Hiking the Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park in Winter

HikingtheFairylandLoopinWinter.jpg

The Fairyland Loop is considered one of the most iconic day hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park. The trail begins on the rim of the canyon and descends into Bryce Canyon, eventually emerging again at the Bryce Amphitheater. The route lives up to its name, meandering through a world of absurd hoodoos and strange bulbous sandstone towers.

Hiking the Fairyland Trail in winter can give you a totally different perspective of Bryce Canyon National Park. You might encounter mud, snow, or ice, but a trip around this 8-mile loop is totally doable and worth it in the colder months. The snow accentuates the details in the limestone formations and creates a totally different landscape. We hiked this magical trail in December and would highly recommend it for anyone looking to dive a little bit deeper into Bryce Canyon with a more strenuous day hike.

The Fairyland Loop takes you into the wilderness portion of Bryce Canyon and away from the more popular canyon rim.

The Fairyland Loop takes you into the wilderness portion of Bryce Canyon and away from the more popular canyon rim.

Ian stands in front of some incredible hoodoos in Fairyland Canyon.

Ian stands in front of some incredible hoodoos in Fairyland Canyon.

Most of the year, the Fairyland Loop begins at Fairyland Point, but in winter the road to Fairyland Point is closed. Instead, begin the hike at Sunrise Point and head left to follow the Rim Trail north to the loop. Starting from Sunrise Point adds about a mile to the loop, making it 9 miles long. We’d highly recommend starting your day by getting up early to watch the sunrise at Sunrise Point. It lives up to its name—we thought it was one of the coolest places to watch the sunrise that we’ve found (beat out only by Thor’s Well and Mesa Arch). 

The sunrise projects a rosy light on the snow of Bryce Amphitheater.

The sunrise projects a rosy light on the snow of Bryce Amphitheater.

A cloud inversion drifts in over the Sinking Ship formation at dawn.

A cloud inversion drifts in over the Sinking Ship formation at dawn.

At dawn it was 7 degrees, so we had Sunrise Point almost entirely to ourselves, with just a few people trickling up to the viewpoint as the sun was rising above the horizon. That’s one of the coolest parts about visiting Bryce Canyon in winter—the fact that it’s so uncrowded. We probably only saw six other people on the entire 9 mile Fairyland Loop.

Because Bryce Amphitheater faces east, sunrise is one of the best times to view the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park.

Because Bryce Amphitheater faces east, sunrise is one of the best times to view the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park.

By the time the sun was above the horizon, we were ready to get warmed up with a little hiking. We decided to do the Fairyland Loop clockwise, hiking along the rim of the canyon first so that we could start our day in the sun. The portion of the hike on the rim is 2.7 miles long, and most of the way you get to look down into Bryce Canyon.

For nearly 3 miles you get to hike along the rim of Bryce Canyon and look down at the hoodoos in the canyon.

For nearly 3 miles you get to hike along the rim of Bryce Canyon and look down at the hoodoos in the canyon.

The rim was one of the snowiest parts of the hike.

The rim was one of the snowiest parts of the hike.

The whole canyon was covered with snow when we were there, which makes the orange layers of rock look even more vibrant. The snow had a huge crystal structure that was unbelievably sparkly, and the ponderosas, limber pines, and manzanitas were frosted with a hoary frost.

Early in the morning, the trees on the canyon rim were covered with a beautiful hoar frost.

Early in the morning, the trees on the canyon rim were covered with a beautiful hoar frost.

The snow was incredibly sparkly with these massive crystals that had formed over night on its surface.

The snow was incredibly sparkly with these massive crystals that had formed over night on its surface.

Soon we reached Fairyland Point. From this overlook you can spot the Sinking Ship formation, a huge steeply angled butte of sandstone across the canyon. To the right is Boat Mesa, which separates Fairyland from Bryce Amphitheater. Then we descended into the Fairyland Amphitheater along the arm of a mesa into the hoodoos. The Fairyland Amphitheater is less eroded than Bryce Amphitheater, so the hoodoos have a more whimsical turret-like structure.

The hoodoos in Fairyland are less eroded than those in Bryce Amphitheater so they are more bulbous.

The hoodoos in Fairyland are less eroded than those in Bryce Amphitheater so they are more bulbous.

You descend into Bryce Canyon at Fairyland Point. This portion of the trail is a ledge with a sloped drop off next to it.

You descend into Bryce Canyon at Fairyland Point. This portion of the trail is a ledge with a sloped drop off next to it.

