| |

One Day in Bryce Canyon: Complete Bryce Canyon Itinerary

Of the 13 National Parks we visited in 2020 on our USA road trip, including the Mighty 5 in Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park was our favorite. Not top five. Not even the top three. Our favorite. It’s a relatively small park that is packed full of super unique sights and landscapes thanks to the trademark hoodoos that dot the landscapes.

If you have more time, there are certainly more things to do and see to fill a couple of days in Bryce Canyon. But if you only have one day in Bryce Canyon, we think this is the best way to spend it. Read on for the perfect way to spend a day in Bryce Canyon National Park. 

Spending a day in Bryce Canyon as a part of a broader Utah road trip? Make sure to check out our guide to planning an epic Utah National Parks road trip, where we detail where to stay and play in Utah’s five National Parks. 

Is One Day in Bryce Canyon National Park Enough?

We spent two and a half days in Bryce Canyon, and I didn’t quite realize just how compact this national park is. Unlike places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, where you can literally drive for hours and still not leave the park, there’s essentially one 19 mile road that makes up the entirety of Bryce Canyon National Park. 

We think one day in Bryce Canyon is just about the right amount of time to see the highlights of the park. It’s a relatively small park, so there’s really not that much to do and see. Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive – which is the main thoroughfare through the park – is only 19 miles long (one way). 

There are various viewpoints and places to get out and “ooh” and “ahh” at the hoodoos, but compared to places like Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Park, the park is much more compact. 

You can realistically see the highlights of the park and drive onwards to your next stop – likely Zion or Capitol Reef – with a day in Bryce Canyon. 

By “the highlights,” we mean tackling the best hike in Bryce Canyon – the Figure 8 Loop – stopping at some of the best viewpoints along the scenic drive, and hitting the short but sweet Mossy Cave Trail.

With an extra morning – which means about 36 hours in the park – you can add on a second hike – the Fairyland Loop – which we also thought was fantastic and well worth doing. It feels like walking through Tatooine in the Star Wars universe.

Tips for Your Day in Bryce Canyon National Park

Here are some things to know before you arrive in Bryce Canyon. 

Entrance Fees

To enter the park, you’ll need to either pay the $35 entrance fee, which covers entry for your vehicle and the people in it for 7 days, or show a valid America the Beautiful Pass (that’s the US National Parks Pass). 

Should you buy the America the Beautiful Pass? If you will be visiting three or more national parks in the next 12 months, the pass will save you money. It costs $80 for a year, and it’s good for 12 months from the date you purchase it. If you’re visiting Bryce Canyon as a part of a broader Utah National Parks road trip, it probably makes sense to buy it. You can get it from REI.

Using the Park Shuttle

Bryce Canyon has a handy shuttle system which is useful if you’re planning on showing up later in the morning, when parking inside the park can be a nightmare. 

The parking lots at most popular trailheads fill up in the morning as people come into the park and spend a few hours hiking, which means there’s one big traffic jam inside the parking lots as people scrounge for parking spots, following unsuspecting hikers back to their cars in hopes of swooping in and snagging a prime spot. 

If you’re planning on hiking in Bryce Canyon, this is a good option to use so that you don’t have to do the parking lot shuffle. It’s particularly useful for one-way trails like the Fairyland Trail, cutting off a couple of miles of walking back to the starting point at the end of a long, hot hike. 

The shuttle is free, and it only runs from April to October, when the park is most congested, and all you need to ride it is either your park admission receipt or your America the Beautiful Pass

Here’s a map of the shuttle routes. 

Image courtesy of the National Park Service

The shuttle comes roughly every 15 minutes, and the best places to pick it up are stop 1 (the shuttle station) and the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center – both should have ample parking. The other stops in Bryce Canyon City are useful if you’re staying at one of the hotels / campgrounds outside the park. 

More information on taking advantage of the shuttle system here

Stay Hydrated

Because of the elevation, make sure to drink plenty of water. If you’re coming straight from somewhere that is at sea level and have the extra time, take it easy on your first day to give your body time to acclimate to the elevation.

