The deep blue sky and bright sunshine greet us as we start our day. The temperature is perfect for a day of hiking and outdoors adventure. We are heading to Capitol Reef National Park. Our anticipation grows as we get closer to the park entrance and the rock cliffs turn crimson red with the rising sun. What should we expect from Capitol Reef? I am not sure. It is the least visited of the “Mighty Five” Utah National Parks and it’s known for the 100 mile long Waterpocket Fold. What the heck is a “fold”? In geology sense, a fold is formed when rocks compress from two sides to push it up or down, and a ridge or a basin forms, over millions of years. At Capitol Reef, the red rock ridge that formed is majestic, colorful, and beautiful to view.
The Fold Greets Us
Shortly after the park entrance sign, we reach Chimney Rock for a view of a rock that looks, well, like a chimney. The rich flaming red colors of the rock reflecting the bright morning sun, with deep blue sky, makes me stop, soak it all in, and simply appreciate the moment.
Panorama Point and Gooseneck Overlook are our next stops. After a short hike, the view of Sulfur Creek a few hundred feet below is beautiful. The morning is off to a good start.
The “fold” gets taller as we descend towards Sulfur Creek and the visitor center. Suddenly, I see gorgeous golden trees where Sulfur Creek crosses highway 24. I have to get out for a closer look. The scene is picture perfect, with rock cliff, river, and golden cottonwood trees in all its fall glory. What a view!
Orchard in a National Park
What is this? An orchard in the middle of a National Park? Sure enough, the National Park Service preserves the hundreds of fruit trees planted by the Mormon settlers more than a hundred years ago in fertile ground next to the Fremont River. If we came a few weeks earlier, we could pick our own apple for a delicious snack. The place is tranquil, with birds chirping and the soothing sound of the river in the background. We take a leisurely stroll around the grounds, under the canopy of the Cottonwoods, soaking in the atmosphere. While this scene seems idyllic, the reality for the Mormons is repeated flooding from the river, making life difficult.
We see a small building that is the school house and community center for the Mormon settlers. The inside is preserved in the state of last use shortly before World War II. I have a hard time imagining having children of such diverse ages all in one room for education, with one teacher. That was life in remote, small towns, where you simply have to adapt.
Into the Fold We Go
The sun is shining, the temperature is perfect, as we take the Scenic Road deeper into the park. We veer off onto Grand Wash road, an unpaved, dusty, bumpy road heading right into the fold and the Narrows trail head. Before reaching the trail head, we pass a sign that says Echo Cliff. Surely, I have to try it and indeed, it echos as I shout like a madman. I hope I’m not disturbing the peace of others.
Walking along the Grand Wash, a dry river bed, the walls are closing in as the bright sun is replaced by deep shadows. The sense of foreboding starts to seep in. What would I do if a big boulder rolls my way like in Indiana Jones? What about a large herd of wildebeests running full speed towards me like in the Lion King? Stop, my imagination is going crazy!
Upon closer observation, evidence of the water shaping the canyon is everywhere. There are interesting circular formations in the rock walls that provide a nice place to sit back and enjoy a good book. After a couple of flat, sandy miles, we reach the narrowest point of the trail that is only 16 feet wide with cliffs of 600 feet. Wow.
Back in the car, we head for Capitol Gorge trail at the end of Scenic Drive, stopping along the way for beautiful views. My stomach is growling as the noon hour passes. I spot the perfect location for lunch at the end of Scenic Drive with shade provided by the picnic shelter, a gentle breeze, and the magnificent cliffs of the Waterpocket fold as the backdrop. The scene is super relaxing and grand at the same time. I’m soaking all of this up like a sponge.
After lunch, we hike the Capitol Gorge trail that used to be the only “road” through the fold until highway 24 was built in 1962. Evidence of people is abundant here with petroglyphs and pioneer writing on the rock walls. This is more of a passage than a road that is only 10 feet wide in places. Still, it’s better than going hundreds of miles around the fold. A Sign for Water Tanks point to a spur from the main trail and we decide to check it out. There is no trail to speak of, but a steep hike on the rocks, guided by cairns that are sometimes hard to see. The path takes us to a couple of pools of water that’s not much to look at since they are water trapped from the last flood of the river bed. However, it’s still interesting to see water in the middle of very dry, arid land.
