When we left on this adventure, at the very top of our list were the Utah parks. Two years later we’ve finally made it to our first one and I have to admit I’m having a hard time writing this post because we have so many awesome pictures, yet they don’t quite capture the wonder of Capitol Reef.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the lesser known Utah parks. It straddles the highway so most folks just drive through on their way from Zion and Bryce up to Arches and Canyonlands but boy are they missing out. With it’s campground set among the orchards and the spectacular geology all around, Capitol Reef is an amazing park! It may well turn out to be my favorite in Utah, but I guess I should reserve judgement until I’ve seen the other four. 🙂
Capitol Reef is a long narrow park, about 5 miles wide and 100 miles long, protecting the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline. Instead of two plates sliding against each other and one going up and the other being pushed underneath, here the earth’s crust folded from underground pressure and the top layers broke apart to expose the older layers underneath. Kinda like when you put peanut butter on a piece of bread and fold it in half and then the bread tears apart to reveal the filling.
The imposing rock cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold reminded early explorers approaching from the east of a barrier reef at sea, dangerous and impassable. A large white rock dome was reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol, so was named Capitol Dome by early settlers. The name of the park combines the two.
The campground sits in the Fruita Historic District, which started as a small settlement of Mormons in the 1880s. They are the ones who brought the fruit trees (imagine keeping a fruit tree alive on a wagon journey) and planted them here along the river, using irrigation ditches first laid out by the native Fremont people over 1000 years prior. The park maintains historic orchards of cherry, apricot, plum, peach, apple, pear, and some nut trees. They open the orchards for picking, even providing ladders and fruit picking poles. We should have been there at just the right time for cherries, but apparently they only had a small harvest due to frost so we missed it. 😦 We did get to watch the apricots ripen and drop from the trees in the orchard behind us. It wasn’t open for picking so they didn’t put out any ladders but we did manage to find some edible fruit on the ground and the low branches.
The historic Gifford house still sells pies, cinnamon rolls and old fashioned ice cream. How can you not like a campground where you can walk over and get pie or pick a ripe apricot from the tree behind your trailer! This in addition to the amazing views. Every evening we sat outside to watch the setting sun light up the red cliffs.
It was hot (90-100 degrees) and the elevation here is around 5500’ so we didn’t push ourselves too much during our ten days, but we tried to get out early in the day for some short hikes and exploring.
For our first hike we opted for a flat walk up Grand Wash (4.4 miles round trip) and enjoyed the views of all the different rock formations. The black striping on the rock faces is desert varnish, where the water drips down carrying minerals that color the rock. In places it looked like someone had painted the rocks.
Next we hiked up the Hickman Bridge Trail (2 miles). With a bit of a climb and little shade we were glad we got an early start. The natural arch is 133 feet across and 125 feet tall.
Another morning we drove to the end of the 8 mile scenic drive…
and hiked the Capitol Gorge trail to the water tanks, depressions in the rock that fill with water when it rains and where the Waterpocket Fold gets its name. Until they put in the highway through the park in 1962 this gravel wash was the only “road” through the fold. Early travelers scratched their names in the rock, and a few pictographs from the Fremont people remain as well.
One of our favorite experiences was driving the 60 mile Cathedral Loop. Because it’s a rough dirt road and takes all day, it’s not very popular (we saw only one other car the entire day) but it leads to some spectacular scenery. You start out by fording the river, a first for us. Then come to this area where ranchers drilled a well to provide water for their cattle. The old drilling truck still remains.
After that you pass through the Bentonite Hills, driving right over the popcorn-like clay surface. Lucky for us it had been dry, otherwise this stretch is impassible.
Your first views of the rock spires occur at the Lower South Desert Overlook. Be sure to walk all the way down near the fence for the best views.
There is another great view at the Upper South Desert Overlook…
followed by a view at the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook of the fun to come.
After a harrowing drop into the valley down some very rocky and steep switchbacks you come to a short trail to Morrel Cabin. The cabin and its corral were used until 1970 by cowboys moving their herds to and from summer grazing grounds in the mountains.
Nearby are a group of monoliths, some over 500 feet tall. We took the Cathedrals trail trail up the hill and about 1/4 mile along the ridge to get a better view.
As we continued through the valley there were so many amazing patterns in the rock.
We skipped the Gypsum Sinkhole, who needs to look at a hole in the ground, but did take the short spur to Glass Mountain. This large mound, maybe 20 feet high, is composed of selenite otherwise known as moonstone. It was really cool!
Our last big stop was the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, two large monoliths rising out of nothing in the valley.
After that we headed back through another section of the Bentonite Hills and into this area of huge boulders.
In the end it was over 90 miles round trip from the campground and 7.5 hours but well worth it. Of course the dirt coating everything required a trip to the excellent self-serve car wash in Torrey. A little tip: if you go empty out the back of your truck to save yourself a lot of cleaning!
Other highlights of our time included a program about night sky photography by a visiting artist who also works on the Hubble Telescope and another about Artists of Capitol Reef by a ranger, the Friday evening farmer’s market in Torrey which yielded fresh eggs, lettuce, and cinnamon rolls, plus root beer floats at Slacker’s Burger Joint.
There are still more hikes we missed, but they will wait for next time. This is definitely a place I’d like to return.