'This is fantastic’ — Utah’s Bryce Canyon is back in business, with clear skies and clear, but limited, trails

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Robledo family hikes along the Fairyland Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park, Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Bryce Canyon National Park • With the wind humming through the ponderosas on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, three generations of the Erickson-Rutland family of Minnesota gathered Wednesday morning on the edge of the Bryce Amphitheater, taking pictures of one another as they peered into the basin filled with pink towers eroding out of the cliffs.

“This is fantastic,” said grandfather Dave Erickson, who was on a trip returning home from Arizona. He and his wife wound up visiting Bryce Canyon National Park with members of their daughter’s family, who are on a six-month road trip around the nation, and enjoying the southern Utah destination on its first day open after many national parks closed last month in the face of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Jen Erickson and husband Blaine Rutland hoped they could ride horses with their two young daughters into the Amphitheater, but it’s not likely park concessions will be up and running for another week. Aside from the limited park services, the family could not have picked a better time to visit Bryce. The weather was pleasant and the views crystal clear, with minimal crowds at what can be one of Utah’s busiest destinations.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Rutland said. “We’ll take what we can get. It’s better than it was last week.”

Usually this time of year, 2,000 cars a day stream into this park, said Bryce spokesman Peter Densmore.

On Wednesday, that stream was barely a trickle, but the pace no doubt will pick up by the weekend, even though only the Amphitheater and Rim trails are open to hiking for now.

“The idea was to focus on the area that your park was first established to protect. That’s almost always going to line up with visitor interest and use,” Densmore said. “The Amphitheater is kind of the heart of the park, where almost all of our day hiking trails are located.”

Different park, different approach

On Wednesday, Bryce became the second of Utah’s "Mighty 5″ national parks to welcome back visitors. Capitol Reef allowed visitors into its backcountry areas Tuesday. Entry fees will be waived at all national parks until further notice.

Officials at the two parks expect to reopen more terrain and facilities gradually in the coming weeks, but their initial openings offer a contrast illustrating how the National Park Service is allowing each park to tailor its reopening to its specific circumstances.

While Bryce has opened only its developed destinations and its primary access road, known as State Road 63, Capitol Reef has done the opposite. That 242,000-acre park’s main visitor destination at Fruita, including the visitor center and Scenic Drive, remains closed, while access to its outlying Cathedral Valley and Waterpocket Fold districts are open.

“We are opening almost 90% of the park,” said Capitol Reef Superintendent Sue Fritzke. “There is a core area [that remains closed]. However, there is a lot of the park you can experience. You can use the pullouts on Highway 24 [which bisects the park] to stop and admire the scenery and come back in the future when the park is more open.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Paul and Marie Grenwood hike along the Fairyland Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park, Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Bryce Canyon’s destinations and trailheads, on the other hand, can be accessed only from State Road 63, which covers 16 miles along the canyon rim. With 2.6 million visitors last year, Bryce sees far more traffic than Capitol Reef.

“We did open the road all the way to Rainbow Point; all those viewpoints are open,” Densmore said. “People can stay in their personal vehicles, head down there, enjoy those views.”

Some of Utah’s national parks are reopening or announcing plans to reopen even as Utah’s new COVID-19 infections rise and patients continue to die, mostly in Salt Lake County, but also in San Juan County, home to Canyonlands National Park.

Still, the state’s elected leaders see the open gates at Bryce and Capitol Reef as a welcome sight after several weeks of measures that have kept schools closed and people close to home.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tweeted a shoutout Wednesday to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, praising his leadership for working with Utah to reopen parks.

But park advocates have urged greater caution and question whether proper social distancing can be achieved at some of the more famous attractions at Utah’s “Mighty 5” parks.

Zion National Park has announced it will start reopening some areas May 13 but has yet to provide details on where and how. It appears unlikely the park’s shuttle bus service will resume runs up and down Zion Canyon anytime soon, and visitation will be limited by the amount of available parking.

‘Beautiful day’

At Bryce on Wednesday, visitors enjoyed the 5.5-mile Rim Trail from Fairyland Point to Bryce Point, which passes through Sunrise, Sunset and Inspiration points. They could enter the Amphitheater at Sunrise Point, where a trail winds down into Queens Garden. The Under the Rim and other backcountry trails are closed, but, Densmore said, the open trails provide plenty of great options.

“The Rim Trail is Bryce’s best asset when it comes to balancing visitor experience with maintaining social distance,” he said. “You’ve got those four main viewpoints looking into the Amphitheater, but they’re all connected by this 5.5-mile-long trail, which provides just infinite viewpoints everywhere in between them.”

He would get no argument from Doug Browne, a furloughed airline pilot from Lehi.

“It’s just a beautiful day today. It’s a lot warmer than we expected, and the kids are having a good time,” said Browne, while taking in the vista from Sunset Point with his wife and their three young children. “We’re kind of sad that some of the trails are closed. But we’re just happy to be out here and be a part of it.”

The family members normally fly for their trips but now are enjoying driving at a time when gas is cheap and hotel rooms are easy to find.

“We just needed a day out of our house,” Jaclyn Browne said. “We’ve been a little cooped up, and we’re ready to get back out again.”

The circumstances at all of Utah’s parks, both national and state, will remain fluid for weeks. Before heading to any park, check the website and social media for the latest information on access and social distancing measures.

“An informed visitorship is the biggest thing that we’ve asked from the public right now,” Densmore said. “So we take every opportunity to keep pushing people to the park’s websites. It has this alert feature where they’re posting their operations and you can see exactly what’s going on.”

While Bryce is open at the moment, he cautioned, unfavorable conditions could force park officials to consider closing again, but the hope, for now, is to have the park fully open soon.