Bryce Canyon - Small park with big time photo opportunities
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
First Time Visit
I was landing in Las Vegas and planed an extended stay at the Grand Canyon North Rim, but had a few extra days I could spend somewhere else too. Where to go? Southern Utah was the logical choice. Being August and sleeping in the back of a minivan, the high altitude of Bryce Canyon, with it's cool nights, won out over the many other options. As usual, the National Park Service has some great maps.
The National Park Service campgrounds were undergoing some renovations and they were not allowing you to make reservations far in advance, as they normally would. Unlike many of the large national parks, Bryce has a number of lodging options that are just a few minutes outside the park. I stayed in a tent site at the Ruby Campground, which was a few dollars more than the National Parks, but was very near the park entrance and had deluxe showers and cell reception.
I left the Grand Canyon North Rim for Bryce, after my morning photo shoot was done. The drive to Bryce is a little over 3 hours. The drive was beautiful and I got a taste of what's to come, when I passed the Red Canyon visitors center, part of the Dixie National Forest, 15 miles before you get to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Storm on the way
It was mid afternoon, and the monsoon clouds were beginning to build. My original plan was to go to the campground and get checked in, but the storm clouds looked promising, so I headed directly into the park. I drove to the Inspiration Point parking lot and walked over to the amphitheater rim for my first view. The approaching storm was still a ways out but was already beginning to darken parts of the sky. I hiked up towards the higher overlook and set up just below there, to avoid the crowds at the railed in area. This turned out to be an excellent spot to view and photograph the incoming storm.
Thor's Hammer, is one of the best known formations in the Bryce Canyon National Park. It's an impressive monolithic tower of rock with an oversized crown. Truly a wonder among wonders in this awesome display of God's handiwork. It is best viewed from a short ways down the Navajo Loop Trail, which leaves from the Sunset Point area. Sunrise is a good time to photograph this giant hodoo.
Sunrise and Sunset
As the canyon lies to the east of the rim, there are many locations to see the sunrise throughout Bryce Canyon. The drive to Rainbow Point, at the far end of the park, has numerous overlooks, all of which could justify a sunrise photo shoot, if you are spending a number of days here. Even during the busy summer season, there was little trouble finding great vantages points to image from on the rim or along the trails leading down into the canyon. In the early morning, not surprisingly, the overlook named "Sunrise Point" was the most crowded location I saw. While it is a nice spot, I really did not find it superior to other locations along the rim.
Looking towards the south as the golden morning sun lights up the canyon hoodoos.
Sunset, can be a little "complicated", as the setting sun, in most locations will be behind you or off to the side. I found my best opportunities shooting 90 degrees away from the sun and using the golden hour side lighting. In the image below, the sun is setting to the right, out of the field of view.
This overlook area is at the southern tip of the canyon and has its own unique take on the canyon. I came back here a couple of times during different times of the day. Take your time, as there are multiple vantage points to explore at this location.
While the view points along the canyon rim of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater get most of the attention, there are numerous other wonderful photo opportunities. Paria View is near Bryce Point and the drive to Rainbow Point has numerous overlooks, each with their own perspective. If you have more days here, some of these overlooks, like Agua Canyon, would be great to check out at sunrise.
The hiking trails through the Bryce Canyon amphitheater, Navajo Loop and Queens Garden, are simply extraordinary. You will find it difficult to put your camera down as you pass one "Kodak Moment" after another. The trails are extremely well marked and while they both involve a fair amount of elevation change, they are both very "family" friendly.
The aptly named Fairyland, seems like something the Disney imagination team would come up with for an over the top "caricature" of what the old west looked like (ala Thunder Mountain Railway). In this case God's version has them outdone. The road to this wonderland, is on your left, about a mile before the main park entrance. So you don't actually need a park pass to get there. Drive about a mile down the road and it ends at the Fairyland parking area with an overlook and the beginning of the Fairyland Loop Trail.
Even if you don't have much time, just walk 10 minutes down the trail and you will be picking your jaw up off the ground. How some of these Hoodoos are still standing is beyond me. Each little turn in the trail reveals another visual wonder. There was quite a bit of haze both times I shot here. Wonderful potential here for some great images, especially with better lighting than I had.
Mossy Cave Trail
Another part of Bryce that is outside the official park entrance is the Mossy Cave Trail, that includes a waterfall as well. The hike was nice, along a stream, but the waterfall does not have a great setting. I would not bother with this location, unless you want to say you did it all. Parking is very limited.
I was here in the middle of August, arguably the busiest time of year. I never used the free shuttle bus, though it looks like a good option. Entering the park before dawn each morning, they are not checking for park passes, so you can just drive through. Finding parking in the middle of the day was a little challenging at Sunset and Inspiration Point parking areas. The visitor center was always crowded, but well staffed. The Sunset Point parking was also crowded at, not surprisingly, Sunset. I was still always able to find a spot to park with a minimal amount of patience.
If you are imaging from the "official" fenced in viewing location, you may find yourself rubbing elbows with others, or someone sticking their cell phone into your camera's line of site. At most locations you can either find someplace else nearby or just wait a couple minutes. Most tourists, look out, take their selfie and are gone in a minute or two. An exception would be Sunrise Point, that did appear to be "wall to wall" with tripods for Sunrise. But, as I mentioned earlier, it really isn't any better than many other spots along the rim. I think people see the "name" and assume that it must be "the" spot to be for sunrise.
I really enjoyed the General Store. It's inside the park near Sunrise Point. It had clean bathrooms and a nice selection of snacks, drinks and some food, all at reasonable prices. Cell service worked there too.
Please be mindful of the numerous "stay on the trail" markers. Unlike the Grand Canyon, much of the topography is loose or granular rock. There are many areas where the ground can simply not tolerate visitors going off trail without it causing damage. I am really looking forward to getting back to Bryce Canyon.