Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Genie Davis February 5, 2013 No Comments

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is a sparsely populated Utah stunner

This park is the unsung hero of Utah’s justifiably popular national parks system. While Zion and Bryce several hours to the west bear the brunt of visitor travel, and Arches is photographed everywhere and well known, Capitol Reef often gathers blank stares, or the misconception that is must be underwater somewhere.

My kids ranked Capitol Reefs empty roads and quiet trails one of their favorites on a recent Utah trip. Your family will enjoy it too, including the luxury of just-out-of-the-park lodging in the small town of Torrey, eight miles west with motels that are family run, reasonably priced and friendly. There’s an annual Cowboy Music and Poetry Festival held in Torrey; but it’s pleasant tree-shaded streets and several eclectic cafes are a draw any time of year. Many of its motels have swimming pools perfect for a summer dip.

The park is named for its dome-shaped rock formations which resemble a reef. In those rocks you can read the virtual creation of the American continent in sedimentary multi-colored stone. One hundred miles long, the Waterpocket Fold is filled with stone buttes and soaring cliffs, and will bring the major oohs and ahhs out in your family. It was the simple pleasure of picking apples from an orchard planted in the 19th century but still viable that was perhaps our favorite moment. Alone in the quiet orchard at twilight we could imagine ourselves part of the pioneer party that founded the small ranching community of Fruita, now within the park. There are over twenty five hundred trees here, and there’s something wonderful about being able to run along the rows of fruit trees with abandon, looking up at the towering rock monoliths and crags surrounding this spot. A bit of man and a lot of nature.

The rock formations are truly stunning, combining the red rocks of parts of Canyonlands and Arches to the east with the sheer cliffs and soaring monoliths of Zion. One such formation looks like the U.S. Capitol building, which is how the park got its name.

Native American inhabitants once called this land “the sleeping rainbow,” due to the varying hues of sandstone and sedimentary stone that rises up from riverbanks and desert, and it’s particularly stunning at sunset near the enormous Chimney Rock just off Highway 24. Another site to see in the park is the Hickman Bridge, a natural rock arch that reaches skyward over a hundred feet.

Capitol Reef Hickman Bridge

The natural arch of Hickman bridge

We were quite moved by the legacy of the people who passed through this landscape. The Fremont Petroglyphs which are easily visible from the Hickman Bridge Trail were created by the Fremont tribes people over a thousand years ago. More recent inhabitants left their marks on the rocks as well. Early Mormon pioneers carved their names in sandstone. Their legacy is called the Pioneer Register.

Nearby we explored the Behunin Cabin, built by a settler in the 19th century out of red sandstone. It was designed to fit seamlessly into the landscape. Early ecological thinking, my son remarked. The cabin is easily spotted just off Highway 24. A short walk will lead you to Gifford Farmhouse. This historic farm was built a bit later, in 1908., and affords a fascinating look at a the accouterments of a working farm.

We explored two major trails in the park. The Hickman Bridge Trail’s view of the natural arch bridge and nearby petroglyphs is a must do. It is two miles round trip and just east of the main visitor center. A trail brochure that you can pick up at the trail head lists things to observe along the trail. We enjoyed siting an indian granary as well as a small arch named Nels Johnson Bridge.

We also took a section of the Chimney Rock Loop Trail. At three and a half miles, it was the elevation rise at the beginning of the walk that kept us from going further, if your children are older, it’s a relatively easy walk and offers full sweeping views of the Waterpocket Fold region.

Just driving through the park on the twenty five mile long scenic drive that starts near the visitors center is rewarding. With an orchard stop at Fruita and several well grade dirt spur roads on which to diverge, you can see much of the park from your vehicle making scenic stops for photos and leg stretching along the way.

I took a Toyota Camry easily down one spur road, Grand Wash Road. It’s just a mile and it leads directly to the Cassidy Arch. Take a two and a half mile drive down the equally well maintained Capitol Gorge Road to reach the easy mile long Capitol Gorge Trail, that takes you to the site of the Pioneer Register, where Mormon settlers created their unique and touching legacy on the sandstone.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

Tags: Travel Excursions

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