The area surrounding Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks offers a smorgasbord of scenic wonders and recreational opportunities. The gateway communities to the parks provide a variety of activities along with a welcome change of pace for kids who might be getting a bit tired of the beautiful but seemingly endless rock formations. Adjacent to Bryce Canyon National Park is Grand Staircase-Escalante -- a vast, stark, but stunningly beautiful national monument -- as well as Dixie National Forest, a popular spot for mountain bikers, anglers, campers, and hikers. Within 90 minutes of the south entrance to Zion National Park, you can wander through the mysterious lava caves of Snow Canyon, or strike out off-road in a dune buggy at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park -- and that's just for starters. Two other state parks, Kodachrome Basin and Escalante, are within an hour of the entrance to Bryce Canyon and provide lovely vistas and quirky pleasures all on their own.

Just outside the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park are the communities of Tropic (population 475), along Utah 12, about 8 miles east of the park entrance road, and Bryce Canyon City (population 140), along the entrance road and near its intersection with Utah 12. Much of the lodging, dining, and other services for park visitors can be found in these communities.

For additional information on area attractions, contact Bryce Canyon Country, operated by the Garfield County Office of Tourism (tel. 800/444-6689 or 435/676-1102;

There are a variety of outdoor activities in the Dixie National Forest (discussed below).

The Best Western Plus Ruby's Inn, in Bryce, is practically a one-stop entertainment center for those looking for a bit of variety in their national park vacation.

Directly across Utah 63 from the inn are Old Bryce Town Shops, open daily 8am to 10pm from May through September, where you'll find a rock shop and a variety of other stores offering an opportunity to buy that genuine cowboy hat you've been wanting. There's a trail here especially for kids, where they can search for arrowheads, fossils, and petrified wood; or perhaps they would prefer checking out the jail.

Nearby, Bryce Canyon Country Rodeo (tel. 866/782-0002) showcases bucking broncos, bull riding, calf roping, and all sorts of rodeo fun in a 1-hour program, from Memorial Day weekend through late August, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 7pm. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for children 3 to 12, and free for children 2 and under. Adventurous visitors can also ride: bulls for adults and steers and sheep for kids. Call for details.

Rock or Wood -- What is this Stuff?

It looks like a weathered, multicolored tree limb, shining and sparkling in the light -- but it's heavy, hard, and solid as a rock. Just what is this stuff? It's petrified wood. Back in the old days -- some 135 to 155 million years ago -- southern Utah was not at all the way it is today. It was closer to the equator than it is now, which made it a wet, hot land, with lots of ferns, palm trees, and conifers that provided lunch for the neighborhood dinosaurs. Occasionally, floods would uproot trees, dumping them in flood plains and along sandbars, and then burying them with mud and silt. If this happened quickly, the layers of mud and silt would cut off the oxygen supply, halting the process of decomposition -- effectively preserving the tree trunks intact. Later, volcanic ash covered the area, and groundwater rich in silicon dioxide and other chemicals and minerals made its way down to the ancient trees. With the silicon dioxide acting as a glue, the cells of the wood mineralized. Other waterborne minerals produced the colors: Iron painted the tree trunks in reds, browns, and yellows; manganese produced purples and blues. Sometime afterward, uplifts from within the earth, along with various forms of erosion, brought the now-petrified wood to the surface in such places as Escalante Petrified Forest State Park and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, breaking it into the shapes we see today -- a mere hundred million years or so after the trees were first uprooted.

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.