The eponymous capitol formation
Capitol Reef is reputed to be the least visited of the Utah national parks. The name comes from one of the rock formations, which looks like the Capitol building, and the fact that the settlers were originally sailors who called anything impassable a ‘reef.’ It’s in the middle of the state, far from either the Grand Canyon area parks of Zion and Bryce, and the Moab-area parks of Arches and Canyonlands. Although it’s remote, the tourism in Utah is such that here, too, the campground filled up.
The parks of Utah
Just like the other parks in the Southwest, rain was at work and the entire park’s road system was essentially closed. Of all the parks, Capitol Reef seemed most at risk for flash flooding. During my stay, it was cloudy and threatening the whole time, but never actually rained, so I guess that counts for something.
Hopefully this conveys the scale. The squared off box is in the corner; circled are three people sitting and having a snack. And this is just a tiny part of the landscape!
With Capitol Reef, the operative word is ‘vast.’ All the landscape features collude, like a propaganda campaign designed to make you feel tiny, in a way unlike any of the other parks I visited. Basically the park is separated into two sections: one of rolling rock formations, and the other of low green sparsely forested hills. Between the two is a sheer cliff 800 feet high.
The rolling hills, viewed over the cliff edge
I did the one big loop I could assemble out of smaller trails which remained open, a total of about 14 miles. It started with these rolling ‘reef’ sections; as you hike and look to one side, they seem to continue forever; as you turn a corner new vistas open up.
My goal, as a landmark, was Cassidy Arch, about which I knew nothing. After passing through semi-conventional trails for about 6 miles, I entered a slickrock portion – basically walking on a giant boulder. The trail here disappears and is marked completely with cairns – small stacks of stones.
The trail finally ended at the edge of the sheer cliff that divides the park. The view here was the best in Utah, in my opinion – although of course that depends upon what you like. Inching forward to look over the edge, the main (closed) road of the park was visible, along with dirt road to Grand Wash. To one side are the weird domes and peaks of rock; to the other, the trail, forward the low hills and behind the reef itself. I stayed for about half an hour, just relaxing.
Panorama of the typical landscape.
The arch was completely hidden – since I was in the area for a while, I was able to observe a family of Bavarians struggling to find the arch among distant formations. I talked with them a bit and showed them that it really was just 50 feet away.
There are in fact two people walking on the road in this picture of the Grand Wash…
I decided to make the trip a loop and incorporate a segment of the closed road, which proved to be a great idea. The descent from the reef was quick, and I found myself in a vast canyon. This was Grand Wash, rumored to once have sheltered Butch Cassidy (after whom the arch is named). Of course, objectively it was smaller than the Grand Canyon, being only about a thousand feet deep. But because the walls are absolutely sheer it’s far more imposing. It felt like a sandstone Manhattan, with streets two football fields wide.
The road here was almost completely washed away; the path of water cut across the road in places and caused drops of two feet. It would have been impassable even to vehicles with four wheel drive.
Probably best to stay away from mutant bats.
Walking out of the canyon there’s two mines drilled into the side of one wall. These date back to the 1930s, and were used to mine uranium! Turns out uranium was a health fad back then, and people would mix it into their water, wear it in a bracelet around their wrist, and so forth. Sound familiar?
The open road
I returned to the main park via the road, which was quite a bit of fun: I could walk right in the middle of the road, since it was closed; this in itself was unusual.
Petroglyphs of human figures
The main section of the park, which includes the campground and visitor center, was settled originally by Mormons, and the orchards they planted are open to the public to pick fruit. There’s also some old buildings, and Indian petroglyphs, which I looked at before leaving the following morning.
I understand why Zion and Bryce are more popular parks than Capitol Reef – the views are easier to take in, more accessible; they’re closer to the Grand Canyon. But I think I preferred Capitol Reef; I’d really suggest checking it out if you’re in Utah.