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TRAIL NARRATIVE SELECTION
Bryce Canyon National Park: Water Canyon and Mossy Cave
Trailhead Location: A small parking area located on the south side of Utah Highway 12, just 3.7 miles east of its junction with Utah Highway 63
Trail Use: Walking, hiking
Distance & Configuration: 1.0-mile out-and-back including a short spur to Mossy Cave
Elevation Range: 6,840 at the trailhead to 6,950 at Mossy Cave
Facilities: Vault toilets at the trailhead
Highlights: Wet, often ice-filled cave and nearby waterfall
The presence of water in Water Canyon is a tribute to the early settlers who dug a 10-mile irrigation canal by hand in 1892 to bring water from the East Fork Sevier River to the Paria Valley. The canal was successful in sustaining desert farming communities and also created a scenic canyon with a streamthe only stream in Bryce Canyon National Park.
The cave, cooling stream, and waterfall make this a fun short hike, well-suited to hikers of all ages and abilities. The location on Highway 12 in the northern section of the park, just east of the park entrance, makes Water Canyon a convenient place to stop and stretch your legs after several hours in the car and before entering the heart of Bryce Canyon.
From the roadside parking area the wide trail makes a gentle ascent into the canyon amidst hoodoos on the upper slopes casting a glow of orange and white. Although Water Canyon is not a large canyon, it has a sense of openness with a mix of bristlecone and limber pines on the surrounding slopes.
You’ll appreciate the sturdy bridge with the metal railing. The two bridges are fairly recent additions and replace numerous previous bridges which had been washed away during flash floods. It’s hard to imagine that the small stream you’re crossing could swell to a torrent capable of washing out a bridge but it gives you a sense of the potential for flash flooding in a desert canyon.
The stream has a rather inglorious nameTropic Ditchbut a proud history. It’s just over a hundred years since the stream has been in existence, but the stream has already had a profound effect on the canyon ecosystem. It has attracted wildlife not previously seen in the area. Flora such as the Watson Bog Orchid and the Mountain Death Camas appear in the now-watered canyon, and over time the geology of the canyon will continue to become more like other V-shaped stream-cut canyons.
After crossing the bridge, the trail ascends more steeply and soon arrives at a fork. Take the route to the left leading on to Mossy Cave. Technically more a grotto or alcove than a cave, Mossy Cave invites inspection nonetheless. This shallow, moss-filled alcove fed by an underground spring, so it is adorned with ferns and in winter with icicles.
Now returning down the trail to the fork, take the branch to the right (north) this time and head in the direction of the waterfall. This 15-foot plunge drops into a circular pool exposing dolomite limestone bedrock. The pools are perfect for a refreshing break on a hot summer day.
Along with the hoodoos you can also spot several windows sculpted into the rock above the falls to your right. It’s a short trail leading to the window and makes for a fun add-on with some great views down to the waterfall. Retrace your route down the canyon to return to the trailhead.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N37° 39.946’ W112° 6.619
From the junction of Utah Highway 63 and Utah Highway 12 continue east on Highway 12 for 3.7 miles to a small parking area located on the south side of the highway.
SIDEBAR: The Tropic Ditch
In 1874, a few pioneers heard about the Paria Valley from the Native Americans. It sounded appealing, with a favorable climate, abundant grazing, arable land, timber, coal, and water. The pioneers soon settled the communities of Cannonville and Henrieville which lie to the east of Bryce Canyon on the Paria River.
But the growth of these communities forced farmers to look for more reliable water sources than the seasonal flow of the Paria River. They conceived a plan to bring water from the East Fork Sevier River on the Paunsaugunt Plateau to the west of Bryce Canyon to augment the flow of the Paria River.
From 1890 to 1892 Mormon pioneers labored with picks and shovels to carve a 10-mile canal across the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Since that time, except during the drought of 2002, the Tropic Ditch as supplied irrigation water to the Paria Valley. The water rights extend from mid-April to mid-October when you’ll see water pouring over the falls and down the canyon.