For diehard hikers who don't mind rough terrain, Bryce has two backcountry trails, usually open in the summer only. The really ambitious can combine the two for a week-long excursion. Permits, which are available at the visitor center, are required for all overnight trips into the backcountry. Cost is $5 for one or two people, $10 for three to six people, and $15 for 7 to 15 people (group sites only). Permits cannot be reserved, but must be obtained at the park during the 48 hours preceding your hike. Although the number of permits issued is limited, park officials say they seldom run out. Permits can be obtained daily from 8am until 1 hour before the visitor center closes.
Riggs Spring Loop Trail
This hike can be completed in 4 or 5 rigorous hours, or it can be more comfortably done as a relaxing overnight backpacking trip. This relatively little-used trail offers a good opportunity to escape humanity. You'll have a good chance of seeing wildlife -- possibly even a glimpse of an elusive mountain lion. The trail goes through a deep forest of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine early on, and then turns south through a burned-out area, past blackened trees and brush to the brink of the Pink Cliffs, where you can gaze into a valley of hoodoos below. Yovimpa Pass Campground, about 2 miles into the hike, occupies a tree-rimmed meadow with views of Molly's Nipple and No Man's Mesa. The descent from Yovimpa Pass follows the bed of Podunk Creek, crossing the wash several times, and traversing a forest of ponderosa and piñon pines, aspen, Douglas fir, and manzanita, before turning toward Riggs Spring and the Riggs Spring Campground (3.4 miles from the trail head). The spring is on the west side of the trail and is encircled by a wood rail fence. The trail next turns north, following Mutton Hollow and crossing several washes, finally arriving at Corral Hollow Campground, at the base of the Promontory, just beyond a small stand of maple trees. (You've come 5.7 miles at this point.) The trail now begins the loop around the Promontory, sometimes crossing draws that provide clear views of the white and pink cliffs soaring above. Once around the southern tip of the promontory, the trail begins the steady return ascent to the rim of the canyon. The elevation change of the hike is 2,248 feet.
8.5 miles RT. Moderate to difficult. Access: The trail head is located on the south side of the parking area for Rainbow Point.
Under the Rim Trail
Running just below the rim between Bryce and Rainbow points, the Under the Rim Trail has numerous fairly steep inclines and descents, with an overall elevation change of 1,500 feet. There are five camping areas along the route, plus a group camp area. Doing this whole trail should take you 2 to 3 days.
Although the trail doesn't move too far from the scenic drive, its location below the rim gives hikers a feeling of being alone in the wilderness. There are several spurs connecting this trail to the scenic drive, which enables hikers to choose a route to match their abilities and time schedule. The Sheep Creek Trail (9.5 miles from the trail head) and Swamp Canyon Connecting Trail (10.4 miles from the trail head) both lead to the Swamp Canyon Overlook and parking area on the scenic drive. Whiteman Connecting Trail (12.3 miles from the trail head) takes hikers to a picnic area on the scenic drive; and Agua Canyon Connecting Trail (16.9 miles from the trail head) connects to Ponderosa Canyon Overlook and parking area on the scenic drive. Plan carefully, because once you choose your route it is written on your overnight pass and you cannot change your campsite.
From Bryce Point, the trail meanders toward Merrell Hollow across almost-empty meadows that are home to an occasional twisted conifer and a few manzanita. Nearing the hollow you'll see chipmunks darting about gathering food, and you'll have grand vistas of the Aquarius Plateau, with Tropic Valley nestled in the foreground. The pinnacles grouped at the head of the hollow are brilliantly painted in purples, reds, and oranges. As you descend a long slope, you'll see the Hat Shop ahead. Continuing the descent, you'll finally arrive at Right Fork Camping Area (3 miles from the trail head), located in a tall stand of ponderosa pines.
From Right Fork, the trail follows a deep wash through low brush to Yellow Creek, which it follows upstream, passing the Yellow Creek Group Camp (4 miles from the trail head). As you continue upstream, you'll spot desert shrubs and barrel cactus among the junipers. In the occasional spaces between the trees, you can see the colorful spires at the top of the valley. Near the stream source is the Yellow Creek Camping Area (5.4 miles from the trail head), located in a grove of tall pines; shortly after you leave the campground, the trail climbs a slope with grand views to the east, where gray cliffs provide a backdrop for deep red formations of sandstone.
The trail next passes through open pine forests, along washes, and up and down valleys, offering varying views of carved and etched walls, square-topped pillars, and a mountain topped with sharp pinnacles. Rock cairns (conical heaps of stone) mark the trail when it begins to fade. Once across the Sheep Creek Trail and wash, you'll wind around, up, and then down into the Swamp Canyon bottoms, where cool air pools and aspens grow. After the Right Fork Swamp Canyon Camp (10.5 miles from the trail head), you'll climb onto the top of the plateau, pass an amphitheater filled with lovely hoodoos, and arrive at Swamp Canyon Camp (12.2 miles from the trail head), high above the canyon floor.
As you continue, the trail heads in a southerly direction, descending into the upper basin of Willis Creek, climbing into a sandy saddle, and then descending into Bridge Canyon -- look to the west for a clear view of Natural Bridge. Once in the canyon bottom, the trail arrives at Bridge Canyon Camp (15.6 miles from the trail head), nestled among pine trees. Although cliffs are visible from the campground, the Natural Bridge is blocked from view.
After crossing an open meadow that's blanketed with a profusion of yellow wildflowers in late summer, you'll follow Agua Canyon upstream -- rock cairns help keep you on course. As you approach the head of the wash, you'll start up a steep, north-facing incline partially shaded with Douglas fir. As you near the crest, the trees thin out, providing magnificent views north and west.
Dropping into the next basin, you pass under a colorful cliff, after which the trail climbs several ridges and skirts a bowl filled with hoodoos, before arriving at the small Iron Spring Camping Area (19.5 miles from the trail head). Next you'll climb a gradual but constant slope toward the rim, with increasingly panoramic views of the orange cliffs north to Bryce Point. Soon a turn to the west blocks this vista, and you have a steep climb to achieve the rim and the Rainbow Point parking area -- the end of the trail, where you'll find a picnic area and restrooms. Rainbow Point is also the trail head for the Bristlecone Loop and Riggs Spring Loop trails.
22.9 miles one-way. Moderate to difficult. Access: The trail head is located on the east side of the parking area for Bryce Point Overlook.