Bryce Canyon National Park is home to the largest concentration of hoodoos anywhere on Earth. These irregular spires, carved from wind, water and ice, form an other-worldly landscape that is simply breathtaking. Visiting Bryce Canyon in December can be a great way to escape the summer crowds and maybe even enjoy the snow-covered red rock hoodoos.
As in many national parks, snow can temporarily close the scenic drive in the winter. Because of this, you’ll need to keep your itinerary flexible. Still, as long as you can handle the colder temperatures and potential road closures, a winter visit to Bryce Canyon can be magical.
Bryce Canyon is relatively small with only one main road through the park. Thus, you’ll really only need about a day to visit this incredible park. Of course, if you’re looking to do some extended hiking or just want to relax and enjoy the view for a few days, you can easily spend more time here.
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What to Expect at Bryce Canyon National Park
The main road into the park is Utah Highway 63. You’ll find the visitor center about a mile past the entrance. We always suggest stopping at the visitor center to check out the current conditions. This is especially important if you’re visiting Bryce Canyon in December. The main road is subject to closures when there is winter weather.
Bryce Canyon National Park also offers a number of Ranger Programs throughout the year. In the winter, you’ll find a twice-daily Hoodoo Geology Talk and either a guided walk or Snowshoe Hike along the Rim Trail. Check with the rangers at the Visitor Center to see exactly what programs are available during your visit.
From the Visitor Center, continue south along the Scenic Drive into the park. About a mile past the visitor center, on the left, is where you’ll find the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which is located right along the Bryce Amphitheater. The Bryce Amphitheater is the main attraction of the park as this is where you’ll find some of the most spectacular views of the hoodoos this park protects.
As you continue down the scenic drive, you’ll find a number of additional turnoffs and viewpoints. There are also opportunities for hiking both in the canyon, among the hoodoos, and along the rim.
In the winter, snow often blankets Bryce Canyon. When we visited, at the end of December, the weather was cold and snow arrived on our second day. Thankfully, we were able to enjoy the entire scenic drive on our first day. The rangers did close the road after the snow started.
Thankfully, we were also able to get in a good, long hike on the morning of our second day, before the snow started falling. In fact, the first few snowflakes started falling just as we were hiking out of the canyon and back to our truck. The next morning, we headed back into the park to catch a glimpse of the snow-covered hoodoos. While we enjoyed the view, the visibility wasn’t great since it was still snowing.
Even when the main road is open, some of the side roads may be closed in the winter. Because of this, we missed Paria View and Fairyland Point. While we really enjoyed seeing Bryce Canyon in December, both with and without snow, we definitely hope to visit again when all the roads are open.
Thankfully, there are plenty of other parks to see in the area, like Zion National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. In fact, southern Utah is full of both national and state parks and other protected lands.
The 18-mile scenic drive takes you along the west side of Bryce Canyon. This is not a typical canyon, like the Grand Canyon, but rather a series of amphitheaters or bowls, where the hoodoos are found. To the right of the road, you’ll find the evergreens of the Dixie National Forest. It really is a nice drive between two vastly different landscapes.
Around Bryce Amphitheater, there are a number of great viewpoints. By the Lodge, you’ll find Sunrise Point and the start of the Queens Garden Trail, one of the most popular hikes into the canyon. Just south of this area is Sunset Point, another popular viewing area, and a trailhead. There is even a nice, flat trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points.
On the south end of the Bryce Amphitheater, you’ll find two more viewing areas on a side road, off the main scenic drive. Inspiration Point offers both a lower and upper viewing area. It’s a short walk to the upper viewing area but it’s definitely an uphill walk that will get your heart rate up! The small parking lot and viewing area at Bryce Point left us frustrated. If you can brave the crowds, it’s a nice viewpoint, though.
In the winter, the park does what they can to keep these first three miles of the road open. Of course, that all depends on the weather conditions.
Past this point (the 3-mile marker), you’ll find a number of viewpoints and trailheads. Stop at as many of these pullouts as you have time for. Seriously, these views never get old!
The scenic drive ends at Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point. The Bristlecone Loop Trail connects these two fantastic overlooks.
Hiking at Bryce Canyon
There are a number of trails, both short and long, above and below the rim at Bryce Canyon National Park. Many are interconnected, giving you the opportunity to combine trails to create the perfect hike for your interests and ability. Just be sure to check the elevation change before embarking on a hike into the canyon. Some of the trails have more than a thousand feet of elevation change!
When visiting Bryce Canyon in December, or anytime during the winter, you will likely want to have traction devices with you when hiking. Shoe traction, such as YakTrax, is important when hiking on icy trails.
Grant already had YakTrax but I bought a pair at the Visitor Center. We ended up not needing them at Bryce Canyon but they did get some use at Colorado National Monument. Still, there were a few small icy patches. It was definitely good that we had shoe traction with us, just in case.
When there is snow on the ground, all trails are open to snowshoeing. You can also cross-country ski on some of the trails above the rim. Be sure to check the park’s website or talk to a ranger if you plan on skiing.
We chose the one-mile Bristlecone Loop Trail for an above-the-rim hike. This trail is located at the end of the scenic drive, so it’s a great way to stretch your legs before driving back. While there is a little bit of elevation change, overall it is an easy hike with great views.
