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UNDER THE RIM
The first thing the rangers at Bryce Canyon National Park will tell you is that the backpacking trails are “not the good part.” They will insist that the good part is the hoodoos in the amphitheater. Don’t believe them. The Under the Rim Trail takes you by so many beautiful red rock cliffs and formations that you will eventually realize God was just showing off when creating Bryce.
The hike is almost completely in the Ponderosa Pine elevation zone, so the forest is very open—no tree-tunnels here. I did not see any mammals bigger than a squirrel, although what sounded like a mule deer came crashing through the brush just after dark one night, snorted at me a couple of times (water was scarce, so I guess I had not washed in a couple of days) and departed unseen. The bird life, however, is plentiful. There are gobs of Clark’s Nutcrackers (sort of like Gray Jays, except with prettier white flashes), Steller’s Jays (mountain blue jays), Western Bluebirds, and the occasional vulture. The trial basically crosses a series of canyons descending from the central plateau, the rim of which is glorious red rock. So the trail goes down one valley, up the next. Camps and water are in the valleys.
The trials outside of the amphitheater are good, but in need of maintenance. There is no evidence of any blow downs being cleared in the recent past, and some of the trails traversing sandy hillsides are becoming thin. Not so in the tourist areas. There the Park uses a small Caterpillar tractor with a blade on the front to keep the paths five-foot wide and smooth enough you could push a wheelchair on them (not that anyone does—they are much too steep for any such thing and rolling over the edge of the path would be fatal).
The Under the Rim Trail is a 23-mile trail from Rainbow Point to Bryce Point, which is just on the edge of the amphitheater. I extended it with an eight-mile loop (“Riggs Spring loop”) on the south end, and a walk through the amphitheater on the north end. In all, it made for a very nice 4 day/3 night trip.
The report is based on a trip I took in mid-May 2013. That time of year should be their busy season—after the snow melts and before the summer heat. The backcountry was virtually empty. Unlike the problem I encountered getting campsites in Canyonlands National Park in earlier years, not a single campsite was full.
Also, this park has an amazing shuttle system. I dropped by car at Bryce Point the first morning, and caught a shuttle back to Sunset Campground. From there I caught a different (but still free) shuttle to Rainbow point. I walked three days back to Bryce Point, dropped by pack in my car, played tourist in the amphitheater, had lunch at the lodge, and caught another shuttle back to my car at Bryce Point.
Day One started at Rainbow point, dropping down to Riggs Spring (in picture above), all downhill and taking only about an hour and a half. A word about the water at Riggs Spring: terrible. It is a mudhole with very little flow out of a pipe, and the water looked bad. I treated with UV light, although I saw another crew attempt to filter. They reported their filter clogged every half liter. Even so, by the next morning, I came down with the early symptoms of giardiasis (fortunately I carry Metronidazole, a prescription medication that treats the problem so I could continue the trip).
Unbeknownst to me at the time, a ranger later told me that Yovimpa Pass spring is the best spring in the park—and I walked right by it on my way to Riggs Spring because my water bottles were still full. Which brings me to the next point—this is the desert. Hauling water is pretty much a way of life. When I’m in the desert, I have adopted a modified approach. Instead of camping by water and having a cooked meal in the evening, I hike during the cooler hours of the morning and by noon make sure I’m at someplace with water. I then cook my meal, clean up, take a nap, read a book, watch the cloud formations and basically sit in the shade through the long, hot afternoons. Then, when the shadows grow long and the air cools (say 4:30 or 5:00), I head back out on the trail for a few more miles.
Using this approach I can cover far more miles with far greater enjoyment. So the first day I stopped at Riggs Springs for the afternoon siesta, then headed with a pack full of water to Coral Hollow (pictured below) for the evening. I carried about 3 liters of water to get me through a cold dinner, breakfast, and the trail to Iron Springs.
Day Two takes you back up to your starting point at Rainbow point (there is no water there, but there are pit toilets), and then back down to Iron Spring. This trail is stunning (see picture below). If you have less time, this can be Day One, skipping Riggs Spring and going straight to Iron Spring. Even with a pit toilet stop at Rainbow Point (see the earlier comment about giardiasis) and stopping for breakfast, it took me from 6:30am to about 11:am to get to Iron Spring.
True to its name, Irons Spring tastes like iron (actually, slightly better than the Southern Michigan well-water in my grandparent’s house). The spring looks horrible with all the rust color on the leaves and algae clogging the spring and a very suspicious scale-like substance floating on top that was difficult to keep out of the filer. Still, it’s better than Riggs Spring (I realize that is damning by faint praise). The campsite here has huge Ponderosa Pines and great views of the red rock.
