This 125-mile drive (with a couple of side hikes) was the big reason we didn't get more wear on the boots in the main part of the park. I'm not a bit sorry and you won't be either: it's a 5-star and then some. The route passes through parts of one National Park (Capitol Reef), one National Monument (Grand Escalante/Staircase) and one National Forest (Dixie) with more scenery along the way than you can shake a stick at, and all it'll cost you is some gas and time. Nope, you don't have to buy a park pass at any of them.
I've covered the individual highlights in separate reviews but this is very highly recommended for anyone with a love of changing landscapes and wide-open panoramas - although to see some of the best of that involves a little footwork. The park ranger said we could do this in 3-4 hours? Not even close: there was too much to look at! Here's the skinny before you go:
The route I'm giving you is clockwise: heading east on Hwy 24 from the Visitor Center about 9 miles, south on Notom-Bullfrog Road about 34 miles, west on Burr Trail about 36 miles, and north on Hwy 12 at Boulder about 37 miles to Torrey. From there it's 11 miles east to the Visitor Center. You can also do this loop counter-clockwise.
• A piece of the eastern section (Notom-Bullfrog Road) is over 20 miles of teeth-rattling washboard dirt that crosses a gorge and a few washes - some of them deep and narrow enough to cause problems with RVs/trailers. The road is generally in good shape but can become impassable after heavy rain so it's MANDATORY that you check conditions with the park service before setting off.
• A little piece of the southern route (Burr Trail) is up (or down, depending on which way you go) a series of steep, tight switchbacks NOT recommended for RV's, vehicles towing trailers, or persons afraid of long drop-offs. This piece is also dirt-surfaced and can be dangerously slippery in wet weather. RVers can avoid this by doing the tour counter-clockwise, turning around when the paved road turns to dirt, and returning the way they came - thus skipping the switchbacks and unpaved Notom-Bullfrog segment.
• Free-range livestock, common to this region, were ALL over parts of the western (Hwy 12) section so both eyes on the road and a light foot on the gas!!! I'd make sure to be safely back at the park or Torrey before nightfall: a lot of the cows are black and would be hard to see in the dark, and there were a lot of deer, too.
• There are no services along the majority of the route so have a full tank, spare tire, drinking water, snacks, etc. along. There are a couple of gas stations and restaurants in Boulder, or take a 27-mile side trip down to Escalante - worth it just to cross a high, narrow ridge called the Hogback, or make the hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Ask the ranger's desk at Capitol Reef for more information and/or a brochure to take along. Here we go! If viewing this in the VT Travel Guide for the park, see individual reviews for this drive in the correct order by rolling your pointer over my member photo, clicking on blue "The Big Wrinkle" text to go to my personal travel pages, then referencing the "Things to do" section.
This is a honey: a 6-mile RT hike to a shady waterfall oasis along an interpretive trail of 17 or so geological, botanical and archeological points to interest. Pick up a brochure at the trailhead and ask the kids to watch for the corresponding numbered posts that mark each site. Of special note are two ancient granaries and a couple of nice pictographs - although you really have to look to find them.
Otherwise, just enjoy the walk. This one doesn't have a lot of elevation change but the trail surface is sandy so you'll be plodding a bit. It also has some welcome bits of shade here and there. Lower Calf Creek Falls drops 126' into a cool, green pool that just begs for a dip on a hot day: swimming allowed and encouraged! It's also one great place for a pack lunch before retracing your steps to the parking area. Photographers, light is best here in the morning - which, of course, was not when we were there.
Calf Creek Recreation Area is managed by BLM and is 16 miles north of Escalante or about 11 south of Boulder on Hwy 12. There is a small day-use fee for parking and a modest fee for camping at one of the first-come, first-served sites. They are scattered in lush, secluded nooks and crannies around pristine Calf Creek (another great place for cooling off) and have fire rings/grills and picnic tables. Drinking water and restrooms are also available but no hookups or showers. These fill VERY quickly so get there first thing in the morning if you want to try and snag a spot. Because of their location near the creek, I read that they can be a bit buggy but far more comfortable in brutal desert summer than some other choices.
The Gifford House was built by one Calvin Pendleton in 1908 and subsequently occupied by two other families - the third being the Dewey Giffords (1928-1969): last of the residents to leave the Fruita settlement. Today, the house doubles as a museum and gift shop for the Capitol Reef Natural History Association, and you can wander period relics scattered around the main floor as well as a smokehouse and barn outside. The shop sells handcrafted, antique reproductions, recipe books, aprons, candy, jellies and preserves, syrups and, best of all, homemade pies.