The trail winds through a forest of spruce and fir trees, along with bristlecone pine trees. Bristlecone pines are well-known for surviving where other trees cannot grow and for their lifespan of thousands of years.
Be sure to check out the views are at the beginning and end of the trail, at Rainbow and Yovimpa Points. Hiking through the forest, with glimpses of the hoodoos along the way really is fantastic. This trail is a great combination of the two landscapes at Bryce Canyon National Park.
We spent about 45 minutes on this trail, which has about 200 feet of elevation change.
The Figure-8 Combination
While there are some fantastic views from the rim, I think the best views of Bryce Canyon are below the rim. If you are able, I highly encourage at least a short hike into the canyon. Be careful, though, as the elevation changes can be significant.
We chose the Figure-8 Combination, which starts at either Sunset or Sunrise Points and combines the Queen’s Garden, Navajo and Peekaboo Trails. The park describes this as “one ultimate hike” and I’d certainly agree with that.
What we didn’t quite pay close enough attention to was the elevation change. Officially, it is listed as having 1,630 feet of elevation change. Our Apple Watches recorded about 1,730 feet over 6.5 miles. It’s a great hike, but it’s not an easy hike.
Still, we are very glad we chose this hike. The Queen’s Garden Trail was the easiest part of the hike and has great views. I’d say the best views are along Peekaboo Trail, though. Of course, that section of the hike also has quite a bit of uphill.
The toughest uphill, though, goes to the climb out of the canyon along the Navajo Trail back to Sunset Point. Seriously, that hike out was worse than the hiking we did out of the Grand Canyon. We made it but at nearly half of our pace as the rest of the hike.
If you are looking for one epic hike, this is a great option. Just be prepared for the elevation change.
The Mossy Cave area is the one part of Bryce Canyon National Park that is separate from everything else. It’s located just off Highway 12, about 20 minutes from the main park entrance. You won’t find the same landscape of hoodoos here, though there are still some great views.
Instead, you’ll find a short hike along a stream to a mossy alcove. In the winter, icicles cover this small area. We also found a small frozen waterfall.
This area has gotten so popular that the park discourages visiting between 10 am and 6 pm. In the winter, that is less of a concern. Smaller crowds are one reason we like traveling in the winter. The parking lot is fairly small, though, so arriving early or late is still not a bad idea.
You won’t need long for this stop. It’s a fairly short and easy trail, taking us less than 30 minutes for the 3/4-mile hike.
Where to Stay
Options for lodging are fairly limited at Bryce Canyon National Park. Inside the park, you’ll find several room options at the Bryce Canyon Lodge. Not all are open the entire winter, though.
Just outside the park, you’ll find a few hotels in Bryce Canyon City. We chose to stay at the Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel. The hotel is a standard Best Western with a nice lobby and breakfast buffet area. We visited in December 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, we were pleased at how the hotel handled breakfast during this time.
While we typically prefer Hilton properties, our stay at the Best Western was comfortable and pleasant. And, it’s less than a 5-minute drive to the park entrance.
You’ll find a few other options in Bryce Canyon City, including another Best Western and a couple of local motels.
If you are interested in camping, there are two campgrounds in the park and a couple in Bryce Canyon City. One loop of the park’s North Campground stays open year-round but there are no hookups available.
Where to Eat
As you might expect, dining options in and around Bryce Canyon are also limited. In the warmer months, there is a dining room at the Bryce Canyon Lodge and the Valhalla Pizzeria and Coffee Shop. The General Store also offers some grab-and-go options. All of these are generally closed in the winter, though.
For lunch, we picked up a couple of sandwiches from Subway on our way into the park. When it came time for dinner, I’ll admit that we were underwhelmed by the options in Bryce Canyon City. Instead, we drove about 20 minutes to The Pizza Place in the town of Tropic.
When we first entered, there were very few diners, so we sat down and ordered and enjoyed a beer while waiting for our food. The dining room quickly filled up, though. When a large family of 10-12 people sat down right next to us, we decided to take our pizza to go. That’s just one of the precautions we take when traveling during a pandemic.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed our pizza and had plenty of leftovers for dinner the next night. With the snow that fell that second night, we were very thankful we did not have to go out for dinner.
Final Thoughts on Bryce Canyon National Park
The landscape at Bryce Canyon National Park really is one of the most unique geological wonders out there. I know there are hoodoos in other parts of the world, but the collection here is extensive and impressive.
As a relatively small park, you can see Bryce Canyon NP in just a day or two. You can even get in a couple of hikes in that time. If visiting Bryce Canyon in the winter, just be prepared that snow can cause road closures and you may need to make changes to your hiking plans. Also, be sure to have lots of warm layers and shoe traction or perhaps even snowshoes.
For us, visiting Bryce Canyon in December was just about perfect. We arrived to clear roads and trails. While we did find limited parking at Bryce Point and Inspiration Point, overall the park did not feel crowded. Seeing the snow come down before we left was a real treat!
Whether you are visiting in the winter or another time of year, you are sure to love Bryce Canyon. And there is no shortage of other sites in the area!