Spectacular Utah: awe-inspiring Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef National Parks

Hoodoos by the thousands, carved by water and wind for eons, line Bryce's canyon walls.

Natural Bridge in Bryce Canyon NP.
Ascending The Wall trail amongst rock escarpments and strange Hoodoos.
Tourists hike up Grand Wash in Capitol Reef NP.Bryce Canyon.
Spires climb skyward from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

Watertank holes, up a dry wash from Grand Wash in Capitol Reef NP, is site where I slipped and fell into the larger of the holes, dunking my iPhone!

Southwest Utah: spectacular Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef National Parks

We’ve spent 2.5 weeks housesitting in St. George, Utah (through membership in the Affordable Travel Club), and done day trips to Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument.  The other four of Utah’s stupendous national parks lie just a bit further east.  Here are highlights of several.

Bryce Canyon National Park: Approaching Bryce from the west, we skirted Red Rock Canyon, rocks ablaze in the same color, noting an 8.6 mile bike trail paralleling much of that scenic area (find time during your visit to double back to this beautiful state park). Arrive Byrce early in the morning, if camping, and make for the North Campground (first come, first served) at 7800 feet.  This large campground is right on Bryce Canyon’s rim; wonderful views and the campground amphitheater are just steps away.

Mormon settlers Ebenezer and Mary Bryce homesteaded the area in 1862 in nearby Pine Valley where Bryce constructed the Pine Valley Chapel, the oldest Mormon Chapel in continuous use in Utah.  After moving to Paria Valley, next door to Bryce Canyon, he noted the compelling canyon behind his homestead was “a tough place to lose livestock”!

Make your first stop the North Entrance Visitor Center, for a 25 minute Bryce Canyon movie explaining the canyon’s formation, seasonal changes and visitor highlights. Then, tour the length of Hwy. 63 along the canyon rim, 16 miles south to Rainbow and Yovimpa Points. Here we stopped to admire incredible views, which repeated in succession at Aqua Canyon, Natural Bridge, Farview Point, Swamp Canyon, Bryce Point, Inspiration Point and Sunset Point.

Find time to dine at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, opened in 1926 by the Union Pacific Railroad, with lodge rooms and 15 outlying cabins and a large, homey restaurant open at 5 AM for early morning hikers. The breakfast exceeded our expectations; exceptional service was also delightful.
In the evening, hike the Rim Trail, just 150 feet from our campsite – with evening light, you’ll get both best views and marvelous photos!

Bryce offers compelling hiking, both along the canyon rim and down into the canyon. Thousands of Hoodoos will wow you (strangely-shaped pillars of rock in multi-hued colors of white, red, yellow and blue, left standing after millennia of erosion).  Take the Queens Garden/Navajo combination loop starting at Sunset Point, a 2.9 mile trek descending 600 feet from the Rim Trail down into the canyon.
Ranger programs offered daily at 7 PM include presentations on astronomy in the parks, native fauna, like Utah prairie dog colonies, hundreds of mule deer, pronghorn antelope (fastest animal in world, behind the cheetah), mountain lions and bears, early pioneers and other topics. Kids always love ranger talks, no matter the subject.

Capitol Reef National Park is just 120 miles from Byrce. Some 65 million years ago, a huge upheaval in the earth’s crust warped a 100 mile-long “Waterpocket Fold”, creating an abrupt “reef” of colorful red, yellow and white domes, cliffs, monoliths, canyons and arches, etched by the meandering Fremont River. This made for a fertile crescent in Utah, quickly discovered by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s.

The park’s single 70-site campground can fill early; several Forest Service campgrounds just 12-18 miles up Hwy 12 offer pretty campsites at about 8000′, only $6 with our American the Beautiful federal senior discount! Early the next day, we made Capitol Reef’s campground early and had our choice of sites.

Visit the nearby Visitor Center, where rangers will offer tips on best hikes and sights, then tour the scenic road to Capitol Gorge and then onto Grand Wash. Here a shady hike presents about three miles overall, along a flat canyon trail with sandstone walls rising colorfully hundreds of feet. I ventured up a side trail, skirting the edge of several naturally-carved water tanks, with 3 – 4 feet of clear water, and managed to slide into one, dunking my new iPhone (happily, it still works).

The campground itself is set in the park’s pretty Fruita Historic District, settled in the 1860s by pioneers and planted with a variety of still-producing apple, peach and pear orchards. Take a break at the historic Gifford House, which sells tasty pies and other edibles. Nearby orchards allow one to pick your own fruit.

Bryce and Capital Reef and the state’s other national parks are part of the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning four states. It was formed 20 million years ago when the earth’s crust uplifted a huge plateau several thousand feet above surrounding landforms. Eons of water and wind erosion of underlying limestone and sandstone have created the stunning geography of these national parks. Next week, we’ll finish our Utah tour with tips on touring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Special Note: On Thursday, July 12, 6:00 PM, attend my free travel presentation, “Touring the nine national parks of California”, at the Quail Lakes Clubhouse, 3808 Quail Lakes Drive, Stockton. You’ll receive tips on when to visit, what to see and how to get there!

For more info: Affordable Travel Club, affordabletravelclub.net; Bryce Canyon National Park, nps.gov/brca; (435)834-5322; Capital Reef National Park, nps.gov/care, (445) 425-3791;   Utah travel insights, visitutah.com; Camping, recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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