There was something about Capitol Reef National Park that caught my attention. Even during my preliminary research stage I felt the draw. Not able to exactly put my finger on it—all I knew was that it appeared to have great potential. A variety of hiking trails. Landscapes custom designed for photographs. An interesting history. And—tune in to this—the “least known and most less-visited of Utah’s five national parks”. Is it any wonder this park piqued my interest? Instead of the 3 days I delegated to each of the other Utah parks, I doubled the length of our stay for this one. I had high hopes . . . now it only remained to see if Capitol Reef could live up to them.
But first, we had to get there.
Not that the drive from Bryce Canyon presented insurmountable challenges. In truth, a paved highway would take us there. Slightly over 100 miles from park to park . . . but oh, what a hundred miles it turned out to be! One hundred stunning, spectacularly scenic miles along one of our country’s most noteworthy scenic byways. Scenic Highway 12, simply known as SB-12, traverses a ruggedly beautiful landscape. For some travelers it might be a two-hour drive . . . maybe stretched out to a full half day. Not so for us. I knew before the attempt was made. We’d find a place to lay over, we’d make this drive last two or three days.
And this was just the beginning.
Perhaps you noticed the mention of The Grand Circle at the end of my previous post. Just in case you’re unfamiliar with that particular reference, I’ll explain. The vast region of the American Southwest, specifically comprised of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, not surprisingly, happen to contain America’s largest concentration of national parks and monuments. These parks, most of which are woven together by a series of extraordinary and officially designated Scenic Byways, collectively make up what has come to be known as (drum roll, please . . ) The Grand Circle.
These areas boast some of America’s most diverse and impressive scenery. Places that elicit profound emotions of wonder and amazement. Breathtaking landscapes. A photographer’s dream. Places like the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell and Arches, just to name off a few. Actually, the name “Grand Circle” might be a misnomer . . . it seems a tad diminutive. A more fitting title could be “The Grandest Circle” . IMHO.
The entire Circle would be a trip too immense and full for us to tackle. Not when we like to savor spectacular places for awhile, getting to know them more intimately. Even on this most special of anniversary years . . . our focus was zoomed in, seeking out a more reasonable few. The state of Utah with its national park jewels was in our sights. And October weather shows them off in their fullest, most extraordinary color.
They don’t call these Utah National Parks the Mighty Five for no insignificant reason. Born of the Colorado Plateau uplift, these five parks offer some of the most unique landscapes and rock formations you will find anywhere in the world. Hands down, they’re all magnificent. With their own distinct personalities. Originating from an ancient desert, washed and scoured by primeval seas, sculpted by eons and nature, they have a common background, but each park presents a different face. It’s one reason a traveler would be hard-pressed to stop at merely one or two. Unless time is a limiting factor. Not so, in our case.
Having spent 6 full days at Zion the winter before last, our October travels have been pared down to the “Mighty Four”. With Bryce Canyon behind us, Capitol Reef was ahead. The second and perhaps most anticipated. And Highway 12 would take us there.
The road starts off slowly . . . taking its time winding through the low hills. Pretty enough, it keeps its secrets hidden as the pavement constantly curves.
It might be paved, but this is no easy road to drive. With scenery like this to contend with, blinders ought to be mandatory for drivers. Fortunately, many roadside pull-offs are provided—places to stop and take a deep breath, each one the perfect photo op. It’s for sure we Midwestern travelers aren’t accustomed to vistas like these!
In 1871, this region was part of the last uncharted territory in the continental U.S. That year, Major John Wesley Powell launched the Second Powell Expedition to explore and map this frontier, continuing the work he had begun three years earlier. Powell led the expedition safely through the wild waters of the Green and Colorado Rivers to the Paria River. He then instructed his brother-in-law Almon H. Thompson to lead the expedition overland to map what they called “the unknown country.”
In 1872, expedition members climbed the slippery slopes of the badlands pictured below. Over the next four years, Thompson’s explorations filled in this last blank spot on the U.S. map. Highway 12 now follows the Second Powell Expedition’s exact route all the way to Head of the Rocks, east of the town of Escalante.
About halfway into the Highway 12 drive lies the very small town of Boulder, Utah. A rural, farming and ranching community, there’s not much to warrant a stay here . . . with the exception of the very nice Boulder Mountain Lodge and the highly recommended Hell’s Backbone Grill (even Airstream Travelers sometimes enjoy a break from the usual routine). Truth be told, those were just the perks—the real draw was Boulder being the start of the renowned and outstanding Burr Trail Scenic Backway. My kind of drive, Burr Trail was not to be passed by. Not if I had anything to say about it. Taking a hiatus from Hwy. 12, we spent a day driving this incredible road.
The Burr Trail was blazed by Boulder stockman John Atlantic Burr in the late 1800’s as a route to move his cattle from the area around Boulder, Utah to the ford across the Colorado River at Hall’s Crossing. Today, the route is a National Scenic Backway that traverses the rough and wild slickrock wilderness of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Capital Reef National Park and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The road is a spectacular scenic drive and provides access to trailheads for exploration of the area’s magnificent desert backcountry. Various vista points along this backway offer thrilling views of sprawling scenery—of buttes, mesas, plateaus and mountain peaks.
