I’ve had some amazing experiences at the 33 U.S. National Parks I’ve visited: rock climbing in Yosemite, biking through snow above the Grand Canyon, paddling under snakes at Congaree, hearing a ceremonial flute serenade at Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. At Bryce Canyon, however, I had 2 experiences that rival the best of the best.
Like Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon is an international dark sky park (it got the designation in 2019). Fittingly, one of the ranger-led activities one can choose is a guided constellation tour, so we picked the latest slot available, grabbed the only warm clothes we’d packed, and drove to the Paria View meeting place at 10:30pm. Our guide was working a summer fellowship through his graduate school program in astronomy; he clearly spent a lot of hours staring at the sky, so he had lots of stories to tell and information to share as his laser pointer showed the various arrangements of stars around the Milky Way band stretched above us.
Just as we were marveling at Jupiter and Saturn, a brilliant ball of fire entered the atmosphere and blazed an arc across the darkness while the 6 of us looked on, agape. “Whoa! I’ve spent a lot of time looking at shooting stars–in Iraq, while hunting with my dad in rural Tennessee, and at national parks–but that’s the best one I’ve ever seen!” Even our guide said in all his years of stargazing, it was a “for sure top 5” sighting for him, too.
We stayed several minutes past our time slot’s conclusion, as the children peppered him with questions, but eventually, our magical nighttime experience had to conclude. We went to our room at the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge and went to sleep.
Our daytime activities the first day at Bryce were hiking to Mossy Cave and seeing a waterfall a bit farther up the trail before watching the sun set across the amphitheater of hoodoos from Fairyland Canyon Point and having dinner at Bryce Canyon Pines restaurant just outside of the park.
The second day, we got up early and hiked Queen’s Garden Trail (1.8 miles roundtrip) after sunrise, going into the bottom of the canyon and then back out before lunch at the lodge restaurant. Then, we walked to the nearby stables and climbed onto 5 mules.
We’d reserved mules the day before, and I’d thought we’d save money (and future soreness, as we were headed to hike Zion next) by doing the shorter of the 2 riding options, but I overheard one of the guides telling someone else struggling to decide which ride to choose that the latter portion (called “Peek a Boo Loop“) is some of the best riding in the state of Utah in terms of natural beauty. I decided it was worth the extra money and the risk of pained thighs, and my hunch was right.
The three hour loop into the canyon, through the hoodoos, up and through red, brown, and white rock formations in the high desert was breathtakingly beautiful, and it was my favorite activity on our trip to Utah so far.
The children got their 4th junior ranger badges, and the masked swearing in was allowed in person, as Capitol Reef had done.
That night, I met my old blogging friend Jon at the Ruby’s Inn Cowboy buffet for dinner, where he was preloading for a half marathon the next day, and we were concluding our time at Bryce Canyon before driving to Zion that evening. Naturally, my uploading the below photo to Facebook drew a swell of “Where are your masks?!” comments, but sometimes, you gotta stand close to an old buddy for 5 seconds to capture the moment, even in a pandemic.
My family and I were covered in dust and exhausted from our mule ride, but the cowboy steaks and company made for a nice sendoff before we began the 1.5-hour drive southwest toward Zion, where we’d conclude our tour of Utah’s 5 National Parks at the one I’d anticipated the most.
Dining options were inescapably sketch at Bryce, but riding a mule over the surface of Mars made up for it. Three thumbs way up.