Utah Adventure Day 1: Capitol Reef’s Colorful Canyons

Travel is as much about resilience, adaptability and problem-solving, as it is about personal growth, rejuvenation, and human connection. And so, though our intent was to camp (mostly  wild camping) for our 8-day expedition through Utah’s wilderness and immerse ourselves in the topography and indigenous culture, the forecast for the first half of our trip in mid-April was for temps down to the 20s. In fact, when we arrived, there was a fierce gale-force wind blowing at 60 mph that pushed our rental Jeep around and made it difficult even to open the door.

Laini and Dave had taken the temperature into account and fortunately booked a spacious two-bedroom AirBnB in Teasdale (www.airbnb.com/rooms/41151071) just outside Capitol Reef National Park for our first night, and a one-room cabin at Canyons of Escalante RV Park for two nights in Escalante (where Dave has arranged for delivery of winter-grade sleeping bags and pads from Moosejaw.com). 

Laini and Dave – who are making their third trip back to Utah and have invited their friend Alli and me to join – have carefully planned the itinerary. Each day has its own highlight, and each destination its own topography and character, and therefore, the experience we have. At Capitol Reef National Park it is the colored rock formations; Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (for hard-core adventurers) offers slot canyons and hoodoos; Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area is our boat expedition into the flooded canyon; Cedar Mesa offers hiking expeditions in search of cliff dwellings and petroglyphs; and Arches National Park offers the most dramatic, expansive landscapes.

Fortunately, during the course of our trip, just about all the hikes and experiences we have are new for Dave and Laini. 

We land at Salt Lake City Airport and pick up an off-road Jeep capable of plowing through deep gravel and sand from Alamo, and set out for the four-hour drive. 

We arrive at Capitol Reef in the late afternoon and (I suggest) we take advantage of the gorgeous light and weather and drive the Scenic Drive to get a sense of the park. It is utterly perfect – the warm light, rich colors – and we get such a wonderful introduction.

The Scenic Drive is a 7.9 mile (12.7 km) paved road, suitable for passenger vehicles. You would need about an hour and half roundtrip to drive the Scenic Drive and the two dirt spur roads, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge which go into canyons and lead to trailheads. (You can follow the Park Service’s Virtual Tour: www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/scenicdrive.htm; the tour is free but you still need to pay the $20 park entrance fee when you drive the Scenic Drive – though my America the Beautiful Pass satisfies; check to see the roads are open, 435-425-3791.)

‘A Wrinkle in the Earth’s Crust’

Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a tapestry of cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges. What makes Capitol Reef so special is how the rock layers tilt. The notes say that this was caused by intense crustal pressure which reactivated a fault buried deep beneath the sedimentary rock layers of the Colorado Plateau. In response, the overlying sedimentary rock layers folded or bent into a one-sided slope called a monocline. It is named the Waterpocket Fold because of the numerous small potholes, tanks, or “pockets” that hold rainwater and snowmelt. 

Extending almost 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell, uplifted 6,800 feet higher on the west side, this geologic feature is what accounts for the vibrant palette of constantly changing hues, as the light hits the towering cliffs, massive domes, arches, bridges and twisting canyons. Over eons, the Waterpocket Fold  has been impacted and shaped by the geological processes of erosion, deposition, and uplift, all playing a part in the “drama” of Capitol Reef.  

On the way back from our Scenic drive, we stop at a fascinating site, the Fremont Culture petroglyphs, not far from the Capitol Reef Visitor Center. The petroglyphs are reached after a short stroll on two boardwalks. The shorter boardwalk provides views of large, anthropomorphic (human-like) petroglyphs, zoomorphic (animal) petroglyphs of bighorn sheep and other animals, as well as geometric designs; the longer boardwalk parallels the cliffs and the petroglyphs along it are closer to the viewer but harder to see because of a patina that has developed over them.

The indigenous people who lived in what is now Utah for about 1000 years, from 300-1300 CE, are known as The Fremont Culture, named by the archaeologists for the Fremont River canyon where they were first defined as a distinct culture. These petroglyphs (images carved or pecked into stone) are one of the most visible aspects of their culture that remains, according to the historic panels.

Prehistoric people of Fremont Culture used area rock for tools and projectile points, and for the foundations of their homes. Clay was used for pottery, construction and to make figurines. Fertile floodplains supported crops of corn, beans, and squash along the streams of Capitol Reef until about 1300 CE.

(You can link to the audio guide, narrated by Rick Pickyavit, whose Southern Paiute ancestors lived here when the settlers arrived in the 1880s. www.nps.gov/care/learn/historyculture/fremont-culture-petroglyphs.htm)

We stop in Torrey at the Torrey Grill and BBQ which offers a sheltered outdoor setting complete with firepit (we are still concerned about COVID) and is serving late.

