Capitol Reef Offers History and Grandeur
Far from the Gaping Crowds
The first time I visited Utah's Capitol Reef National Park, I entered through the back door.
Decades ago, I was vagabonding through the West in a beat-up VW camper bus. I had departed Boulder, Utah, on the Burr Trail, which at that time was a seldom-traveled track rutted in rooster-tailing dirt. After bouncing 30+ miles through sandstone-hemmed wilds, I passed a sign announcing I'd entered the park. Minutes later, I reached the brink of the Waterpocket Fold.
Below, the roadway plunged 800 vertical feet in a half-mile squiggle of hairpin switchbacks. I hugged the dog, shifted into low gear and pointed my bucket of bolts down the road, praying its dust-caked brakes would hold.
These days I drive better vehicles and generally reach Capitol Reef by paved highway. Still, the twisty Burr Trail remains my overwhelmingly favorite portal into what may be Utah's most underappreciated park.
The Beehive State boasts five national parks, all located in the slickrock-dominated uplift known as the Colorado Plateau. Zion remains by far the most popular followed by Bryce and Arches. Only Canyonlands with its limited access logs fewer visitors than Capitol Reef.
The park follows south-central Utah's Waterpocket Fold, a towering wrinkle of rock crammed with cliffs, canyons, knobs, monoliths, spires, slots, alcoves, arches and natural bridges. The "Capitol" part of the name comes from its white sandstone cap rock, which early observers thought looked like the Capitol dome in Washington D.C. The "reef" portion signifies how the 100-mile-long geologic barrier impedes land transportation much as coral reefs do ships at sea.
With restaurants, lodging and services available in nearby Torrey, Capitol Reef's central Fruita District along the Fremont River and Utah Highway 24 is by far the most popular portion of the park. Here stands the Visitors Center, main campground and best preserved sites of historic habitation.
It began around 700 AD with the native Fremont culture. Unlike their cliff-dwelling Anasazi neighbors, the Fremont folks lived in pit houses. They grew corn, beans and squash, which they stored in cliff-face alcove granaries. Called "moki ruins," one such example lies near the park's eastern entrance.
Mormon settlers arrived in 1880, and one of their early cabins still stands beside the highway. In a space not much larger than a decent walk-in closet, Elijah Behunin and his wife Tabitha lived with 11 of their 13 kids.
Alluvial soils and abundant water proved ideal for orchards. Apple, peach, cherry, pear and apricot trees soon blossomed in the red rock wilds. Many still bear fruit today, which is available for picking.
Members of the Fruita village built a still-standing one-room schoolhouse. Nearby lies a blacksmith shop and the remains of a sorghum processing operation. My favorite site is the Gifford Homestead, a canyon oasis inhabited until 1969. The park's Natural History Association hosts summer cultural demonstrations here and sells items handmade by local craftsmen and cooks. I invariably depart with bottles of locally canned preserves and salsas.
The homestead lies along Scenic Drive, the only section of the park charging a small entrance fee. True to its name, the paved, 25-mile route accesses an awe-inspiring array of cliffs, canyons, buttes and buttresses. Best of all are its side excursions.
A graded spur road accesses Grand Wash. On its north wall stands Cassidy Arch, named for Butch Cassidy whom legends say often hid near here. A foot trail continues past the Oyler Uranium Mine. Dating back to 1904, its radioactive ore was worn over joints to "cure" arthritis and other ailments.
Another spur road heads up Capitol Gorge. Until 1962, this provided the motor route into Fruita. A one-mile trail leads to Pioneer Register, a rock face where early visitors scratched their names. Beyond, hikers can examine some of the water-capturing depressions from which Waterpocket Fold got its name.
To the north lies the Cathedral District, one of the least visited portions of the park. A 58-mile, dirt-road drive through here begins on the Hartnet Road. The Park Service recommends only high-clearance vehicles attempt the route, a need that becomes obvious at the start where the road fords the foot-deep Fremont River. The Visitors Center provides free brochures describing the tour.
The route ascends the multihued Bentonite Hills, which look like cracked clay painted in russet-shaded watercolors. Barren, stark and seemingly lifeless, it could be a scene imported from Mars.
If it rains, however, the hills will become a vision of Hell. Wet bentonite forms a sticky goo that can turn even a saintly 4x4 into a mired, mud-slinging demon. Weather watching out here is a must.
Spur roads access overlooks of the South Desert, a vast valley bounded by jumbled rock and knobby cliffs. Beyond, a short walk leads to an overview of Upper Cathedral Valley whose monolithic towers reminded early park superintendents of gothic cathedral.
The nearby Cathedral Campground offers six sites with picnic tables, grills and a pit toilet. Water, however, is a bring your own endeavor. Campers bunking beneath canvas in this lonely land often hear coyotes howling at night and mourning doves greeting the dawn.
The return follows the Caineville Wash Road. A short walk leads to Morrell Cabin, originally built to shelter a family of eight and later used as a cattlemen's line shack. Another accesses Gypsum Sinkhole, a large pit formed by the dissolving mineral. A spur road in Lower Cathedral Valley passes the 40-story-tall Temples of the Sun and Moon, which were erosion-sculpted from entrada sandstone. Another leads to Glass Mountain, a knob formed from selenite crystals known as moonstone.
After traversing an open valley dotted with bentonite, sandstone and shale, the road ends at Highway 24. A 20-minute drive over its heavenly pavement leads back to the Visitors Center.
While the Fruita District is stunning and the Cathedral District grand, my favorite section of Capitol Reef remains the long, narrow Waterpocket District to the south. Access comes via the Notom-Bullfrog Road, which departs from Highway 24 at the park's eastern edge. The first 10 miles are paved. Beyond that, it's graded gravel, which is typically well maintained.
The Waterpocket Fold fills the western horizon with visages of twisted, tan sandstone capping jumbled red and orange base layers. Sparse vegetation covers the valley floor in a carpet of dusty green. Come spring, blossoms bejewel the desert floor with dollops of vivid color.
After crossing BLM land, the route reenters the park near Cedar Mesa Campground. Like its Cathedral counterpart, this one offers tables, grates and pit toilets but no water. Sunrises from here can be spectacular with the desert sky glowing in an array of ever-brightening blues, pinks, oranges and yellows. When the sun tops the distant horizon, bands of light paint the western sandstone in strips of blushing brilliance. For me, there's no better way to start the day.
Continuing south, the road passes Oyster Shell Reef, rife with fossilized shells. Beyond, sharp ribs of Mancos shale form pleats down the eastern skirts of Strike Valley. All too soon, the Notom-Bullfrog road intersects the Burr Trail and for motorists, it's decision time.
To the southeast, the route continues to parallel Waterpocket Fold, soon leaving the park for good. Pavement reappears, the route enters Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and joins Utah Highway 276 near Bullfrog and the ferry across Lake Powell. It's a pleasant drive, although I find that after miles of subtle desert, the sudden appearance of a glistening marina can be a bit jolting.
The other option is to turn up the Burr Trail and follow the switchbacks up the Waterpocket Fold. While flatlanders and VW camper bus drivers may find the twisty, guardrail-free route to be nerve racking, the views from the top are dazzlingly worth it.