not despair! We’ve handpicked the best trails for hiking in Bryce Canyon off the beaten path.


Tower Bridge, a famous archway made of red sandstone in Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



How to Beat the Crowds Hiking in Bryce Canyon


Bryce Canyon is actually one of the smallest national parks in the nation, but its unique geography provides an abundance of hiking opportunities that belie its compact size.


Despite what its name suggests, the park is not a single canyon, but rather a collection of natural amphitheaters, carved by erosion out of the surrounding high plateau. The most popular locations are the viewpoints and trails along the plateau rim, which are accessible via the main road that winds throughout the park.


But there are dozens of trails that allow for a more immersive experience. The following lightly-trafficked hikes descend into the park’s many bowls and canyons, offering some of the best opportunities to explore this special place away from the crowds that gather along the rim.


The hoodoos watch out over the great green tree-lined valley in the middle of Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Fairyland Loop

  • Difficulty: Advanced

  • Distance: 7.8 miles

  • Elevation Gain: 2,309 feet


The Fairyland Loop could very well be the most scenic hike in Bryce Canyon. It offers endless, epic vistas of surreal desert landscapes before immersing hikers deep in the canyon walls. Start the loop counterclockwise at Fairyland Point, in the northern section of the park. You will pass unique landscape desert rock features including the Chinese Wall, Sinking Ship, and Tower Bridge.


The 7.8 mile loop combines panoramic rim-top views with canyon-bottom adventures and up-close explorations of the trail’s many hoodoos. This is a world-class trail that remains remarkably quiet. Many visitors opt for nearby Sunrise and Sunset Points, or the shorter trail just out to Tower Bridge - leaving Fairyland Loop free to explore in solitudinous glory.



The Hat Shop

  • Difficulty: Intermediate

  • Distance: 4 miles

  • Elevation Gain: 1,436 feet


The Hat Shop is a peculiar name for a trail, but quite fitting for the peculiar scenery that this hike features. It winds through a collection of eroded pinnacles topped by boulders that look like a series of rock-hewn hats.


The trailhead for the Hat Shop is at the popular Bryce Point. The 4 mile, out-and-back trail is on the first two miles of the Under-the-Rim backcountry trail. It starts with a nearly 1,000 foot descent into the canyon and finishes with that same steep climb back out, keeping traffic on the trail relatively sparse.


Red and white sandstone form a slope that drifts into the tree-covered valley in Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Peek-A-Boo Loop

  • Difficulty: Intermediate

  • Distance: 5.5 miles

  • Elevation Gain: 1,555 feet


Starting from Bryce Point, the 5.5 mile Peek-A-Boo Loop follows a steep trail through hoodoos and culminates with views of the Wall of Windows, one of the most impressive rock features in the entire park.


Past the Wall of Windows, the trail continues through the Bryce Amphitheater and endless towering red rock spires before looping back for a steep ascent up to the Bryce Point trailhead.



Sheep Creek and Swamp Canyon Loop

  • Difficulty: Intermediate

  • Distance: 4 miles

  • Elevation Gain: 1,026 feet


Unlike many of the shorter hikes in Bryce Canyon, such as the extremely popular Navajo Loop and Tower Bridge, the Sheep Creek and Swamp Canyon Loop is generally pretty quiet. That being said - don’t equate a lack of popularity with a lack of payoff! With expansive views of jagged cliffs, airy ponderosa forests, and an abundance of wildflowers, this 4.5 mile loop is a great half-day hike - especially in the springtime when everything is blooming.


Starting at the Swamp Canyon Overlook trailhead, the trail descends 647 feet into Swamp Canyon, winding through ravines, forests, and past imposing hoodoo formations. The trail finishes with a series of steep switchbacks back up to the parking lot up at the Overlook.


The setting sun highlights winding paths weaving their way through the cliff walls and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Under-the-Rim Trail

  • Difficulty: Advanced

  • Distance: 22.4 miles

  • Elevation Gain: 4,336 feet


Leave the crowds behind entirely by taking on the Under-the-Rim Trail, a sublime adventure in the Bryce Canyon backcountry. The 22.4 mile, point-to-point trail features over 4,300 feet of elevation gain and takes you through desert meadows, fragile pine forests, and towering cathedrals of orange-red rock.


Most hikers take two or three days to complete the Under-the-Rim Trail, starting at Rainbow Point and finishing at Bryce Point. Once finished, you can jump on the free Bryce Canyon Shuttle for a ride back to your car near Rainbow Point.


Camping is only allowed at the seven designated backcountry campsites along the trail. Overnight camping permits are required, and can be purchased at the Park Visitor Center. Keep in mind that open fires are banned everywhere in the Bryce Canyon backcountry.


This is also black bear country—all food and scented items must be stored in bear-resistant canisters. They are available to loan, free of charge, from the Visitor Center.


The winter sun blasts purples and pinks across the sky over the snow-covered trees and sandstone cliffs of Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake



Winter Hiking in Bryce Canyon


If you really want to feel like you have Bryce Canyon all to yourself, plan for a winter trip! The glowing orange hoodoos are even more impressive when blanketed in pristine snow amidst the quiet winter air.


Sunset Campground closes and Park Visitor Center hours are reduced for the winter but Bryce Canyon National Park as a whole is open and accessible year-round! Come prepared with winter hiking layers and snowshoes, especially if you’re planning to explore the more remote trails in the park.


As snowy trails get packed down by hikers, they become dangerously slick. Keep a pair of microspikes in your pack for added traction on icy sections, just in case. Trekking poles are also great for some added stability when ascending and descending the steep canyon trails.


A magnificent sunrise over the snow-covered cliffs, hoodoos, and tree-lined valleys of Bryce Canyon in Southern UTah

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Chris Blake



Wait for the wintertime to take on these popular hikes in Bryce Canyon:

  • Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop (2.9 miles): This linkup of two trails is wildly busy in the summer, for good reason! The diverse scenery includes dramatic cliffs, arches, and hoodoos, all within a manageable 3 miles, making it a classic Bryce Canyon experience.

  • Rim Trail (1-9 miles): Contouring along the rim of Bryce Canyon, the Rim Trail is a scenic and flat trail. It’s a great option if you’d prefer to avoid icy descents into the amphitheaters. The 0.5 mile section between Sunset and Sunrise Points is the easiest and most popular.

  • Mossy Cave (1 mile): This short, family-friendly hike features a creek and a small waterfall. They often freeze over during cold snaps, making for a mini winter wonderland in the middle of the desert.

  • Tower Bridge (3.4 miles): This natural bridge, or arch, is the park’s most popular feature. The trail features great views of Boat Mesa and Sinking Ship (an imposing rock wall) before arriving at Tower Bridge.


Winter or summer, cold or crowded, Bryce Canyon is always worth exploring - it really is that special of a place. And if you know where to look, hiking in Bryce Canyon can still feel as wild and remote as ever!


 

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