Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, is on everybody’s list of must-see places in the Southwest, but during summer, dealing with the crowds and traffic can be frustrating at best. However, if you have some flexibility in your schedule, there’s a remedy for that problem. Check out the park’s popular main area, with its natural amphitheaters filled with striking hoodoo formations, first thing in the morning, before most visitors arrive. Then set out to other areas of Bryce for hiking.
An especially good choice, outside the main corridor yet still within colorful scenery, is the Mossy Cave Trail in the northeastern area of the park. The trail head is on Scenic Byway 12, about a seven-mile drive from Bryce’s main entrance. This path will lead you among some of the park’s signature hoodoos, past a small waterfall, to Mossy Cave itself, a spring-fed hollow dripping with water this time of year.
Expect daily high temperatures in the mid-80s with nighttime lows in the 50s during July and August. The trail begins from the parking area at an elevation of 6,805 feet. The 0.9 mile round-trip trail has about a 300-foot elevation gain. Since the elevation is so much higher than that of Las Vegas, the hike might seem tiring, especially if you just arrived in the park that same day and are not yet acclimatized.
The trail is not suitable for strollers, but most children 6 and older can handle it. However, be aware there are steep drop-offs in the upper reaches of the trail.
Well-marked, the trail starts through a pinyon-juniper woodland, with a few ponderosa pines here and there. You will begin to see more and more hoodoos, formed in the colorful pink, orange and red limestone. They are constantly changing shape and size from 200 cycles a year of snowmelt and expansion, freezing and thawing, which splits and flakes the rock.
Rainfall also contributes by creating creeks and gullies on limestone walls, leaving “fins” of rock — relatively thin walls that erode away here and there, leaving freestanding and erratically shaped columns called hoodoos.
From the start of the trail you will be flanking the south side of Water Canyon and then walking over a footbridge to the other side. Continue and you will cross the drainage once again. Thereafter the trail forks, and exploring each direction will be worth it.
The left fork brings you up a short, yet steep, trail to Mossy Cave itself. Standing at the entrance you will be treated to refreshing cold air. In summer there will be some spring-fed water seeping down through small patches of moss, yet for most of the year the cave is full of ice. Resist the urge to go inside the cave as the plant life is extremely fragile.
To explore the other fork return to the junction and head north. Be careful as there are high drop-offs and there is often severe erosion happening along the western bank, so walk with caution. In just a few minutes you will find yourself at the top of a 15-foot waterfall. Except in extremely dry years there is usually a good flow from May to October.
To get to the waterfall’s base you will have to backtrack and walk up the drainage itself, but that’s very worth it if you want to cool yourself off.
Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled in the book “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States.” She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.