It was Memorial Day weekend and we'd planned to spend it in Utah's least popular National Park to avoid the crowds. While the campground was full, it never seemed noisy. For four days, we hiked incessantly. The trails were not too long and we found it was best to start hiking later in the day so as to catch the colorful rock formations in their best light. It was quite odd for me, a natural early riser but we found ways to enjoy the mornings and the tranquil pastoral quality of the park. Of course, the hikes often gave us new perspectives of The Castle.
With Memorial Day behind us we figured it was safe to move onto another park. It would have been easy to leave that morning but our next destination was only 90 minutes away and we'd still not tried the Gifford House homemade pies made with local fruits. With the cute little store serving the pies not open in the morning and one short hike we'd not done awaiting, we drove over to the trail head. To be honest, we were hiked out and the walk in question didn't sound all that interesting, but it would be a good work out and help us build up our appetite for that pie.
We soon found ourselves on top and made our way towards the descent on the opposite side of the bluff when not only did the sun break out but lo and behold, The Castle reared its lovely head. Much as the park doesn't promote this obvious golden egg, the hike description never mentioned views of it either. My wife smiled as if I had it planned all along but I tried in vain to tell her it wasn't so. We continued on up a side canyon but soon turned back. Views of The Castle had waned and it was time to get back to the pie shop. Shortly after, I sat with my wife and we enjoyed a well deserved fresh baked fruit pie. Even if I was having an affair with The Castle, I knew I was a married man and my companion for that pie was her.
Most places have an image that define them and if strong enough they embed themselves in our minds long before we see them in person. Such is the case with the Eiffel Tower and Half Dome. If you have to ask what those two things are, it's unlikely you've thought of going to Paris or Yosemite. Utah is no stranger to iconic natural wonders. The Delicate Arch defines Arches National Park whether you know its name or not. The point is you have some expectation of what you are going to see. Capitol Reef National Park seems to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. As the least popular of Utah's National Parks, it's easy to understand its own confusion. I had not seen any captivating photos of the place in researching where to go on a recent six-month trip around the US but I knew it was a park I'd not been and wanted to. So, it was with great surprise when on driving into the park I was struck by a truly mesmerizing, colorful rock formation jutting right up from the side of the main highway. It was stunning not only in its beauty but by the fact that I'd never seen a photo of it before. How could a park with an identity problem not promote this Mona Lisa of sandstone.
I spent the next few days taking photos of it from every angle imaginable. I hiked behind it on the Navajo Knobs trail. I got to great perspectives at sunset hoping to capture some atmospheric light. Though it wasn't constantly on my mind I somehow managed to get a good look at it every day I was in the park. My wife was starting to think I was getting a little too enamored with it. We found out it did in fact have a name and a pretty fitting one, The Castle. It was certain that in my mind, it would symbolize the park. I swore I wasn't having an affair but each day I made some excuse to get another glimpse, just one more look, maybe from a different angle. That would be the one, the one to break the spell. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
Just hiking in the Capitol Reef park is fine with me. I admitedly love the forests, mountains, sea and other natural things, but the desert has truly captured my heart, I think you can find just about anything there if you just look and listen with patience.
Fondest memory: I climbed up into that indentation and Zohara told me she wanted to take a picture since I looked like some sort of mythical troll coming out of the earth.
Favorite thing: If you are flexible in your travel, try to go when the orchards are open. This is one of the things we wished we could have done, but went before they opened. Stopping off to pick and eat some fruit would've been a fun moment of the visit.
You'll find Goosenecks Overlook near Chimney Rock on the road leading into the park. There is a spur road leading to the overlook and its just a few steps from the parking lot to an expansive view. On a clear day, you'll see mountains in the distance, fronted by high cliffs perched above a canyon.
Most people just speed on by this point, eager to explore the park. That's too bad as its a quick stop and a very worthwhile view.
Favorite thing: Most of the trails along the scenic drive lead into washes along the Waterpocket Fold. But there are a few other options and even some hikes which are just a short stroll from a parked car. This trail, found along the scenic drive, follows an old wagon trail and leads to some nice views of the Waterpocket Fold.
