Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman

Hikers explore a canyon in Utah's Capitol Reef National Park. 

Travelers to southern Utah’s five national parks generally do their visitations in bunches. For those coming out of Las Vegas, the tour is Zion and Bryce national parks; for those arriving from the east and the outdoor geeks who like to hang out in Moab, then Canyonlands and Arches national parks are close by. That leaves Capitol Reef National Park as the outlier.

Part of the problem for Capital Reef is that it is not easy to get there. My wife and I had to be in the Lake Powell area, which is on the Arizona-Utah border, so we decided to add Capitol Reef to our journey. Even from Lake Powell it was still five hours by automobile and it’s not an easy ride. 

Most recommendations say to take the scenic route, which means traveling Utah state Route 12 going northeast. It is a gorgeous trip via 12, but it is not for the faint-hearted. At some stretches the byway was carved atop the mountains and you know that because the road was situated across a saddle, meaning the land drops off to the left and to the right. And that is not even the highest elevation of the drive. State Route 12 is recommended because you come into the Capitol Reef area from above, so you can look down upon the park from the bordering mountains. These are not desert hills; the last mountain pass you cross is almost 10,000 feet above sea level.

Still, it’s all worth it. Capitol Reef is one my favorite national parks — and I’ve been to many of them. 

All national parks have a particular geographic or topographic feature that makes the land memorable to visitors. At Capitol Reef that feature is a gigantic wrinkle in the earth’s crust that extends for nearly 100 miles. It’s called Waterpocket Fold, which is technically a monocline or one-sided fold in the horizontal layers of earth. Between 50 million to 70 million years ago an ancient fault was reactivated that lifted the layers of the earth to the west of the fault more than 7,000 feet higher than the land to the east. The rocks eventually “folded” over the fault line. Over eons, wind and water eroded the uplifted rocks, forming the magnificent escarpments, canyons, domes and hoodoos that we see today.

Secondly, all national parks have awe-inspiring scenic drives, but Capitol Reef has a drive called “Scenic Drive” that is probably one of the most beautiful such roads in any national park — or anywhere else. It’s only 10 miles long, but it rolls through canyons and high-desert scenery stunning in color and dimensions. Even if you just drive this road and don’t do anything else, you would be inordinately pleased. But there are a couple of non-paved-road extensions that will absolutely take your breath away.

The first is the Grand Wash Spur Road that cuts through the bottom of a narrow, steep-walled canyon. One of the first stops is the base of a sheer wall many stories high. A sign signals you to look up and left. Atop the nearby escarpment is a rock bridge called Cassidy Arch, named after the outlaw Butch Cassidy, who is said to have used the area to hide from lawmen. How would he know the land in southern Utah so well? He grew up not far away near the town of Panguitch. 

Keep driving until you come to a vast cathedral — a curved wall of rock so large you could probably fit 10 football stadiums below it. Just beyond is the parking lot. Time to get out and walk. 

Just when you thought there was never going to be anything better than this, reconsider. Where the Scenic Drive ends another unpaved dirt track leads through what is called the Capitol Gorge. This was once the main thoroughfare through the reef area, but now it fittingly ends at a parking lot. From here it’s back on foot for an easy but fascinating one-mile walk along the bottom of a steep canyon. 

Capitol Gorge Trail is one of the more illuminating hikes because early groups of Native American travelers used this passageway through the reef and left a series of petroglyphs that still can be seen on the canyon walls. Not to be outdone, the pioneers and settlers of the region also made use of this trail, and they, too, carved names and dates on the walls. Most of these latter carvings are from the 1880s to early 1900s. Toward the one-mile mark on this hike look for the sign that indicates The Tanks, which are natural cavities in the sandstone that capture rainwater, a much-needed source of water for desert animals.

There are a lot of easy and moderate hikes with extraordinary scenery in this park, and although we did a number of them, I’ll recommend just one. It’s called the Grand Wash, and it follows a water passageway through what eventually becomes a narrow slot with tremendously high walls. Not quite a true slot canyon, but it’s a thrill nevertheless.

Most of the activities are along the Scenic Drive at Fruita, the old agricultural community founded in the mid-1800s and well-preserved to this day, and along state Highway 24, which cuts east-west through the park. There is a large segment of the park north of Highway 24, but only high-profile four-wheel- drive vehicles can handle those rugged trails.

Although Capitol Reef is the second-largest of Utah’s national parks, it is oddly shaped. For most of its length it is less than 10 miles across, and to view the most dramatic, visual and continuous Waterpocket Fold it’s a long ride, most of it outside the park and on unpaved roads. 

Our mistake was planning this trip for two nights and one long day, which works if you are doing most of the activities near the northern entrance to the park where so many highlights are crowded. However, if you want to also visit the southern end of the park to see one of the most amazing fissures in the earth’s crust, then you need to add a second day. 

Oh well, there’s always next year.

WHEN YOU GO

Capitol Reef National Park: www.nps.gov/care/index.htm

From Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, take Interstate 15 to I-70 and then turn east, exiting on Utah state Route 24. If you are coming from Phoenix or the Grand Canyon, then try for the scenic route, state Route 12. 

There are no accommodations in the park, but near the main entrance the small town of Torrey boasts a cluster of hotels. We chose the Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse, which offers large, pleasant rooms and a free breakfast: www.brokenspurinn.com.

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