We love our super lightweight and packable Platypus water bottles, which have quite literally been around the world with us, including on our Utah adventure. We each carry two of those bottles, and on longer hikes, I usually also carry their 70 oz water bottle as well.

The Sun is Intense

Even though it’s not blazing hot, like some of the other parks in Utah and Arizona, the sun is intense. Sunscreen and a good sun hat will go a long way to preventing heat exhaustion and gnarly sunburns.

We swear by Sun Bum sunscreen, because we like to smell like we just bathed in coconut milk. Here’s the body sunscreen we like, and here is the face sunscreen

It Gets Cold at Night / in the Morning

Layers are your friend in Bryce Canyon. 

Remember, the elevation means that it can be very cold in the morning as you start a hike, but as the sun rises it warms up quickly, which means you’ll be shedding layers. 

Make sure to pack a few extra layers, and a daypack big enough to stuff them into when you inevitably get too hot.

A Comfortable Daypack is Essential (Around 20L)

Speaking of daypacks…bring one! You’ll need a sturdy daypack to carry water, snacks, and layers, particularly if you’re doing one of the longer hikes below.

20L should be plenty, and we love Osprey Packs.

Alysha has the Tempest 20 and would buy it again and again, and the men’s equivalent would be the Talon 22 (which I don’t have personally, but would wholeheartedly recommend based on Alysha’s experience and my other experiences with Osprey). 

Sturdy Footwear is a Must

You’ll be hiking primarily on some combination of loose dirt, gravel, and rocks, so you’ll want footwear with good traction.

We’re partial to Adidas Terrex Hiking Shoes (Alysha has almost exclusively hiked in them for the past seven years), Keen Hiking Boots (the Keen Targhees are my go-to hiking boot), and Alysha recently got a pair of the Columbia Newton Ridge hiking boots, which are a great combination of style, affordability, and quality. 

Pack a Lunch

There are very few food options inside the park, so you’ll want to pack a lunch to avoid having to drive back out of the park to Bryce Canyon City for lunch, which would mean that you may have to wait in a long line to get back in. 

The Best Light for Photos is in the Morning

One thing you should know for Bryce that I didn’t know before my trip: the best light for photos is in the morning. 

In the afternoon, the sun is on the opposite side of the canyon from most of the interesting stuff, which leads to long shadows that really mess with your pictures because of the extremes of light and dark in the photo. 

In the morning, the sun lights up the hoodoos and other formations, making them that much more spectacular.

One Day in Bryce Canyon: How to Spend a Day in Bryce Canyon

To pull this one day Bryce Canyon itinerary off, you’re going to want to get into the park early to catch sunrise. That means arriving at Sunrise Point, your first stop, twenty minutes before the sun is scheduled to rise. It’s an early morning, but it’s going to be worth it, we promise!

Sunrise at Sunrise Point

The best light in Bryce Canyon happens from sunrise to about 30 minutes after sunrise, when the soft light of the sun brings out allllll sorts of colors in the spectacular landscapes of Bryce Canyon. 

You’ll want to get up early and be at Sunrise Point at least thirty minutes before sunrise (check sunrise times here). 

From there, you might be tempted to face east towards the sun, but the real show is going to be in the Bryce Amphitheater to the south, where the hoodoos are about to light up. 

Don’t miss the cool tree with exposed roots on the wall of the canyon. Alysha and I were trying to figure out how that happens, and decided it must be that the tree grew, then erosion took away the soil around the roots. You’ll see tons of trees like this one along the rim of the canyon. 

Stick around fifteen minutes or so after sunrise, then walk from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point along the rim trail to see the Bryce Amphitheater (that’s the place where you see all the cool hoodoos) from a different angle. 

There are tons of great photo spots along this short half mile trail. Take your time. 