That evening I headed out with 4 liters of water to Natural Bridge camp. Note: names are misleading. There was no bridge, natural or otherwise. I’ve seen a picture of the alleged formation on the back of the topographical map, but that is the only evidence of its existence. The campsite here is nothing to write home about.
In retrospect, I should have kept walking about one valley further north. There is not a convenient National Park campground (and you have to stay in official campgrounds in the Park), but the trail leaves the park twice, once just south and once just north of Natural Bridge campground. These areas are in the Dixie National Forest, and camping is permitted. There is a very nice camp spot in the valley north of Natural Bridge, just before the burn area (pictured below).
In Day Three you encounter the burn from the 2009 fire just after walking back into the Park. You want to walk this area during the cool hours of the morning and definitely before noon. The fire was extensive, and in this section it was hot enough to crack and discolor the sandstone boulders. Nothing survived. A few plants, mostly holly, have pushed through the forest floor, but they are not enough to hold the land, and the trail has disappeared. The same is true of basically every time the trail crosses a wash—there is just rubble from the last spring flood, and you just find the trail on the other side. The problem here is that the trial ran along the wash. And the wash won.
If you are heading south to north, head for the lowest point on the horizon, which is the easternmost branch of the wash (I didn’t. I choose the middle branch and ended up climbing a really steep hill only to discover that I was cut off from where I needed to be by a deep ravine). If you are coming from the north, this may be a bit trickier because at some indeterminate point the trial should veer west from the wash—keep looking for the row of trees with National Park boundary signs nailed to them and head uphill from the wash until you cross the trial (it is in existence at this point). This is the only place on the trail where a topographical map is really useful (otherwise, the little cartoon map the Park gives you would suffice, although it doesn’t show all of the up and downs).
As you head towards the Swamp Canyon campsite (again, misleading names: no swamp, and not even in the canyon, but really on the plateau overlooking it), the burn becomes patchy and more trees, and their blessed shade, survived (see below).
There was water in the creek below the Swamp Canyon campsite, but no real pools for filling a water bottle. If it is running, that would solve the need to carry so much water from Iron Springs.
Then, the burn area returns, the creek goes underground at some point, and by the Right Fork Swamp Canyon campsite (name is half right—no swamp, but at least it is in a canyon) it is dry. This campsite looks miserable for any time when the sun in actually up as the fire burned heavily here.
Over the next ridge and down takes you to a potentially confusing intersection. The intersection is really two “T” intersections (one from the Swamp Canyon Loop and one from the Sheep Creek, but the maps exaggerate the distance between them. In reality they are about 20 paces apart. Here, as throughout the Park, the signage is very good.
Sheep Creek campsite (again, no sheep) is an oasis. The topographical map claims that there is “swamp” feeding it. You are in no danger of alligators, but after so many days without good water, you cannot hold a bit of exaggeration against the cartographers. By this point, you are past the burn area, and there is good, running water—enough water to wash myself for the first time in days. After so long without, I had this bizarre feeling that letting all of that water run down the creek bed was extravagant, wasteful and somehow wrong. When I was there, there were what appeared to be camera traps for wildlife with motion sensors to trigger the shutter, so I made sure to get a couple of nice photographs taken.
I would recommend staying at Swamp Creek, but hindsight is 20-20, and that evening I headed out for Yellow Creek campsite (uncharacteristically, an accurate name: there is another good creek here, and the earth really is yellow). The trial there gives magnificent views of the cliff walls and you do not need to carry too much water.
Even with stopping for a cold dinner on the trial, it took me about 3 hours. All in all, that was a long day from Natural Bridge camp to Yellow Creek Camp, and you could easily get from Sheep Creek to Bryce Point the last day, but I wanted to get in early so I could play tourist and walk among the hoodoos in the amphitheater before it got too hot (and I had an eight-hour drive home).
The Last Day I walked through the Hat Shop (pictured below), and quickly arrived at Bryce Point by mid-morning, dropped my pack, and just carried water and a camera for the last part.
The reason I walked south to north was that I wanted to finish with the amphitheater. The hiking on the tourist trails is surprisingly steep, with lots of ups and downs. The trails, however, are immaculate.
And the hoodoos are just amazing. Okay, they are prettier than the rest of the park. But don’t let that mislead you into thinking the rest of the park is ugly. It only suffers by comparison.