Within the first mile of the drive you’ll pass by a succession of sandstone dunes. A unique phenomena, these formations are actual dunes, created millions of years ago by wind-blown sand, then covered over by other layers of sand and pressed into stone. Gradually, these dunes were again exposed as the over-lying sandstone was eroded away, creating the appearance of hardened, petrified dunes. Today, the light-colored Navajo sandstone, rounded into domes and hills, resembles the sand dunes it once was. A remarkable sight to see.
The next big event came a few miles later—entering Long Canyon. With the crescendo building, Long Canyon is enclosed by sheer walls of Wingate sandstone which tower hundreds of feet above the road. The sandstone has fractured and eroded, forming alcoves and slot canyons. Some of the dark red sandstone has been leached by water to a whitish shade, and black desert varnish stains the vertical walls.
Five miles later, we drive out of that astounding canyon and the road stretches out to the horizon. But we have little time to settle into a mundane drive. Before us lies incredible scenery . . . it is (we will later learn), a mere introduction of what is ahead.
Our senses are reeling . . . a jumbled landscape . . . geology gone crazy . . . scenery beyond comprehension. Difficult to wrap our minds around what was before us. From my research previously done, I knew what lay ahead, what we were seeing. But if you don’t witness it firsthand, you can’t comprehend what it is. Words and photos can’t convey what has happened here.
The road enters the western boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. Ahead lies the jagged, brilliantly-colored west side of the Waterpocket Fold, that jumble of rock formations too incredible to describe. Interestingly, the paved road now reverts to rutted dirt as it climbs over and down the Fold. This is without doubt the climax of the drive . . . an experience never to be replicated. This is the segment of Burr Trail, I had intentionally failed to mention to my trusting husband and reliable driver. Who, I am coming to learn, seems to have a slight fear of precipices and roads with steep drop-offs.
Capitol Reef encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a unique geologic formation. A 100-mile long “wrinkle” or monocline (speaking geologically) in the earth’s crust, it was formed at about the time that the Rocky Mountains were being uplifted, 60-70 million years ago. Lifted thousands of feet, tilted, warped, fractured, exposed to erosion and sculpted by the elements into fantastic forms. Named by John Wesley Powell, “waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater. A formidable barrier to early travelers headed west, to this day only one paved highway passes through it. Early travelers followed slot canyons and dry washes to go through it. The Burr Trail brazenly goes over it. And so did we.
The ascent seemed easy. Barely noticeable. Soon we were at the top, looking down the eastern side, the road more than 1,000 feet below.
He did it (I never had any doubt). The drive down was something not to be believed, but we made the 1,500’ descent and then reversed course and climbed back up. All I can say—it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Ordeal” might be the word Chris would choose to use. Burr Trail is not for the faint of heart.
A nice dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill can remedy many a stressful day. A night in a civilized suite can put the day’s drive in a better perspective. A fresh start to a new day back on a more civilized scenic road brings equanimity to one’s travels. We headed out on the last leg of Highway 12’s remarkable route.
Leaving Boulder, the drive enters the Dixie National Forest and begins to climb steeply onto the side of the Aquarius Plateau. Within 4 miles of Boulder, this becomes a true mountain drive—really terrific in autumn. A few miles later and we were passing through beautiful groves of aspen. This is what chasing fall colors is all about!
As it winds along the east flanks of Boulder Mountain, Scenic Byway 12 climbs to an altitude of more than 9,000 feet and affords breathtaking views of the rugged, rainbow-hued landscape stretching out below. The mountain was first plotted on an 1872 map by Almon Thompson, the cartographer with the John Wesley Powell Survey. However, the area was already well known to various Native American people, who left behind evidence that they lived and thrived in the pristine hills and hollows.
Immediately surrounding the highway is a landscape of glistening aspen, pine, spruce, and fir. Wildlife, including deer, elk, mountain lion, and numerous small mammal and bird species, thrive here. Alpine mountain meadows are dotted with countless small lakes, reservoirs, and streams that attract trout fishing. Many forest roads and trails provide access to these thousands of acres of forest.
Fortunately, the road builders provided many overlooks from which to pause and soak in the views. Needless to say, with the brilliant colors of fall these overlooks are well-worth the stop. On a sunny clear day as we had, a photo can’t do justice to the tableau spread out before us.
Near the 9,400-foot apex of the drive, we topped the aspen-cloaked slopes to reveal the farther view and caught our first sight of the Waterpocket Fold stretching across the distant view. A more complete picture than what we had previously experienced firsthand, it was a sight to give a person pause. And yes! We had crossed over it!
Shortly thereafter, we began a steep 5-mile descent. Leaving the national forest, we drove through some beautiful high ranch country scenery before entering the small town of Torrey. Scenic Byway 12 comes to its end here, intersecting with Highway 24, another exceptional road in its own right.
A turn to the east soon takes you to the entrance of Capitol Reef, passing through astoundingly breathtaking vistas. Towering mesas of brilliant hues rise above the road, making a magnificent presentation to the park.
From the majestic Capitol Reef National Park,
Melinda & Chris