Splendid scenery draws crowds to Bryce Canyon

Although small compared to many other national parks in the West, Bryce Canyon boasts huge scenic appeal within its nearly 36,000 acres. The southern Utah park preserves forests sweeping up to the eastern edge of a high plateau carved into deep, eroded amphitheaters filled with weirdly shaped, vividly colored formations.

Bryce Canyon National Park is a few hour's drive from Las Vegas, making it a popular destination for Southern Nevadans. Head north on Interstate 15 into Utah, then choose one of several approaches.

You can reach Bryce Canyon by turning off I-15 toward Hurricane and heading for U.S. Highway 89 either through Zion National Park or through Fredonia, Ariz., to Kanab, Utah. After repairs on Utah Route 14 are completed (expected to happen by midsummer), you can stay on I-15 and use the reopened highway to reach U.S. 89. You might choose to continue north on I-15 to Route 20, which connects to U.S. 89 near Panguitch. Use U.S. 89 to access scenic Route 12, drive east and then turn south at Ruby's Inn on the park road, Route 63. The park is just a few miles away.

Expect to pay a $25 entrance fee, which is waived for visitors with any of the various federal recreation passes or on the free entrance days: June 9, Sept. 29 and Nov. 10 to 12.

Named for pioneer Mormon rancher and early promoter Ebenezer Bryce, the canyon drew attention because of its unique geology and splendid vistas, but its remote location hampered visitation until the nation's road system began to develop in the early 1900s.

Set apart as a national monument in 1923, Bryce Canyon gained full national park status in 1928. As with several other western national parks, the Utah Parks Co., a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, was responsible for the early development of visitor facilities at Bryce Canyon. Its rustic lodge, built in the 1920s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bryce Canyon Lodge provides a dining room, gift shop and the only hotel accommodations inside the park, with 114 rooms in suites, cabins or the motel. Reserve by phone at (877) 386-4383 or online at www.foreverlodging.com. The lodge fills fast during its season from April to November, so reserve soon. If the lodge is full, consider staying outside the park at Ruby's Inn or other lodgings along Route 12.

The park has two campgrounds, North and Sunset, each with about 100 sites for tents or RVs. A few may be reserved, but the rest are available on a first-come basis. For best site availability, arrive early in the day and avoid weekends and holidays. Fees are $15 per night. Pass-holders pay half fees. Campsites are also available in campgrounds in nearby national forests or state parks. Look for private campgrounds nearby along Route 12 at Ruby's Inn or in towns such as Tropic and Panguitch.

A million people visit Bryce Canyon annually. More than 60 percent of them arrive June through September, but the park is also open in winter for snow adventures.

Because of traffic congestion and limited parking, park officials encourage the use of a free shuttle system from Ruby's Inn. They say that park visitors don't need their cars unless staying in one of the park's campgrounds. Shuttle access is free with the entrance fee through mid-November. Use the shuttle to reach trail heads or to cruise the spectacular rim road and its 13 viewpoints.

Trail riding by horse or mule is a popular way to explore Bryce Canyon on guided rides of two or four hours, spring through autumn. Reserve your spot by phone at (435) 679-8665 or online at www.canyonrides.com.

Acquaint yourself with park facilities, events, attractions and activities at the Bryce Canyon visitor center, open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer. Exhibits focus on geology, history, prehistory, wildlife and stargazing. Elevation, dry air and its distance from cities make Bryce a premier site for stargazing. The park has an annual astronomy festival and indoor lectures at the lodge followed by outdoor telescope study of the skies three nights a week through October. On full-moon nights, you can take a ranger-guided moonlight hike.

Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.