The wind is still howling when we get to the AirBnB. A home with gorgeous interior design, it is so cozy and comforting. I wake in the middle of the night to a blizzard –gale force winds, giant snowflakes. I feel (without hyperbole) we would have died –crushed under the snow or frozen to death had we camped. I imagine us in some Survivor (or Disaster) movie based on fact (not the last time the thought occurs to me during our Utah Adventure).

Hiking Capitol Reef National Park

Considering the weather, we phone the Visitor Center to get their recommendation for hikes, and the Ranger recommends Hickman Bridge and Cohab Canyon, both in the Fruita area (435-425-2791). The snow (so gorgeous in the morning) is gone by the time we arrive at Capitol Reef except for some oddly frozen patches and we have perfect winter hiking weather.

Both these trails are extremely popular – and for good reason.

Hickman Bridge Trail, just 1.8 miles roundtrip, is the most popular trail (so the most crowded): it is geologically fascinating, relatively easy, great for families, with each step offering stunning visuals – red rock with beige and blond striations, textures, overhangs – and eminently doable to get the full  appreciation, with the climax of a spectacular arch. The hike encapsulates for us what Capitol Reef is about. This is considered a “moderate” trail, but I would say it is easy. What an introduction!

After a picnic lunch, we next hike the Cohab Canyon Trail, which is nearby. 

The Cohab Canyon trail is of easy-to-moderate difficulty, with gorgeous vividly-colored rock formations and shapes. The first 0.3 mile is a tad steep (I’m glad I brought my hiking poles) – a series of switchbacks lift you up 400 feet, all the while you gaze out at gorgeous views of the Johnson Mesa and Fruita Cliffs. But once within the canyon, the hiking is fairly easy.  

Cohab Canyon is called a “hanging canyon” because it sits above the Fremont River floodplain. The entire trail is so beautiful – we come upon a few slots to explore, a 20-foot high mushroom shaped hoodoo (a tree is growing out of the top!) surrounded by slickrock, the Cohab Canyon arch, then some stunning overlooks of the valley and Fruita.

We opt not to do the whole hike, which goes 2.9 miles one way to the Hickman Trail parking lot (which would a shuttle back, or, if you do the round trip, would take 4 hours). We hike in about 1.7 miles and return.

The two hikes – Hickman and Cohab Canyon – afford a very different experience, though both offer dramatic landscapes that are signature Capitol Reef. Hickman is well-traveled, ideal for families, and you feel like a tourist – but Cohab Canyon is all but devoid of other people so you feel the isolation (even if you do come upon another hiker here and there).

Laini had The Castle Trail hike on her to-do list but unfortunately, we don’t have the time. (It’s described as an old trail that apparently is no longer “advertised” to the enigmatic “back side” of the Castle, exploring a hidden canyon lined with mammoth boulders and violet-colored hoodoos, taking about two hours.)  But you can see the cragged hunk of The Castle from just outside the Visitor Center – it is one of Capitol Reef National Park’s iconic landmarks. 

In the Fruita area, there are 15 hiking trails with trailheads located along Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive, offering a wide variety of hiking options, from easy strolls over level ground to strenuous hikes involving steep climbs over uneven terrain near cliff edges. Round trip distances range from a quarter mile to 10 miles, and are well-marked with signs at the trailhead and at trail junctions and by cairns (stacks of rocks) along the way. Some trails have self-guiding brochures available at the trailhead and visitor center.

Popular backcountry hikes in the southern section of the park include Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyons and Halls Creek and in the Cathedral Valley area.

Descriptions of these hikes are available at liveandlethike.com/category/utah/capitol-reef-national-park/

Capitol Reef offers so much to explore, Laini says, you really need more time there. Tourists overrun the main part, but there is a whole “backcountry” side that most miss. (www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/trailguide.htm and www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/hiking.htm)

Scenic Byway 12

Driving out of Capitol Reef we come to an overlook just as the sun is at a perfect angle to make the red rocks blaze.

We drive 64 of the 124 miles of the Scenic Byway 12 to Escalante. Scenic Byway 12 is Utah’s first “All-American Road,” (and one of Laini’s favorite roads in the country) winding through vast slickrock benches and canyons. 

Because the forecast had been for temps in the 20-30s, Dave and Laini again booked a cabin  at Canyons of Escalante RV Park, right in Escalante. And we’re able to have dinner at one of their favorite places from their previous adventures, Escalante Outfitters, serving up the best pizza outside of New York.

I find this day’s hikes in Capitol Reef perfect to acclimate and just become immersed in the spectacular scenery. And, I soon find out, these hikes are so very different from what we have yet to experience in the Grand Staircase-Escalante, where our Utah Adventure continues. Because Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is for the hardcore.

Next: Grand Staircase-Escalante


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