An Arch Just for Variety
The day is going superb so far. We’ve seen cliffs, orchards, canyons, interesting rock formations, pools, and even a school house. What about arches? That is where we head next, to Hickman Bridge trail with the promise of an arch at the end. We are rewarded after a short hike as the trail goes under Hickman Bridge and loops around before returning to the trail head. I’m always in awe of these natural bridges and often wonder how they form and how long they will stay up.
Human History in This Harsh Land
Now that we know this park is more than just natural beauty, we decide to learn more about the people who lived here. A ranger talk is usually full of interesting information so we decide to attend the talk on petroglyphs. Arriving just as the ranger started, with a small group of visitors under large shade trees, by the cliff baked in glorious afternoon sun. The visitors come from as far as Germany and pepper the ranger with many questions that are all interesting. After the introduction, we go along the boardwalk to view a series of petroglyphs that depicts daily experiences of early Fremont Culture. Standing in the shade under the rustling leafs of the Cottonwood trees, I ponder the connection of this ageless land, the ancient people of Fremont Culture, the Mormons of 150 years ago, the pioneers of a hundred years ago that passed through here, the people of the Roosevelt era that established this National Park, and present day tourists like me. This setting puts our daily, technology driven hectic live into perspective. This place was here long before us, and will be still be here long after our lifetime.
Not Yet Ready for the End of the Day
After an excellent dinner at Cafe Diablo in Torrey, we don’t want this great day to end, so we head back to the park for the evening ranger program of star gazing. Alas, that was not to be. Sure, the sky is crystal clear, but the full moon is so bright it obscured most of the stars. We learn about the efforts of the Park Service to fight light pollution, and the steps the park and the nearby communities are taking to reduce it, such as making sure all outdoor lights have a cap on top to prevent light from shining into the sky. Although we are not able to see the Milky Way, we are rewarded with a completely different experience.
Gathering at the Fruita campground, we watched as the full moon rise over the cliffs of the fold in the still night air with the sounds of the rushing Fremont river. Specs of lights are coming down the ridge from hikers that either wanted a night hike or didn’t plan properly for daylight to end. The rangers led the way as a large group of us walked through the orchard of Fruita and up a hill, completely without artificial lights. The moon was bright enough to see the path clearly. The dark shadows from the ridge and the hue of the moonlight gives a completely different and gorgeous view of the scenery. I didn’t realize what “travel by moonlight” depicted in books meant until now. Indeed, you can travel with a full moon and see rather well. I can now easily imagine stage coach travel by full moon, in the coolness of the night. What an experience!
Thought for Capitol Reef
When an obstacle or challenge seems insurmountable, look for fissures in the obstacle to finesse a way through, just like dried riverbeds provide a shortcut through the Waterpocket Fold at Capitol Reef National Park
Impressions of Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef is an underrated park. It’s a “tweener” of a National Park in many ways. It is the least visited park of Utah’s big five National Parks, in between Zion / Bryce on one end, and Arches / Canyonlands on the other end. Least visited but a very enjoyable park with good hiking choices for all abilities in an accessible, compact package. It also offers good off road choices if you have a 4×4 that can access slot canyons and excellent overlooks. This park has elements of the other Utah National Parks, plus an interesting historically element. Even with a fair number of visitors, the park never felt crowded. We had very little preconceived ideas about this park and we leave very impressed by the enjoy-ability of Capitol Reef.
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Practical Info for Visiting Capitol Reef
- The town of Torrey is the gateway to the park, where you will find decent restaurants and adequate hotels. Cafe Diablo is excellent
- Camp sites inside the park can fill up quickly. Alternative is BLM sites just outside of the park
- Allocate one and half days to visit the core part of the park. Take the Scenic Drive to the end and hike the various trails along the way, drive the length of highway 24, and attend the petroglyph ranger talk.
- If you can arrange for transportation, a hike from the end of the Grand Wash dirt road to highway 24 is a nice, flat walk through the beautiful Narrows. A out and back walk from the end of Grand Wash road to the Narrows is also very nice.
- You will need a high clearance 4×4 to visit the other parts of the park. You may need to drive right on the river bed in places.
- Be alert for thunderstorms, especially in the summer. Flash floods can happen very quickly.
Capitol Reef Facts:
- Size: 241,904 acres, ranked 29th
- Visitors: 941,029 in 2015, ranked 24th and a record breaker. 2016 set another record with 1,064,904 visitors.
- Peak Month in 2016: 174,851 in May
- Low Month in 2016: 10,714 in January
- Entrance Fee: $10 per vehicle. $7 per person not in a vehicle.
Date Visited: October 15-16, 2016