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Trip 5, Park 3: Capitol Reef National Park

How is it that this national park is not more well-known and visited? Capitol Reef is absolutely stunning and arguably the most beautiful of the national parks we've visited thus far. The park offers a variety of historical areas, colorful scenery and hikes, each special in its own way. In addition, even the drive here from Bryce Canyon was spectacular as we opted to take scenic State Route 12, which passes through the Dixie Forest and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and crosses over Boulder Mountain.

Our first stop in the park was at the Goosenecks Overlook and Panorama Point, which (as the name suggests) provided a panoramic view of the canyon and lands surrounding Capitol Reef. The park preserves the Waterpocket Fold, which is a giant 100-mile-long "wrinkle" in the earth. As a result of the wrinkle, layers of rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old have been exposed, with layers of color representing different geological eras.

After a brief stop at the visitor center and the Gifford House in historic Fruita, we proceeded to the scenic drive, including the Grand Wash spur road. There is an entrance fee for the 8-mile scenic drive, but no other fee for the park. The Grand Wash Road is a gravel road following a dry stream bed; access is restricted if it is raining or if rain is threatening due to the risk of flash floods. Fortunately, we had good weather. Along the beginning of Grand Wash Road, there are pullout areas near a short hiking trail leading to the base of the cliffs where uranium mining occurred in the early 1900s (at that time uranium was thought to have valuable medicinal purposes) and again in the 1950s during the Cold War. The mines are sealed up, but still interesting to see and an easy hike. (Two of the boarded-up openings to the mine shafts are visible in the lower center of the photo above. Click on the photo to see the entire view.)

At the end of the Grand Wash Road, the Grand Wash Trail leads into a tight, deep canyon with huge sheer walls that loom overhead. About a mile into the trail are "the Narrows" where the canyon is only about 15 or so feet wide. You can also access the trail to Cassidy Arch from the Grand Wash. (The arch was named for Butch Cassidy, who is believed, along with other outlaws in the late 19th century, to have used this area as a hideout. This is very easy to imagine as you walk through the area!) The Grand Wash Trail ends at Route 24 and can be accessed from either end.

Pioneer Register along the Capitol Gorge Trail

At the end of the paved scenic drive, we took the unpaved Capitol Gorge Road to the Capitol Gorge Trail. This gorge used to be the main road through the area until Route 24 was paved in the early 1960s along the Fremont River. The gorge features petroglyphs made by the Fremont Indians more than a thousand years ago and includes a Pioneer Register, where pioneers from the 19th and early 20th centuries carved their names (or in some cases shot bullets) and dates of passage through the area. Further along the gorge, we hiked a side trail that led to "the tanks," deep potholes in the sandstone carved by erosion that hold water after it rains.

Petroglyph Panel

Early the next morning, we stopped at the Petroglyph Panel in the Fruita Historic District. The historic district is worth the time to check out. In addition to the petroglyphs from the Fremont Indians (who lived in the area from 300 to 1300 AD), this area is where the Mormons established a small settlement in the 1880s and set up fruit orchards, which are still in existence today. The Gifford House from 1908 is now a store and museum, open from Pi Day (March 14) in the spring through the end of October. There is also a barn, blacksmith shop, and a one-room schoolhouse in the area. In addition to locally hand-crafted items, the Gifford House store sells small homemade fruit pies, which are delicious!

We also hiked the Hickman Bridge trail, which leads to a natural sandstone bridge. This was a very popular trail, especially for families. After we hiked to the bridge, we took the Rim Overlook trail, which was a more strenuous uphill climb, for a look at the Hickman Bridge from above. From this angle, it is hard to make out the bridge formation, as it blends in so well with the other rock around it.

In the afternoon, we hiked part of the Chimney Rock Trail, which starts with a steep climb to the rim of a cliff overlooking Chimney Rock. The winds were really strong in this area, so we opted to descend after reaching the top of the trail (about 2 miles out and back) instead of completing the entire 3.6 mile-loop.

Our final hike at Capitol Reef was the Fremont River Trail, which starts as a quiet stroll from the Gifford House along the river and then becomes a steep climb up the canyon next to the river valley to an overlook area. We had this trail mainly to ourselves in the late afternoon.

I was concerned during our planning phase that we had allotted too much time (1 1/2 days) for Capitol Reef, but found that it was about right for all there was to see and do. If you have a 4x4 vehicle (especially one with high clearance), there is even more area of the park to explore. In addition, this is another International Dark Skies Park, so if you end up with clear skies at night (which we did not, unfortunately), plan some time in the park after dark. We also were fortunate to have mainly good weather while here, with most days warming to the mid-50s. A visit in April would probably be ideal (a little warmer, but still before crowds in the summer), as it would be beautiful to see the Fruita Historic District in bloom, especially the orchards. If you visit in the summer, you may even be able to pick ripe fruit from the trees.

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