Hiking the Fairyland Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park in Winter
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.