Throughout the canyon the trail rises up and down with a total of 1,109 feet of elevation gain. Aside from the length, the trail is not too strenuous and not technical at all. In a few places you pass along fairly narrow ledges, and there is one spot where you walk along a ridge with long drop offs on either side, but it’s not narrow. Any physically fit person without a severe fear of heights should be fine on this trail.

Much of the trail is walking along wide ledges with sloped drop offs. There’s nothing too technical on this trail.

Much of the trail is walking along wide ledges with sloped drop offs. There’s nothing too technical on this trail.

Most of the trail was snowy, but it was easy to walk on. We didn’t encounter too much ice.

Most of the trail was snowy, but it was easy to walk on. We didn’t encounter too much ice.

We encountered patches of ice in some areas, so proceed with caution in winter. We also had to walk through some extremely sticky clay mud. It clings to your shoes and doubles the weight of your shoes. Initially we began the hike all bundled up for the cold of morning, we quickly stripped down to a single layer, and we were even hot in the sun. It was probably in the 20s for most of the hike, but when we ended the hike in the early afternoon, it was nearing 40 degrees. Even in winter, make sure to bring enough water and maybe some snacks.

As for shoes, Ian hiked in boots, but the soles of my hiking boots had somewhat inexplicably broken off my boots the day before, so I opted for a sturdy trail running shoe. Even walking through the snow on the rim of the canyon, I was totally fine in my trail runners, because the snow was pretty dry. In wetter conditions, hiking or light snow boots might be a better choice.

My hiking boots completely fell apart while we were in Bryce Canyon National Park.

My hiking boots completely fell apart while we were in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Fortunately my trail running shoes were totally fine for the hike. Although, we did encounter some crazy stick mud.

Fortunately my trail running shoes were totally fine for the hike. Although, we did encounter some crazy stick mud.

The trail descends into Fairyland for 1.5 miles, and then you rise and fall through hoodoos 2.5 miles. On either side of the trail layered hoodoos are within arm’s reach. While the texture of the trail might lead you to believe the hoodoos are layers of hardened mud or bentonite clay. In reality they are much harder and even have an almost smooth polished texture in places. Keep your eye out for small windows in the cliffs. Eventually erosion will break the window in two to form yet another hoodoo.

There are small windows like this one throughout Fairyland.

There are small windows like this one throughout Fairyland.

This trail is interesting because you get to go down in the canyon and walk between hoodoos.

This trail is interesting because you get to go down in the canyon and walk between hoodoos.

After 4 miles in the canyon, take the quick 200 yard spur trail to the Tower Bridge Formation. It’s a wall with two pointed spires along a wall. There’s a narrow span of rock between the towers and a square window below. Another window can be seen at the end of the wall. The formation is supposed to look like Tower Bridge in London, but it really is kind of a vague resemblance.

Tower Bridge is very cool, and it does kind of look like the Tower Bridge in London.

Tower Bridge is very cool, and it does kind of look like the Tower Bridge in London.

The brilliant hoodoos along the Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park.

The brilliant hoodoos along the Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park.

From Tower Bridge, it’s nearly a two mile climb back to Sunrise Point. Just past the Tower Bridge trail, you cross the run of Campbell Creek Wash, where you can see the remnants of hoodoos that have succumbed to erosion and tumbled into the canyon.

The climb out of the canyon is nearly a two-mile long hill.

The climb out of the canyon is nearly a two-mile long hill.

The hoodoos only look better with the snow on them.

The hoodoos only look better with the snow on them.

Further up, you can see the Chinese Wall, a long ribbed wall of sandstone with many small windows along its length. Eventually this wall will become a series of towers and hoodoos lined up in a row. Bryce Canyon has eroded and continues to erode through ice wedging. In the day as the temperature rises above freezing and water trickles into the rock of Bryce Canyon. At night when the temperature dips below freezing, the water freezes and expands, cracking the rock of the canyon walls. Over time the cracking and ice wedging forms walls. Eventually small windows form in the walls. The windows grow until the top breaks away, forming hoodoos. Bryce Canyon is eroding relatively quickly at a rate of 2-4 feet every 100 years, or up to a half inch each year!

The Chinese Wall formation from the Fairyland Loop Trail.

The Chinese Wall formation from the Fairyland Loop Trail.

You might start this hike cold, but the long hike out of Bryce Canyon will get you warmed up.

You might start this hike cold, but the long hike out of Bryce Canyon will get you warmed up.

Before you know it you are back at Sunrise Point and Bryce Amphitheater. We were able to complete the hike in about 4 hours, so we were back in time for lunch in the van! The sun had warmed up the van, which was nice after a chilly winter hike.

For more on our visit to Bryce Canyon and to see our free camping recommendations in the area read: How to Enjoy Bryce Canyon National Park in Winter.