If you have seen, as I have, more than your share of old washbasins and whatnot, these crusty little devils would be the #1 reason to stop. They are stuffed with fruits or berries from the Fruita orchards and are just the right size for four - or two ravenous hikers - to share. Get yours with a side of homemade ice cream and have a pie pig-out at one of the tables outside. Sadly, they are seasonal treats so if you visit in winter, no pie for you. Bonus? A park pass isn't needed to get your hands on a tin so drop by if you're driving through the area.
An interesting side note: the pies are made daily in the kitchens of Cafe Diablo in Torrey: one great place for dinner. See the review in my Torrey pages if interested.
I carried on an earnest conversation with a Higher Power while The Husband oh-so-carefully tilted and squeezed our rented 4X4 between two large boulders. The ranger had said oh SURE we could do this thing but at that moment Yours Truly was having some serious doubts about his sanity.
Upper Muley Twist Road spurs off Burr Trail to the right about a mile after the switchbacks and runs for about 3 and 1/2 miles to the trailhead for Strike Valley Overlook. The first 1/2 mile - to the Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead - is entirely civilized. Parts of the next three are a pain in the undercarriage: the "road" is an uneven, primitive crawl up the middle of wash littered with muffler-munching rock.
The Force, remarkably, was with us and we set off on the 1/2 mile walk through a bit of juniper forest and up an expanse of smooth, white slickrock to one of the most breathtaking landscapes we'd ever set eyes on. From a soaring point 2000 feet above the valley, the Waterpocket spools out its tortured, beautiful history in paintbox of color for miles in both directions. A fella could write about the geology all day but I won't; best just to gaze and marvel over what 200 million years of the earth's forces have wrought. My photos don't do it justice - we were here in the morning (afternoon light is reportedly better) and haze was a problem but neither were spoilers for the experience.
Do this if all possible. The 3 and 1/2 mile drive to the trailhead CAN be carefully done with a 4-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle but the wash will be impassable after heavy rain. If you don't have the vehicle (or the nerves) to conquer the "road", it can be done as a 7-mile RT hike from the parking area at Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead, just 1/2 mile from the Burr Trail turnoff. Check with the park desk for road conditions before setting off and don't attempt it with rain in the forecast. A nice 9-mile hike of Upper Muley Canyon can also be done from the Strike Valley trailhead: see the link below if interested.
This first section of the loop heads south from Hwy 24, abt. 9 miles east of the Visitor Center, and runs 35 miles south to Burr Trail - 20 of them over washboard dirt/gravel and a few washes so it's not frequented by the majority of park-goers. It's sandwiched between the colorful, tilted thrust of Waterpocket on the east, Henry Mountains to the west, with lots of scenery in between. You'll pass by ranch lands, spurs to some nice slot canyon hikes (see the park website), interesting rock formations, and pullouts with signed points of interest/viewpoints along the way. One of them is a distant glimpse of a lonely pioneer cemetery with the grave of Elijah Behunin's (remember him?) eldest child. Also named Elijah, he died at 14 from a ruptured appendix and is buried on a hilltop near what was the settlement of Notom - after which the road gets its name.
We turned west at Burr Trail for this loop but Notom-Bullfrog can be followed another 40 miles or so (35 of them more dirt/gravel) to Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell. As mentioned in my overview, the unpaved stretch of this road is often impassable after heavy rain so check with the park office before packing the car, and I don't recommend it for RVs or trailers.
Wish we'd been able to do more of this one 'cause what little we crammed in was fun but the clock was ticking...
Grand Wash Trail starts at the end of a 1-mile dirt road off of the paid section of Scenic Drive - about 3 miles or so from the visitor center. That road is in pretty good shape so you can normally do it with a 2-wheel drive unless there has been a lot of rain. The trail starts at a parking area at the end, travels 2.2 miles through a dramatically narrowing canyon, and winds up on Hwy 24. If you have two cars, you can leave one here and shuttle back, or just retrace your steps. It's a little under 5 miles RT, and you can add more by taking a fork near the trailhead that climbs up to Cassidy Arch and Frying Pan Trail.
But Grand Wash is really nice and not at all difficult: a pretty flat walk in a dry wash to the narrows. It's a good one for young families or folks who don't want, or need, to abuse their knees. Just mind the weather, OK? This is a dangerous place to be with rain in the forecast. Don't hike at all? Just the drive in to the trailhead is worth getting the car dusty.
Note: you can see Cassidy Arch from along the dirt road but you really have to look for it. It's in the middle of my third shot and I couldn't get under it enough to get a patch of sky through the opening.
