There aren't many places in the world where the forces of nature have come together with such dramatic results as in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. From arid desert to pine-covered peaks and awe-inspiring rock formations, these parks offer some of the American West's most spectacular scenery, plus almost unlimited opportunities for hiking, camping, and other outdoor experiences.
Zion and Bryce Canyon sit on the vast Colorado Plateau, which they share with Utah's three other national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef) and Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona.
The plateau began millions of years ago when forces deep within the earth forced the crust to rise, exposing many strata of rocks, and erosion and weathering sculpted rock formations, colored with an iron-rich palette of reds, oranges, pinks, and browns.
Bryce is known for delicate limestone sculptures called hoodoos. But there are also shimmering pools of deep green water, a roaring river, forests of pine and fir, and a vast array of plants and animals.
The main activities in both parks are enjoying the delightful and awe-inspiring scenery -- from the convenience of designated viewpoints and the scenic drives -- and hiking. There is plenty to see from the roads and short walks, and the more adventurous will savor challenging hiking trails and backcountry routes. You can also experience a bit of the Old West while seeing the parks' scenery by horseback -- guided rides are offered at both parks.
Bryce Canyon is a bit more user-friendly than Zion. Bryce also has several fairly easy trails that lead right into the middle of some of its best scenery. This isn't to say that Zion is hard to get into, but because of the greater variety of terrain it takes a bit more time and effort to achieve that same feeling that you know the park.
Flora & Fauna
Bryce Canyon National Park's wildlife ranges from mule deer -- which seem to be everywhere -- to the golden-mantled ground squirrel and Uinta chipmunk. Watch for white-throated swifts as they perform exotic acrobatics along cliff faces. In the high mountains of Bryce Canyon is a forest of fir and spruce, with stands of quaking aspen that turn a magnificent bright yellow each fall. Along the exposed, rocky slopes here you will also find bristlecone pine, the oldest single organism known.
In addition to the tours by horse offered at both parks by Canyon Trail Rides, there are excellent free ranger programs.
Ranger programs at Bryce Canyon National Park include various walks and hikes, such as a wheelchair-accessible, 1.5-hour canyon rim walk and a moonlight hike. Especially popular are the park's Astronomy Programs, usually offered 3 nights a week through the summer. Telescopes are provided. Sign up in advance at the visitor center.