Thor’s Hammer

Before you start your morning hike, make sure to descend down the Navajo Trail to Thor’s Hammer, which is a cool formation about a tenth of a mile down the trail, and is worth a quick detour (since you’ll skip it on your hike).

Hike the Navajo + Queens Garden Loop

Next, make sure you’re fueled up with coffee and breakfast before heading out on the best hike in Bryce Canyon National Park – the Navajo / Peek-a-boo / Queens Garden Loop

To really take in the beauty and scale of Bryce Canyon, you HAVE to get below the rim. This hike takes you through canyons, between hoodoos, and to viewpoints with sweeping views of the magnificence of this park.

It’s a 6 mile journey with some elevation change as you descend from the rim into the canyon, which means you’ll need to climb back up at some point. 

Start down the Navajo Trail from Sunset Point and take the right turn at the beginning towards Wall Street. You’ll head down the steep switchbacks in the canyon here, and it can get packed. It’s a cool spot, but it’s closed during the winter.  

You’ll wind through the canyons until you get to the turn off for the Peek-a-Boo Loop, which is a short quarter mile trail that connects with the Peek-a-Boo Trail. You’ll climb and wind through all sorts of hoodoos in a 3 mile loop. Don’t miss the “windows”, which are up towards the canyon wall. 

Once you make it back to the end point of the loop, head up the connector trail and turn right towards the Queens Garden Loop, which is how you’ll make the return trip to Sunrise Point. 

If that trail sounds too ambitious for you, you can absolutely cut it short. There are a couple of different ways to do that. 

  • First, you can skip the Queens Garden Trail on the way back and head back up the Navajo Trail, which cuts off about a mile from the trip (there are signs that will point you in the right direction at the junction).
  • Second, you can do just the Navajo – Queens Garden Loop, which is a 3 mile hike that takes you down Wall Street and up Queens Garden, skipping the 3 mile Peek-a-Boo Loop.
  • Third, you could do the Peek-a-Boo Loop from Bryce Point, but I’d recommend the first one over that option. 

Either way, plan on a three to four hour hike, which puts you at lunch time by the time you’re done. 

There’s only one place in the park to eat – Bryce Canyon Lodge. It’s not great, so I’d recommend having a picnic lunch packed for the day. 

The Mossy Cave Trail

In the early afternoon after your brief siesta, head out to the Mossy Cave Trail, which is a short hike up to a waterfall. It’s outside the park, but it’s only ten minutes or so from the park entrance. 

Driving Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive

End your day in Bryce Canyon with a drive along the 19-mile scenic drive to the end of the road. 

You’ll want to start at least two hours before sunset, and I’d recommend heading all the way to the end of the road, then turning around and doing the viewpoints on the way back.

The reason? The pullouts are all on the east side of the road, which puts them on your right as you drive back down.

Our two favorite viewpoints along this road were Natural Bridge and Bryce Point, but there are several more that are worth a stop. 

What to Do With More Time in Bryce Canyon

Obviously, one day in Bryce Canyon National Park isn’t enough time to do and see EVERYTHING in the park. Here are a few more things to check out if you find yourself with more time. 

Sunrise at Bryce Point

Catch the sunrise from a different angle at Bryce Point, where you’ll be looking down on the hoodoos from the other side. It’s a cool spot because you get to see the vastness and sheer number of hoodoos from here. It feels like they go on and on and on!

The Fairyland Loop

Hike our second favorite hike in Bryce Canyon – the Fairyland Loop. Most people start this hike from the Fairyland parking lot, but it’s tiny and fills up fast. Starting from here just means you’ll do the loop backwards.

It’s an 8 mile round trip hike, and you should do it counter-clockwise if you’re starting from Sunrise Point.

When to Visit Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon is actually a pretty good year-round destination, but the spring and fall are the best times to visit the park. 

Summer is going to be hot. Make sure to pack plenty of water, sun protection, and take breaks while you’re out exploring. It’s also one of the busiest times, with families whose kids are out of school flocking to Utah’s National Parks. So book your accommodations early. 

