A (Busy) Weekend in Bryce Canyon National Park

It’s the end of May which means two things: (1) Dave is leaving for the field for three months and (2) it’s time for a “see you in three months” vacation for the two of us. This year we wanted to spend some quality time together in a National Park that Dave had not yet visited. Initial plans were to go to Yellowstone for a four day weekend but a cold front moved through and brought thunderstorms with it.  Plan B: head south.  We decided to put our Yellowstone trip on hold until the Fall and headed to Bryce Canyon National Park instead. Bonus to heading to Bryce was that they were having an astronomy festival centered about the eclipse on May 20th.  The park even planned to hand out free eclipse glasses so that you could watch the eclipse safely. Problem with Plan B:  thousands of people had the same idea….

Astronomy festival poster for Bryce Canyon National Park

Dave and I got a bit of a late start on Friday morning and had a slow 6 hour drive due to torrential downpours that followed us from Logan all the way to Bryce Canyon City.  We knew that the park was going to be busier than usual with the astronomy festival but we did not expect the level of use that we experienced. Bryce Canyon is a fairly popular park receiving about 1.5 million visitors per year (that’s a little less than half as many visitors as Bryce’s neighbor, Zion National Park, sees in a year). Bryce is also located on the “Grand Circle” an auto-tour of parks in Southern Utah and Arizona that is highly popular with international tourists. 

We arrived in Bryce at about 4pm on Friday and the campsites within the park were already full (over 100 tent sites).  Driving into the park you pass Ruby’s Inn which is a massive complex consisting of an RV Park (complete with tent sites and tepees), a general store, lodge, and a couple of restaurants. Since our plans were already a bit derailed we decided to stay in a tepee our first night in town just for the hell of it (Plan B again…).

Our tepee (and PBR) at Ruby Inn’s Campground

We spent most of Saturday hiking the Fairyland Loop trail (an 8 mile rolling trail) from Sunrise Point. Parking was a bit of a nightmare at the trail head but overall we did find some quiet moments of solitude during the hike. We stopped for a leisurely lunch, a beer, blister care, and relaxing under a lovely shade tree and actually only saw three groups walk by us.  After our hike we made a very brief stop at the visitor’s center after we luckily found some parking. The visitor’s center was packed! Bryce had tents set up outside with information about astronomy and the solar eclipse and you could barely walk into the visitor’s center because of the crowds. People in the visitor’s center were pushy and angry. A woman from Texas told off a French speaking visitor because she accidentally budged in line after misunderstanding the cashier’s instruction.  I bought a couple of postcards and vowed to never stop in the visitor’s center again during our trip.

Hoodoos along the Fairyland Loop Trail

Saturday evening another Plan B situation appeared when we learned that Dave’s advisor needed him to get a few more things done before his field season (thank goodness for 3G networks in National Parks..right??).  So our four-day weekend turned into a three-day weekend with a late night drive after the Sunday eclipse. Therefore, Sunday’s plans became hike in the morning, make a cook lunch, pack up camp, go into the park to watch the eclipse with the free glasses they provide, stay until the “ring of fire” appeared (at approximately 7:33pm), and then book it back to Logan with an ETA of 2 or 3am.

Did you experience solitude during your visit to Bryce Canyon National Park? (photo by Dave at the switchbacks on the Navajo Loop)

Sunday started out just fine. We chose to hike one of the park’s most popular hikes – the Queen’s Garden Loop combined with the Navajo Loop.  We got to the trailhead early enough that were able to find parking but there was no chance at experiencing solitude on the day of the eclipse.  The hike was absolutely lovely and took you right to the base of the hoodoos and through a stunning slot canyon. The end of the Navajo loop also features some beautiful trail design with switch backs stretching up to the rim.  At the end of our hike we ran into two friends from Logan who had the same motivation as us: get out of Logan to spend a weekend away before field seasons started. We made plans with them to meet up on at one of the park’s eclipse viewing sites later in the day.

Trees growing at Wall Street along the Navajo Trail

In an attempt to find some quiet time in the park we decided to end the afternoon by driving to the farthest end of the park, Rainbow View, and do a short hike through a bristlecone pine forest.  The views were amazing and we did find some time out of view and earshot of other visitors. We left the park just as it started to get a bit crazy with plans for a lovely, relaxing afternoon at our campsite (we moved out of the tepee after Friday night). We made delicious lunch, showered, napped, and packed up the car.

At about 4pm, we received a text from our friends informing us that the shuttle waits were reaching 45 minutes, the eclipse viewing sites were a mess of people, and that the park had run out of eclipse viewing glasses.  Bryce Canyon had anticipated approximately 7,000 people to attend the eclipse viewing and as such they bought about 8,000 eclipse viewing glasses. According to our friends, the glasses started to be handed out at 2pm at various locations throughout the park. The park was completely out of glasses within an hour or so.   So once again, we went to Plan B. Our friends kindly invited us to watch the eclipse with them and they had so thoughtfully (and bravely) fought the crowds at the visitor’s center and acquired not one but two (!) pairs of eclipse glasses.  We could now watch the full annular eclipse in the peacefulness of their campground and without burning our retinas out of our eyes.

Dave in his special eclipse glasses.

Although our trip did not go exactly as planned, we had an awesome weekend and I was extremely happy to be able to watch the annular eclipse with Dave.  Our drive home was long but not unbearable. We could not find a place opened late enough for dinner in Utah on a Sunday night so an energy drink and a bag of munchies had to do (how I did not get sick, I have no idea…).  We arrived home at 1:30am with awesome memories of an awe inspiring astrological event, nightmares of hordes of visitors, and a cute picture of us on the Rim Trail.

Full annular eclipse (ring of fire) taken by Dave through his eclipse glasses.

Dave and I on the Rim Trail near Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon National Park – May 20th, 2012.

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