Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park During 'Shoulder Season'
Visiting national parks in the ‘off-season’ or ‘shoulder season’ is a great way to minimize your impact on the environment and infrastructure, avoid crowds, score better prices, give the local economy a boost, and experience these majestic places in different seasons.
‘Shoulder season’ describes the time between a destination’s low and high seasons. From May through September each year, during the summer high season, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is inundated with visitors. Nearby accommodations raise prices, shuttle access to the Park is recommended, and trails are bustling. In the winter, temperatures drop, snow blankets the landscape, road closures take effect, the Visitor Center reduces its hours, and fewer visitors make the trek out to the Park.
Nestled between these two extremes is the brief window referred to as ‘shoulder season.’ In early spring (March and April) and late fall (October and November), Bryce Canyon offers a calmer, more peaceful vibe. We visited in March and enjoyed mild weather, reasonably priced accommodations, plenty of parking at trailheads, and relative solitude on trails. The Park’s famous red hoodoos are still dusted with snow, creating a breathtaking contrast with the red rock and green evergreens. It’s a spectacular time to visit and perfect for the responsible traveler. Read on for more tips on visiting Bryce Canyon National Park during ‘shoulder season.’
A Brief History
Bryce Canyon National Park is world-renowned for playing host to the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. These iconic red, rocky spires now attract around 2 million visitors to the Park each year.
How did the hoodoos come to be? Approximately 50 million years ago, a lake and floodplain system covered the area that is now Bryce Canyon. Over time, deposits cemented together to create the limestones, dolostones, mudstones, siltstones, and sandstones found in the Park today. Plate tectonics pushed these rocks up nearly 9,000 feet over the course of millions of years, exposing them to the air and elements.
Over many more years, the process of weathering carved the mesmerizing hoodoos we are so familiar with. Water seeps into cracks in the rock, freezing and expanding when overnight temperatures drop below zero. When water freezes, it expands by approximately 9 percent causing immense pressure to break the rock apart. Over time, this process has created the stunning windows, walls, and hoodoos that the Park is known for. Slightly acidic rain further erodes the rock to create interesting patterns and textures. This process of weathering continues to reshape the landscape each and every day.
Bryce Canyon was designated as a national monument in 1923, later becoming a national park in 1928. Many of the Park’s amenities were first constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
It is also important to acknowledge that Bryce Canyon National Park is located on the unceded land of the Southern Paiute (Nawuvi), the Pueblos, and Ute peoples. A long history of indigenous persecution, exclusion, and erasure preceded the creation of U.S. National Parks.
When to Visit
If you’d like to visit Bryce Canyon National Park during ‘shoulder season,’ you’ll want to plan a trip for early spring (March and April) or late fall (October and November). The Park Service maintains a page on its website devoted to current conditions, including entry requirements, road closures, trail status, weather, and more.
The Park is open 24 hours a day, so you can come and go as you please. This makes it really easy to catch sunrise or sunset during your visit. The colorful landscape is absolutely stunning at sunrise - definitely worth the early wake-up! If you enter before rangers are stationed at the entrance, just be sure to swing by the Visitor’s Center to pay your entrance fee before you leave.
Where to Stay
Bryce Canyon City is a small collection of hotels, restaurants, shops, and campsites located just one mile from the Visitor Center. During the summer, this area is extremely crowded and accommodations book up early. If you’re visiting during the shoulder season, however, you should be able to snag a hotel room. Because this area is so close to the Park entrance, you’ll be able to reduce the amount of driving you do, meaning you can spend more time hiking while also lowering the carbon footprint of your trip. It’s a win for you and the planet!
We booked a room at Best Western PLUS Ruby’s Inn just a week and a half before our visit and paid $125 per night, plus taxes and pet fees. Although it is now part of the Best Western chain, the historic hotel was originally started by Reuben (Ruby) C. Syrett in 1923. Today, it is an expansive property with multiple buildings, an onsite store, restaurant, liquor store, post office, a cozy lobby area, and an adjacent campground and RV park. The walls in the rooms and common areas are adorned with historic photos and gorgeous shots of Bryce Canyon.
If you’re looking for a bit of extra peace and quiet, ask for a room towards the back of the property that enjoys views of a small lake. When we visited in March, the nearby campground was still closed so we were able to take our dog for a nice walk around the peaceful lake and through the still-icy campsites.
