The smaller of the two parks, Bryce Canyon, is known for its surreal, brightly colored rock formations, called hoodoos, and ancient bristlecone forests. Zion is more formidable and diverse, with massive stone monoliths, high mesas, a flowing river, hanging gardens, and narrow canyons. The “newcomer” at 60 million years old, Bryce, named for early pioneer Ebeneezer Bryce, ranges from 6,620 to 9,115 feet. Formed 200 million years ago and called “Little Zion” by the Mormons who settled the area, Zion’s elevation is 3,700 to 8.726 feet.
Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon, but rather a series of what are known as amphitheaters filled with hoodoos. Hoodoos are made of limestone that the forces of wind and water have eroded over millions of years. Or, you can believe the Paiute legend that they are evil people transformed to stone. The colors of the hoodoos are the result of iron and manganese in the rock.
There is an 18-mile road through Bryce that connects various scenic viewpoints. Alternatively,there is a voluntary, free shuttle to some of the primary vistas; it does not travel the entire 18 miles. All of the lookout points are on the east side; it is best to drive to the end of the road and stop at the designated points on the return trip. One of the viewpoints is called Fairyland, aptly named as you look out over the sculptured hoodoos. Other descriptively titled formations include Silent City, Hat Shop, Sinking Ship, Gulliver’s Castle. There are always groups of people who gather in the morning at Sunrise Point and late in the day at Sunset Point.
The best way to get a true appreciation of the amphitheaters is to hike down into them. Remember, though, if you hike down, you must hike back up! A relatively easy hike is to combine the Navajo Loop Trail with Queens Garden Trail. Start this hike at Sunset Point and end at Sunrise Point; it takes about two hours. The portion of the Rim Trail between these two points is paved, relatively flat, and wheelchair accessible.
Mule deer and pronghorns, commonly called antelope, are plentiful in Bryce. Although more usually seen at dusk, I have seen both in the mid-afternoon in the park. Squirrels, chipmunks, and a variety of birds are abundant. Avoid any contact with prairie dogs as they cantransmit diseases to humans.
There are accommodations in the park at Bryce Canyon Lodge, a complex built around an original lodge constructed in 1924 of sandstone and pine. There are both cabin and motel rooms with balconies or porches and they are a short walk to both Sunrise and Sunset points. There are no televisions or internet access; if you want those amenities, try Ruby’s Best Western just outside of the park. There are a few additional motels also outside the entrance. Bryce Canyon Lodge has a full service restaurant and there is a small grocery store in the park. Ruby’s has a full service restaurant, fast food, self serve grill, and grocery store. For dining, I would recommend the Bryce Lodge restaurant.
The rock formations in Zion are made of sandstone with descriptive titles such as Great White Throne, Pulpit, Altar, The Watchman, Court of the Patriarchs, Checkerboard Mesa, Temple of Sinawava. There are three major parts to Zion: Zion Canyon, Kolub Canyon, and the area near the east entrance of the park. Most people visit just those areas that are part of the 12-mile round trip Scenic Drive that begins at the south entrance. A shuttle bus for this drive is mandatory April through October.
In addition to the massive rock formations, there are emerald pools, so named because of the color thatcomes from the underlying algae, and “weeping rocks” with cascading water, vines, and flowers. At the end of the Scenic Drive, there is a thousand-foot waterfall and a path that follows the Virgin River to the Narrows, a steep, narrow canyon.
While much of Zion can be seen from the Scenic Drive, hiking provides a greater appreciation of the diversity in the park. The hike to the Emerald Pools is relatively easy, as is East Mesa Trail. The Canyon Overlook Trail provides some of the best views. The Pa’rus Trail which follows the river is wheelchair accessible, as is the Riverside walk. From the Riverside Walk, those who don’t mind trekking through water can enter the Narrows.
There is a lodge in Zion that also provides cabin and motel rooms with balconies or porches, as well as a restaurant and a casual grill. The rooms have no television, but there is internet access. Mule deer can often be seen in the vicinity of the lodge. Springdale, just outside the south entrance of the park has motels, inns, and bed and breakfasts, as well as a variety of restaurants.
Both parks have visitors’ centers, interpretive ranger programs, guided walks, and horseback riding. Staying in the parks enhances a visit. You must book early, as those accommodations fill up quickly. The National Parks Golden Pass is good at both Zion and Bryce.