Youngsters in Fruita, like all pioneer children, were trained to help with the chores as tots but their parents also believed in the value of education. This 17' by 20' one-room log schoolhouse was built by the settlers around 1892 - 1894 for lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic and any other subject they might scrounge an instruction book for. The same Elijah Behunin mentioned in previous reviews has a connection here as well: he donated the land it stands on and one of his daughters was the first teacher.
As was common in those days, formal education ended after the eighth grade and a schoolmarm or master was often not much older than his or her pupils: Nettie Behunin was only 14 when she assumed the role. Upper-grade students were usually assigned the tasks of hauling drinking water and wood for the huge pot-bellied stove that provided heat in winter.
Life was hard in Fruita but it wasn't all work: the little school was a gathering place for dances, meetings and community celebrations, and the children of the Mormon settlement traded primers for Bibles at Sunday School sessions here at the same desks where they learned their ABC's.
After Capitol Reef was designated a National Monument and different of the families sold their properties to the NPS, attendance declined to the point that the school was closed in 1941 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It's furnished just as it would have been the day the door closed on the last students; if it's not open for during your visit, you can take a peek through windows. A park pass isn't needed to visit the school.
Here's a memoir by former student who attended school here in the 1920's:
We said goodbye to Capitol Reef from here on our last night and couldn't have picked a better spot. Sunset Point (marked as Panorama Point on the park map) is a very short 2/3 mile RT walk to a point 6,400 feet above Sulphur Creek and canyon floor below. As the sun sets, the majestic cliffs and domes are illuminated in a blaze of reds, oranges and golds; distant Henry Mountains sink into soft purples; the sky deepens into velvet azure: beautiful. You'll be surrounded by shutterbugs but who cares - it's a heck'uvan eyeful for free.
We did this one early morning and had the trail - and the overlook - all to ourselves: heaven! This is a 3-mile RT that passes for .5 mile along the orchards near the river, through brush and pasture, and then climbs aggressively up 480' of cliffside to a more gentle incline and some switchbacks leading to the top. From this lofty aerie you have a fantastic 360-degree panorama of the Waterpocket's thrusting red cliffs, domes of white Navajo sandstone, and deep valley below. Return by the same route to the parking area. No park pass is needed for this hike.
If you're there in the fall, snag a brekkie of ripe apples and pears from the orchard to pack along: yummy!
Part of the valley in what is now the National Park was once home to Mormon pioneers who arrived here in the late 1800's to farm and raise livestock near the Fremont River. This small group of tough, hard-working folks planted sizable orchards of fruit trees which proved to be their most lucrative source of income, and are probably the reason that the settlement, once known as Junction, was renamed Fruita in the early 1900's. Apples, plums, peaches, pears, cherries and apricots were hauled by wagon - no small task over this region's difficult terrain - to other small communities and sold or bartered for goods unavailable in their remote location.
Isolation also required self-sufficency: children to be schooled; horses to be shod; people to be fed and sheltered; equipment to be mended. Structures for all of these needs were built from whatever materials happened to be close at hand, and some of them still stand today.
Capitol Reef was established as a National Monument by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 and by the 1960's, most of the residents of Fruita had sold their property to the NPS and moved on. But the orchards, named for some of the families who originally planted them, are still a cash crop for the park - providing fruit for homemade pies, jams and jellies for visitors to purchase.
You will find the ghosts of this frontier outpost along portions of Hwy 24, east of the visitor center, and a no-pass-needed section of the Scenic Road; download the self-guided tour before (link below) before you go.
Remember the Elijah Behunin I mentioned in the Capitol Gorge Trail review? This was the house he built in 1882 for his family of 13. That is a LOT of Behunin's for one tiny cabin. Actually, about 8 or 9 too many; a dugout in the cliff behind was a bedroom for some of the boys, and a few of the girls bunked in a wagon box. The little one-room, sandstone-block house measures 13 by 16.5 feet, had a fireplace for cooking, and sleeping space for parents and youngest of the tots. My guess is that most daily chores and activities occurred outdoors, and there may have been rough shelters nearby for livestock and storage. The family were only here a year or so when the Fremont River, expected to provide abundant water for farming, flooded its banks and took their crop with it; time to move on.
You can find Elijah, his wife, Tabitha Jane, and a few of their offspring in the Torrey cemetery down the road. The cabin is unfurnished and closed to visitors but there's a pullout here for a look at the exterior. No park pass needed.