All hotel guests can enjoy a hot breakfast each morning at the Cowboy’s Buffet. Snuggle up in a rustic booth, order a hot chocolate or coffee, and choose from an assortment of standard American breakfast buffet fare - pancakes, biscuits, eggs, fruit, yogurt, and more. It’s the perfect spot to fill your belly and warm your hands before a chilly morning hike in the Park.
Tips for Hiking During ‘Shoulder Season’
One of the major benefits of visiting Bryce Canyon during ‘shoulder season’ is that you’ll enjoy delightfully uncrowded hiking trails. The most popular trails, like the Rim Trail, still receive plenty of foot traffic during the day but if you start early or venture off the beaten track, you’re sure to find solitude. There are some seasonal conditions to be aware of, so make sure you come prepared.
Be prepared for muddy trails. There may be snow on the ground in late fall or early spring, so be prepared for ice, snow, and mud. Temperatures rise during the day and melting snow means the trails can get pretty sticky. Wear hiking shoes or grippy sneakers and be prepared to get a bit dirty. If you plan on visiting the Park multiple days in a row, don’t worry about cleaning your shoes until the end of your visit. Keep an extra grocery bag in your car and toss your shoes in at the end of your hike.
Stay on trails. While it might be tempting to venture off-trail to avoid particularly muddy spots, it’s important to stay on trails at all times. By creating or following ‘social trails,’ you can harm plant life, contribute to aggressive erosion, and disturb wildlife.
Bring lots of layers. The weather in spring and fall can be very chilly, so come prepared with layers that you can easily take on and off as needed. I did a couple of early morning hikes and was very grateful for my winter hat and down jacket. By midday, however, the sun was shining and I was happily hiking in a t-shirt. If you plan to visit for sunrise or sunset, you might consider bringing along gloves and a scarf, just in case!
Carry plenty of water. Just because temperatures are lower than during the summer months, it’s still important to carry plenty of water when hiking. The climate is very arid and you’ll notice the dryness immediately. In addition, park elevations reach over 9,000 feet above sea level. Drinking plenty of water is a great way to prevent altitude sickness.
Three Amazing Hikes in Bryce Canyon
Navajo Loop to Queens Garden. This very popular 2.9-mile loop trail begins at the Rim Trail and winds through towering hoodoos. Start at Sunset Point if you’d like to descend through impressive, hoodoo-lined switchbacks. Along the way, you’ll see many iconic formations, including Thor’s Hammer, Two Bridges, Queen Elizabeth, and the bottom of Wall Street. Go early in the morning (I recommend just after sunrise) and you just might have the trail to yourself. The loop took me 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Fairyland Loop. This phenomenal 8.5-mile loop provides the perfect opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the majestic beauty of the Park. You’ll experience sweeping views and winding canyon trails, as well as the opportunity to view hoodoos up close. If you visit in the ‘shoulder season’ the Fairyland Spur Road will likely be closed. I recommend parking at Sunrise Point and beginning your hike from there. You’ll start on the Rim Trail before following the Fairyland Loop Trail into the canyon. Take the spur trail to Tower Bridge for views of a very neat rock formation. Continue on the Fairyland Loop Trail until Fairyland Point where you’ll rejoin the Rim Trail for the final section of your hike. The loop took me 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Rim Trail. The Rim Trail runs 5.5 miles along the edge of the scenic Bryce Amphitheater, giving unbeatable views of the unique landscape. The trail starts at Fairyland Point and extends to Bryce Point. Walk a section or simply sit and marvel at the views.
Responsible Travel in Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is located in an arid region of southern Utah. While this unique ecosystem has supported a diversity of plants, wildlife, and people for many generations, drought, rising temperatures, and human development threaten its continued health. Parks like Bryce Canyon can help protect some special places for future generations, but it’s still important to be conscious of your environmental impact when visiting.
When exploring Bryce Canyon, be mindful of your impact on the local ecosystem. Remember to stay on trails, follow ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, avoid feeding wildlife, and minimize your use of water and other resources during your stay. As always, be sure to abide by all regulations to ensure the Park can be protected for generations to come.
Like many U.S. National Park, Bryce Canyon is located on unceded indigenous land. During your visit, spend some time learning about the Paiute, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and Navajo people and their relationship to this region. This video offers historical perspectives from members of indigenous tribes.