Trail Running in Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon hosts far fewer visitors than the more popular National Parks of the Grand Circle – Grand Canyon and Zion. But make no mistake, of all the worthy outdoor destinations of the Colorado Plateau, Bryce is among the very best for trail running. In fact, its relatively low popularity is a big factor in its favor.
One thing probably deserves clarification right off the top. The Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park may be a bit confusing when you first arrive at the park, but it isn’t a misnomer. The possible confusion stems from the fact that the sheer cliff walls and hoodoos for which the park is famous are not one wall of a massive canyon but rather the face of a long escarpment carved from the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Bryce is actually just the most prominent of numerous small, discrete canyons – sometimes called amphitheaters – along the scalloped face of the plateau. Just file that information away, it’ll make perfect sense when you see it.
If you’ve run in Bryce, please share your favorite or most memorable experiences. Have a resource to share? Leave a comment! Have a question? Lay it on us. We’ll do our best to get you an answer.
Easy Trail Run – Navajo-Queen’s Garden Loop
None of the routes that take you off the rim and among the hoodoos are flat, but there are several short routes that qualify as relatively easy. An excellent 3-mile Bryce sampler starts at Sunset Point and follows the Wall Street leg of the Navajo Loop, then gradually climbs out of the canyon on the outer leg of the Queen’s Garden Loop.
Insider’s Scoop: Add a 0.7-mile warm-up and cool-down by starting from Inspiration Point and using the Rim Trail to tie into the Navajo-Queen’s Garden Loop described above. Besides adding a bit of relatively easy mileage, this segment has great views of the hoodoos below.
Moderate Trail Run – Fairyland Loop
Fairyland Canyon is located just inside the northern park boundary. In fact, the road to the Fairyland Point trailhead is actually outside park gates. And yet, despite its convenient location, the Fairyland Loop sees only light traffic.
5.5 miles of the Fairyland Loop are on a rollercoaster of a trail as smooth as any rail trail. Of course, there is the requisite plunge off the rim to start this segment and the stiff climb to end it. Another 2.5 miles closes the loop via the Rim Trail. This section is classic Western singletrack through sage and ponderosa pine. Like many rollercoaster rides, you’ll probably have a stupid grin on your face for most of this one.
Insider’s Scoop: The Rim Trail that closes the Fairyland Loop is a great trail in its own right. As the name suggests, it twists back and forth, and up and down, along the edge of the plateau, playing peek-a-boo with photogenic vistas of the canyons, fins and hoodoos at your feet. The Rim Trail is about 5.5 miles long and can be accessed from a number of trailheads, including its terminuses at Fairyland Point and Bryce Point. (About a half-mile – between Sunset and Sunrise Points – is paved.)
Advanced Trail Run – Under-the-Rim
The Under-the-Rim Trail is strictly for the exceptionally strong and adventurous wilderness runner. Whereas Bryce’s shorter, front-country trails are all about the Creamsicle-colored hoodoos, Under-the-Rim traverses one wild canyon after another through dense forest, punctuated by numerous seasonal creek crossings, meadows, and exposed hogback ridgelines. Although route-finding is never problematic, Under-the-Rim is a truly primitive, backcountry trail. Even on a weekend day in the peak of summer, it’s unlikely you’ll see more than a few people on the trail.
Insider’s Scoop: Under-the-Rim is a point-to-point trail terminating at the northern end at Bryce Point (elevation 8,300 feet) and at the southern end at Rainbow Point (elevation 9,100 feet). Although the route profile is quite different from Grand Canyon’s South Kaibab-North Kaibab, the overall stats are in the same vicinity: 22.9 miles one-way, 4,600 feet of climbing south-to-north, 5,400 feet of climbing north-to-south. We include this comparison in part to discourage underestimation of Under-the-Rim. Unlike mountain running, canyon running means you do not have gravity on your side late in a hard run. Running north to south means more net climbing, but the final climb back up to the rim of the plateau is a bit more gradual.
If the wild nature of Under-the-Rim is appealing, but tackling the trail in its entirety is more than you want to do, there are three “outs” between the two ends of the trail via short connector trails. Another shorter backcountry option is the Riggs Spring Loop, which has a personality similar to Under-the-Rim, but compresses the fun into less than nine miles. If, on the other hand, you want to extend the distance, you can tack on the 5.5-mile Rim Trail (Bryce Point is the southern terminus of Rim and the northern terminus of Under-the-Rim).
Mileage of segments of Under-the-Rim (north-to-south):
10.5: Bryce Point – Swamp Canyon Connector
1.6: Swamp Canyon Connector – Whiteman Connector
4.4: Whiteman Connector – Agua Canyon Connector
6.4: Agua Canyon Connector – Rainbow Point
The only Under-the-Rim trailhead served by the park shuttle is Bryce Point, so getting back to where you start your run is up to you. To complicate things a bit, the park prohibits hitchhiking.
Get Your Gear:
It’s best to come to Bryce fully prepared. Gas, groceries and an overabundance of souvenirs are available, but there is nothing resembling a running store or even a well-stocked general outfitter. The truly desperate can try the general store-camping supply shop inside the main lodge at Ruby’s Inn.
Get Your Grub On:
There is a restaurant and general store inside park boundaries at the Bryce Lodge complex. Just outside the park is Ruby’s Inn/Bryce Canyon City, which has several convenience stores and restaurants. Unfortunately, they are all pretty mediocre. Things improve only a little by traveling to the towns of Tropic (about 10 minutes from the main park entrance) or Panguitch (about 20 minutes). However, if your trip to Bryce includes the stretch of scenic Highway 12 to the east of Bryce, there are destination restaurants in Boulder (Hell’s Backbone Grill) and Torrey (Café Diablo).
- Three Cool Things About Bryce – Pronghorn, Bristlecone Pines, and Advanced Darkness (SB’s Term)
- Garfield County Tourism – A good resource for the greater Bryce Canyon region, including Grand Staircase, Capitol Reef and Kodachrome Basin.
- The Lodge at Bryce Canyon – One of the iconic, Underwood-designed National Park Service lodges. 1920s charm on the canyon rim … and right on the Rim Trail. Hotel-style rooms and rustic cabins, plus restaurant and general store.
- The Bryce Shuttle – Riding the shuttle is optional, but is a good way to get around among the most popular attractions and trailheads both inside and just outside the park. Note, however, that the shuttle route does not include lightly visited trailheads such as Fairyland or Rainbow Point.
- Weather – Given its elevation of 8,000-9,000 feet, conditions are relatively cool and pleasant on the plateau even on the hottest days of summer. However, it can get pretty warm once off the rim among the canyons. Extra attention should be paid to hydration, given the altitude and arid climate. The shoulder seasons are wonderful, although snow may linger late into spring. There are several popular areas for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing during the winter.
- Maps – Bryce Canyon Backcountry (pdf) is a good starting point for reccy of Under-the-Rim or Riggs Spring. Also see National Geographic #219.
Call for Comments
Please leave a comment letting us know of other valuable trail running resources in and around Bryce Canyon National Park!
[Stacy Young is a trail runner based in St. George, Utah. He also heads the Wilderness Running Company, an online retailer that specializes in trail running shoes, apparel, and accessories. As an iRunFar reader, you can get 10% off any order with the Wilderness Running Company Just enter the code iRunFar10 at checkout.]
[Disclosure: We're grateful for the support that Salomon provides for the Destination Dirt series. As you might already know, we're a Wilderness Running Company affiliate, so your WRC purchases by way of any iRF link help support us.]