Capitol Reef, Where The Sky’s the Limit

Photo by John Fowler

Driving and hiking amid soaring cliffs, sandstone domes, and alien landscapes in Capitol Reef

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Even considering Utah’s many impressive national parks and monuments, it is difficult to rival Capitol Reef National Park’s sense of expansiveness; of broad, sweeping vistas; of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless landscape; of limitless sky and desert rock.

While Bryce and Zion are like encapsulated little fantasy lands of colored stone and soaring cliffs, the less-visited Capitol Reef is almost like a planet unto itself. Here you get a real feel for what the earth might have been like millions of years before life appeared, when nothing existed but earth and sky.

The park preserves the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface (“waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater). The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with a visual resemblance of the park’s many white Navajo Sandstone domes to that of the nation’s Capitol Building.

It takes a little more effort to explore Capitol Reef National Park, but here you’ll find fewer people on the wide array of hiking routes to natural bridges and narrow canyons, comfortable campgrounds with pleasant tent sites amid shade trees, and paved and high-clearance vehicle roads that lead to some of the most incredible landscapes in the Southwest. Because there is so much to see and do in this remarkable area, we’ve helped narrow the choices down for you with these helpful suggestions for the must-see and must-do experiences in Capitol Reef.

Scenic Drives

In some parks you really need to get away from the road to find the best scenery, but in Capitol Reef National Park there a plentitude of beauty that can be accessed by vehicle.

The most logical place to start is the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, a 25-mile round trip paved road that is lined with pullouts that allow you to stop and take it all in. One highly recommended stop is the Panorama Point/Goosenecks view area, on the park’s west end. From the scenic drive, several nice, short side drives on well-maintained dirt/gravel roads can be negotiated in virtually any vehicle. The first of these, Grand Wash, is sort of like taking a Disneyland ride in your own car. The hike through the Narrows, from the trailhead at the end of the Grand Wash drive, is highly recommended.

Hike to Hickman Natural Bridge

Two miles east of the visitor center on S.R. 24 is the trailhead for the easy to moderate hike to Hickman Natural Bridge (2 miles round-trip, takes about an hour and a half). This is perhaps one of the best park walks in all of Utah, with quintessential scenic views and glimpses of Fremont Culture ruins. Hickman Natural Bridge itself is a must-see, spanning 133 feet across a small stream bed. From this trail you can also see one of the large white sandstone domes that inspired the park’s name. In this lightly traveled part of the world, you will probably have this highly recommended walk mostly to yourself.

In addition to the Hickman Natural Bridge Trail, there are many other easy day hikes, strenuous adventure hikes, and overnight backpacking trips that can be accessed from S.R. 24, Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, and Highway 12 west of the park.

Explore Capitol Gorge to the Pioneer Register

At the end of the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, you should definitely drive out to the end of the unpaved but well-maintained Capitol Gorge spur, a few miles father along the scenic drive. This 2.2- mile road is a little narrow for RVs, and nothing you would want to pull a trailer through, but other vehicles will make it without difficulty. It is hard to imagine a more unusual driving experience for a conventional vehicle: The gorge ends in a narrow channel carved between sheer cliffs.

An easy and interesting 1-mile hike from the trailhead at the end of the Capitol Gorge drive takes you into this slot canyon, where on a rock wall called Pioneer Register you can see the names of miners, settlers, and other adventurers who passed through here starting in 1871. In fact, the labyrinthine Capitol Gorge road here was the main transport route through this region from 1884 until UT Highway 24 was opened in 1962. Pioneers had to remove boulders and other debris after every flash flood, and at its best, it was a tight fit for big wagons or trucks.

Pick Fruit in Fruita

After a visit to Capitol Reef’s rocky wilderness, the green groves and fruit orchards around the intersection of UT Highway 24 and the park scenic drive are a cool and welcome sight. Just after the turn of the century, the Mormon community of Fruita, nestled in the shaded canyon formed by the Fremont River, was a lively, vibrant town of nearly 50. Though most of Fruita’s residents gradually moved away after Capitol Reef’s establishment as a national monument, the fields and orchards (and an abundance of wildlife) remain for your enjoyment. Visitors may even pick small quantities of fruit in season: cherries in June, apricots in July, pears in August, and apples in September. Look for U-Pick signs and be prepared to pay a small donation for any fruit you take with you (there is no charge for fruit you eat on-site). The money, collected on an honor system, goes to maintain the orchards—a very worthy cause.

While in the Fruita area, make sure you check out other historic attractions such as the Fruita Schoolhouse, old Blacksmith Shop, the Gifford House, and the Fremont petroglyphs.

Revere Mother Nature at the Temples

About 5 miles east of Sleepy Hollow on S.R. 24, watch for the turnoff on the left for Cathedral Valley Scenic Backway. This 56-mile dirt track heads back to the northwest through the northern tip of Capitol Reef and into Cathedral Valley, ending at Fremont Junction on I-70. The main attractions along this desert and canyon drive are views of such dramatic formations as Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, which can also be viewed from the Upper Cathedral Valley Trail. High-clearance vehicles are advised for this rather rough drive, which includes a ford of the (very shallow) Fremont River. And as with all unpaved roads in the Utah desert, this route can be impassable when wet, so keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Notom Road Scenic Backway

In the southern district of the park, back-road enthusiasts will want to check out Notom Road Scenic Backway. This 29-mile scenic drive (about 25 miles of which is paved) parallels the Waterpocket Fold and gives one of the better perspectives on its magnitude. It connects with the Burr Trail at the southern end of the national park, making up the 129-mile “Waterpocket District” loop.

For more details on Bryce, Visit Utah — from which this itinerary comes with compliments.

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