This is another fun one for families that climbs to the biggest natural span in the park. A printed guide (50 cents) available near the trailhead corresponds to 17 marked posts for geological, botanical and man-made points of interest along the way. The path climbs steeply at the beginning of this 2.2-mile RT hike but flattens out at the top and follows along past clumps of prickly pear, an ancestral pithouse and granary, and a smaller natural bridge than the one at the end of the trail. Hickman is huge - 133 feet long and 125 feet high - and designated as a natural bridge instead of an arch because of the way it was formed: by flowing water instead of freeze-thaw cycles of erosion. The trail makes a small loop under and around it, and then you just retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
The path is largely exposed with little-to-no shade so is a hot one in the afternoon; bring plenty of water. It is also one of the more popular hikes in the park so expect to have a lot of company. More ambitious hikers can find some solitude by taking a right fork to Rim Overlook (4.5 miles RT) and Navajo Knobs (about 10 miles RT) at the top of the trail's initial ascent. A park pass isn't needed for any of these hikes.
About a mile east of the visitor center on Hwy 24 (the main public road through the northern end of the park) is a rock panel of Fremont-era petroglyphs. These are much more visible and more numerous than the few on Capitol Gorge Trail, and it's an easy, shady walk along the panel on a flat, raised wooden bridge.
As mentioned in my Capitol Gorge Trail review, the Fremont were a culture of indigenous hunter/gatherer/farmers who occupied parts of this region from 600-1300 AD. Petroglyphs (carved) and more rare pictographs (painted) are found all over the Southwest. You'll often see images like these referred to as "rock art" but the people who painstakingly pecked them into the sandstone likely had little time for decorative leisure. Some archeologists think they were a form of worship while others believe they could be records of important historical or astronomical events. Or all of the above.
So while none of them really know for sure what the squiggles, geometrics, animals and otherworldly anthropomorphic (human) forms mean, they have a rough idea how old they are and which groups of people carved them by the age of other artifacts found nearby and specific attributes of the images themselves. For instance, bows and arrows first appeared in this region around 500 A.D, and horses not until after the Spanish brought them in the mid 1500's. Sometimes the age of the surface they've been etched into is a clue as older figures are darker than more recent additions. Later images are also sometimes superimposed over older ones.
Combine your walk here with a hike to Hickman Natural Bridge as the two parking areas are just 1/4 mile or so apart. A park pass is not needed to see the petroglyphs.
This is a very easy (1 or 2+ miles RT) hike that even couch potatoes can do. At the end of the Scenic Drive, hang a left at the fork onto a dirt road and follow it a couple of miles to a parking area and the trailhead. From here, just follow the path as it winds beside a wash, through the majestic walls of the gorge, about 1/4 mile to a wall of faint (and sadly vandalized) petroglyphs from the Fremont Period. They were etched by prehistoric hunter-gathers - named for the same river that runs through the park - who roamed the region over 1000 years ago.
Another 1/4 mile beyond that is a dark rock face covered in more recent inscriptions: the Pioneer Register. The wash that you've been following was once a critical passage through the gorge and into the canyon for the Fremont and, much later, the early settlers who came to farm along the river. In 1882, Elijah Behunin - whose cabin still stands near the Fruita area of the park - and a small group of those first pioneers widened the passage enough to accommodate a wagon, creating what was the first and only road through the Waterpocket Fold for greater part of the next century. Traders, prospectors and travelers took to leaving this 19th century graffiti when passing through - carving John Henry's or pockmarking their initials with a pistol.
From here you can retrace your steps or follow along another 3/4 mile or so to the sign for The Tanks. A short but steep .2 mile climb takes you to a group of natural potholes in the rock that provided critical sources of collected rainwater for both people and animals in this arid region.
Returning to the parking area, just walk in the wash, if it's dry. Raining like the devil? Pick another day; flash flooding could make this one dangerous place to be. This was a particularly nice wander on a September day with a profusion of yellow rabbitbrush, purple asters and scarlet Indian Paintbrush in bloom.
Gosh, there isn't a road in this park that isn't scenic, and all of them are free with the exception of this one - and it's a mere $5 per carload of people. It's a 10-mile, one-way paved drive along towering cliffs, interesting formations, fabulous colors, with a few unpaved spur roads and/or hikes along the way. The park website has a nice self-guided tour you can download before you go (link below). There is an an especially nice - and easy - hike off a dirt road at the drive's end that I'll cover in a separate tip; highly recommended for families with small children and anyone else who can walk a mile. Even if you don't do the hike, at least take the spur (Capitol Gorge Road) out and back as it's a darn pretty couple of miles.