After leaving the snowy pass of Grand Staircase-Escalante Nation Monument, we continued April’s Spring Break trip down out of the mountains toward Capitol Reef National Park. By the time we reached Torrey, UT at the edge of the park, we had dropped out of the mountains a long way, but were still at 6,837 ft elevation! Once again I was caught off guard how high this part of the country is. I had expected a warmer, low elevation vacation.
Our road trip was nearing its end, and soon we’d have to turn around for the two day trip back to Carson City, NV. Capitol Reef covers a large area with a diverse landscape filled with cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges. There is much to see. One of our first stops was at the Visitor Center to get some ideas on where to go.
The ranger at the Visitor Center was really helpful, and gave us a list of things we could do in a day without a lot of driving and hiking. A good sampling of the park for someone on a short time budget. There was also a good selection of books and informative displays in the center.
Our next destination was the petroglyphs just east of the visitor center along the Fremont River. These rock drawings were left by the Fremont culture, Native Americans that lived in this area around 1000 CE, and are in surprisingly good shape. According to Wikipedia, the Fremont people irrigated crops of lentils, maize, and squash and stored their grain in stone granaries. We would see one of these granaries on one of our later hikes.
Just a little to the east of the petroglyphs, we parked at the Hickman Bridge trailhead. This two mile out-and-back self-guided nature trail leads to the base of a 133 foot natural rock bridge. Along the way we could start to see many of the white Navajo sandstone cliffs and domes. “Capitol Reef” was named for these white domes that resemble the capitol building. The word reef refers to the many rocky barriers in the area. Capitol Reef is also a much better name than the earlier “Wayne Wonderland” as it was called back in the 1920s.
It wasn’t long before we reached the bridge. Hickman Natural Bridge is one of the largest rock spans in the park, and has an opening of 125 feet top to bottom and 133 feet between abutments. The loop trail goes underneath the bridge, and it’s incredible to view from all angles.
After returning from our Hickman Bridge hike, we decided to do the Scenic Drive. We returned to the visitor center, and then headed south. Before the official drive starts, you pass through Fruita, a late frontier settlement built by Mormon pioneers. There is an old homestead here, complete with fruit orchards. Also in Fruita is the campground. We toured the campground, and it was pretty nice. We were hesitant to get a site though, deciding to wait until later in the day to check the weather.
Not far after Fruita is the beginning of the scenic drive. It’s paved, 10 miles in one direction, and had a $5 entry fee at the time. The drive follows the base of spectacular cliffs, and has several pullouts to get a closer look at points of interest.
At the south end of the scenic drive, there is a turnoff to Capitol Gorge. The road becomes dirt, and you can drive your vehicle quite a ways into the narrow canyon. Although a through road from 1884 to 1962, the drive now ends in a few miles at a parking lot. From the parking lot, you can hike further down into the gorge, which is great, because there is much to see. Along the way there are more petroglyphs, and more recent markings made by pioneers that used the gorge to get through the rugged mountains. Also throughout the gorge were plenty of pockets in the rocks that made for fun climbing by my son.
The sun was going down as we drove back out of the gorge, and the dark clouds were starting to come in. We decided it would not be a fun night to camp in Fruita, and instead opted to drive back to Torrey. There are a number of lodging and food options there, and this sounded way more inviting than huddling in a tent. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner at Rim Rock Inn and Restaurant in Torrey, where I learned a couple new things about Utah. The local pronunciation of Escalante is “Escalont”…no “ay” on the end. Also, you are only allowed to have one beer in front of you at a time in a restaurant. They won’t bring you another one until you finish the one you’re working on. State law! They did bring us two beers after confirming that one was indeed for Kristy…they had to ask though.
Capitol Reef National Park made a wonderful end to our travels through southern Utah. We were actually pretty sad to leave the next morning. The park is very diverse, and you could spend days here trying to see it all. It’s not hard to realize why the early Fremont people and later pioneers decided to stay here. I’ve thought about the place often since we left, and am looking forward to returning some day.