Fall and spring are similar, and are both pleasant times to be in the park. It’s going to be cooler, but still dry, and the crowds will have thinned a bit. Instead of families with kids, it’s the retired-with-an-RV crowd that you’ll find out and about in the park instead. 

Winter is COLD. Like, really cold. You might even get snow dusting the hoodoos, which I have to say is something I’d like to see at some point. Pack lots of layers, and plan on staying somewhere other than the campgrounds (unless you have an RV or fancy campervan, I suppose). This is the least busy time of year, with fewer people willing to brave the frigid temperatures. 

Where to Stay in Bryce Canyon

With only a day in Bryce Canyon, I’d strongly recommend trying to stay either inside the park, or in the nearby town of Bryce. NOT in Tropic, which is much further outside the park entrance (it’s only 10 miles, but we think you’ll want to be closer in). 

It actually doesn’t make too much of a difference whether or not you stay inside the park here in Bryce, like it often does in other national parks, because the town of Bryce is just outside the park entrance, and has plenty of options for you. 

Still, there’s something romantic about staying inside the park. 

Staying Inside the Park

If you want a hotel-style place to stay, look at Bryce Canyon Lodge. Although, like many lodges inside national park boundaries, it’s going to be exceedingly expensive for what you’re actually getting – you’re paying for the location and the convenience. 

There are two campgrounds in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Sunset Campground is the bigger of the two, and is the only one that takes reservations. You’ll need to book well in advance, or be prepared to check the availability daily for a cancellation, which is how we ended up getting a spot for a night. The location is great, right across from Sunset Point, which will mean you can walk over and skip dealing with the parking nightmare that is that parking lot in the morning. Oh yeah, and the bathrooms are heated, which I’ve never encountered before at a campground. More information here.

North Campground is basically right on the rim of the amphitheater, which also means that you will be able to leave the car at camp and walk to the two best hikes in the park. There are 99 sites, and they’re all first-come-first-served. In high season, the sites will be gone by 8am, so if you want to snag one you’ll need to show up early. More information here.  

Staying in the Town of Bryce

The town of Bryce is a great option for people who don’t want to splurge on the Lodge, who didn’t plan far enough in advance to get a campsite in the park, or who aren’t into camping. It’s a 5-10 minute drive to the Visitors Center, which is not bad at all. 

If you want to camp or stay in a cabin, check out Ruby’s RV Park and Campground, which is where we stayed in our van for a couple of nights. It was nice, and I’d stay there again. 

If you’re looking for a hotel, the best option in Bryce is going to be the Best Western Plus Grand Canyon. It’s right in the middle of town, and would make a great home base for exploring. 

Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is in Southern Utah – the nearest town is called “Bryce Canyon City,” which is both helpful and painfully uncreative. 

There are two airports that you can fly into that are almost exactly equidistant (at least in terms of time) – Harry Reid International Airport (in Las Vegas, Nevada) and Salt Lake City International Airport in, you guessed it, Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Which airport you choose depends on what your trip looks like.

The main thing to think about is whether or not Bryce Canyon is your only destination in Utah. Most people pair Bryce Canyon with Zion, and if this is your plan it makes the most sense to fly in and out of Las Vegas.

If Bryce Canyon is part of a broader Utah road trip that includes a visit to Moab (home to Arches National Park, another of our favorites), then we’d recommend flying into one airport and out of the other to avoid an extra 4-6 hours of driving. 

On the “Mighty 5” circuit that takes you to the five national parks in Utah, it’s between Zion National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. 

Driving from Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon, it’s going to take you about an hour and 45 minutes (85 miles). You will drive out through the East Entrance of the park – through the Zion – Mt. Carmel Tunnel – and catch Highway 89 North to Bryce Canyon. 

From Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef, it’s about two and a half hours (~110 miles).

There you have it – a complete guide to seeing the best of Bryce Canyon in 1 day. We hope you love it as much as we did!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.