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There once was a time when planning a visit to a national park involved little more than choosing the dates and packing the car. Yet as more people discover the parks, it becomes harder to secure campsites, lodging, and even parking. To combat this, it's best to decide what you want to do at the park and then try to schedule your visit for the least-crowded time that is best for those activities. So, if horseback riding is something you want to do, schedule your trip for spring or fall, when the stables are open but the crowds are few.

Luckily, there are more lodging and dining choices in and near the national parks than there were 20 or 25 years ago. At that time, we were happy if we found a restaurant that was clean and served basic American food.

The scenic beauty of Bryce Canyon National Park is unsurpassed -- and because it is among the West's most accessible parks, its wonders can be enjoyed by everyone from the very young to the very old, from hearty backpackers to visitors in wheelchairs. Bryce's defining feature is its hoodoos -- those rock formations that delight the child in all of us. But look a bit deeper and you'll discover Bryce Canyon's other facets, from its varied wildlife to its rugged forests.

Supplies

There is a small General Store (contact the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, tel. 435/834-8700; www.brycecanyonforever.com) inside the park that is open daily from mid-May to mid-October (call for hours), with groceries and camping supplies, plus snacks, ice, beer, bundles of firewood, and souvenirs, all at surprisingly reasonable prices. The General Store is about a quarter-mile south of North Campground near the Sunrise Point parking area.

On the south side of the lobby of Ruby's Inn (tel. 866/866-6616 or 435/834-5484; www.rubysinn.com), just outside the entrance to the park, is a huge general store that offers souvenirs, Western clothing, camping supplies, and a good selection of groceries. The store is open from 7am to 10:30pm daily. In the lobby are a small liquor store, a car-rental desk, a beauty salon, a photo shop with digital photo services, and tour desks where you can arrange excursions, from horseback treks and all-terrain-vehicle rides to helicopter tours.

Packing

When packing, keep in mind that this is a land of extremes, with an often-unforgiving climate and terrain. Those planning to hike or bike should take more drinking water containers than they think they'll need -- experts recommend at least 1 gallon of water per person per day on the trail -- as well as sun block, hats, other protective clothing, and sunglasses with UV protection.

Summer visitors will want to carry rain gear for the typical afternoon thunderstorms, and jackets or sweaters for cool evenings. Winter visitors will not only want warm parkas and hats, but lighter clothing as well -- the bright sun at midday can make it feel like June.

Take a first-aid kit, of course, and make sure it contains tweezers -- very useful for removing cactus spines. Hikers, especially those planning to go into the Narrows at Zion, will appreciate having a walking stick to brace themselves against the sometimes strong currents on the "trail," which is actually more wading than hiking

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.