Favorite thing: Capitol Gorge is located at the end of Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. Its a short drive, but the winding, twisting and narrow road extends the time needed to take the journey. Be sure to take some time to stop along the way. Even if you lack the time or inclination to hike any of the trails along the scenic drive, pause for a moment here and there at the pullouts and admire what nature created here.
Favorite thing: Cohab Canyon is a hidden canyon which can be seen by hiking the trailhead from Fruita campground. It is rumored that the canyon was the hideout of Mormon polygamists seeking to evade the long arm of the law, hence the name cohab, short for cohabitation. That seems a bit of a stretch to me, but that's supposedly how the canyon got its name.
The Grand Wash trail is a short hike through a very narrow drainage. The wash actually flows through the massive Waterpocket Fold, although the trail doesn't reach that far.
The Grand Wash Trail is about 4 miles long, relatively flat and pretty narrow. One section of the wash has a width of only 16 feet (that's what the guide book says. I didn't actually measure it.) Its supposed to be a nice trip on a dry day. Unfortunately, I didn't visit in the ideal weather, so the trail was closed due to flooding concerns. Quite the relief as no one would want to be stuck in a narrow canyon with rushing water heading towards them.
Favorite thing: Capitol Gorge is the end of the line for the scenic drive. When the weather is cooperating, it is possible to drive down the 5 mile round trip Capitol Gorge Road to view the scenery up close. As it had snowed recently, the dirt road was considered unsafe and was closed. But there's still a pretty nice view of the Gorge from here.
After passing the Capitol Reef entrance sign, Chimney Rock is one of the first turnoffs you will see. The rock is view-worthy and there's a 3.5 mile trail leading to it. Its a good idea to find out about trail conditions before attempting this trek though as the trail passes a deep gorge and is prone to flooding.
Even if its not a wash-out, so to speak, water or melting snow turns the trail into deep mud, turning the hike into a most difficult trek and caking onto your boots like no other substance I've ever seen before. Unless you want to carry about 3 lbs of mud with each step and then take it home with you as a souvenir, skip this trail unless conditions are very, very dry.
Fondest memory: As you probably guessed from the above, it was not the Chimney Rock Trail.
The scenic drive is a 25 mile loop road which begins near the visitor's center. It continues by passing some artifacts left over from when an old wagon route ran through the area. After passing the picnic area, the drive begins to earn its scenic name. The road then travels past Capitol Reef's rugged cliff walls and ends at Capitol Gorge.
The speed limit on the road is about 35 mph and, with all those twists and turns, you won't go much faster. Plan on spending at least an hour simply doing the drive, more if you want to get out and explore.
Capitol Reef National Park is located 120 miles east of Bryce Canyon. The ideal route to take is highway 12 because its so scenic and has 3 state parks en route to boot. Plan on at least a three hour drive from Bryce Canyon. Based on points north, Capitol Reef is about 250 miles from Salt Lake City.
There is no air or bus service to this area. The closest airports are tiny Bryce Canyon airport and large Salt Lake City airport, but neither is particularly convenient. If you're planning to visit this park, renting a car is a must.
Stop at the Visitor Center and look at the exhibit and watch the film. Rangers and volunteers are available to answer your questions about activities within the park. This is also the place to pick up information about drives and hikes, or to purchase books and maps.
You my write to Superintendent, Capitol Reef National Park, HC 70 Box 15, Torrey, UT 84775-9602
Phone for Visitor Information is 435-425-3791
Web site for information is www.nps.gov/care
Favorite thing: The main season is from May to September when special programs including guided walks, talks, and evening programs are scheduled. If, however, you plan on doing a lot of hiking be aware that summers are very hot with temperatures often in the upper 90s. Also July through September can bring flash floods and lightning storms. However, this also means that you can have wonderful cloud formations for your photography. If you wish to eat fresh fruit, the orchards are producing fruit from Mid June to Mid October. Spring and Fall are ideal for those of you who wish to do some long hikes. This time of the year the temperatures tend to be mild with highs in the 50s and 50s. In the winter, which is when we visited, the temperatures do average less than 50 degrees F, and there can be light snowfall.