The landscape is an evocative world of spectacular sandstone red cliffs, hidden arches massive domes, and deep, twisting canyons. Of all the state’s may impressive national parks and monuments, only Canyonlands and the wildlands of Glen Canyon rival Capitol Reef’s sense of expansiveness; of broad, sweeping vistas; of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless place; of limitless sky and desert rock. Here you can get a real feel for what the earth might have been like millions of years before life appeared, when nothing existed by earth and sky.
I started the day alone . . . in this solitary spot . . . as the rising sun set the trees and Castle Rock aglow. After searching for the “right” spot with nothing to guide me but my determination to pull all the elements together, I arrived here and was content. Something of a religious experience, to be in this place, in the early morning hour, becomes much more than a photo op.
As I wrote in my previous post, it’s all well and good if the only taste you get of Capitol Reef is the area around the Visitor’s Center, but there’s soooooo much more to this park that will truly enrich your experience here. Knowing that this is a park with many fewer visitors only enhanced my attraction to it. Designating a full 6 days to spend here, we easily filled the hours. Yes, many of those hours were spent on trails . . . finding all the different looks of Capitol Reef. And there are an assortment.
The Fremont River Trail was a great way to begin. Starting in the Fruita area, for the first half-mile it’s an easy walk along the banks of the splashing Fremont River. Central to the survival of the orchards planted by the early Mormon settlers, a series of irrigation ditches were dug to divert water from the river which are still implemented today. Deceptive of what is to come, the trail begins with a level walk through a willow-shaded path.
And then the climb begins. Gradually we gain in elevation. The effort is not in vain, for as you gain the height the views open up and soon you’re eye-level with some fabulous views.
All the huffing and puffing is worth it.
The slog up the trail is absolutely worth every uphill step. Pausing to catch our breaths also makes for a great photo op. With the Fremont River far below, the outstanding Capitol Reef formations come into view.
After ascending the flank of the rapidly-deepening canyon, the ascent rounds out and the trail eases, your rewards have been attained. Now this is seeing Capitol Reef from an entirely different perspective. Miraculous. Spectacular. Incredibly magnificent.
Looking for a trail with somewhat less elevation? Capitol Reef can offer you a choice of those too.
While Capitol Reef embraces the slickrock spine of the Waterpocket Fold, it also contains innumerable slot canyons, six of which follows washes that flow through the Fold (dry for most of the year). The Grand Wash Trail (with a name like that, it had to be our first canyon trail) has sheer cliffs of Wingate (red) and Navajo (white) sandstone, many colorful strata and eroded rock formations. We headed out.
Creatures of the Midwest as we are, slot canyons are a novel experience in Death Valley, but we were coming to learn that each new canyon has its own personality. Google-eyed and mouths gaping, we walked on.
With only a slight, but constant elevation gain, Grand Wash makes for a delightful afternoon walk. Although striding through a trail of sand requires a bit of trudging, with the soaring vertical sandstone walls rising 600-800 feet from the wash, your attention is focused more on what’s up than what’s down.
About 3 miles later the canyon opens, cutting through the final stretch of the trail. Pinyon pines and junipers line the trail while great sky-piercing crags tower above us.
Tired of slogging through sandy washes? Capitol Reef has a simple answer for that—take a drive down a sandy ”road”. At the end of the Scenic Drive (where my previous post left off) you’ll come to the road leading into Capitol Gorge.
A narrow defile cut deeply into the Navajo Sandstone of the Waterpocket Fold by water flowing through cracks in the Fold, Capitol Gorge provided passage for wagons—and eventually automobiles—serving as the only road through the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold for almost 80 years. Today, the park maintains passage for vehicles on a sandy trail for a couple of miles, and then a hiking trail follows the route of the old road another 3 miles or so.
To get the best of both canyon and overlook trails, it’s the Cohab Canyon hike you’ll want to take. One of the two most popular trails in Capitol Reef, you follow a narrow hidden rocky drainage that soon begins climbing up the canyon wall.
The trail’s name is derived from the historical background of this area. In the late 1800s it was a trying time for the Mormons that chose to remain polygamists in Utah. The state had just enacted the Edmunds Act, which banned polygamy. Federal law enforcement officials were intermittently sent to the state’s most remote places, including the tiny town of Fruita, to stamp out plural marriage. Fruita’s polygamists supposedly evaded suspicion by hiding their many wives in a nearby canyon—hence the name cohab (for “cohabitation”) today.
You earn this hike with the elevation you gain, but the views along the trail will detract from the effort you expend. Once the initial climb is done, a level path leads you through this “hanging canyon” sitting high above the Fremont River floodplain. But to earn the best view this trail has to offer, you’ll have one more climb to make—400 feet in about a half a mile—it’s for sure a real leg-burner.
What you gain is much more than a mere photo op (but certainly I brought my camera with me). Standing on the slickrock cliffs you’ll have amazing views up and down the valley below, as well as being eye-level with the surrounding peaks and domes that line Highway 24.
The highlight of this outstanding trail awaits you at the final overlook. Worth every huff and puff and drop of sweat, you’ll look down into the heart of the park where a verdant flow of trees marks the course of the Fremont River and spectacular sandstone cliffs stand as the hallmark of this setting. It is simply a place to pause and reflect and lose yourself in this creation.
In the days to come there were other trails to take . . . each one had its special attributes.
The park’s most popular trail leads to Hickman Bridge, ending at a huge natural rock span that rivals any stone arch in Arches National Park. A pre-breakfast hike will keep the trail to yourselves and give good light on the trail’s best feature—just saying, if you’re ever there.
The Golden Throne is one of the premier slickrock domes in Capitol Reef and the trail that leads to it climbs to the top of Waterpocket Fold. Jutting skyward 600 feet above its surroundings, you’ll have a head-on view of this formidable, golden-toned butte as well as more distant panoramas in every direction. Outstanding!
The Chimney Rock Trail doesn’t exactly climb its namesake, but rather surmounts the mesa that it’s part of. Seen from a distance it appears way too intimidating (maybe that’s why I left this trail for last). In the end, it was one of my favorite and the photo ops were icing on the hike’s cake.
How can you complain about climbing the trail when you’re given great scenes such as these?
And then there was Our Great Adventure in Capitol Reef. A part of the park, but a place apart, Cathedral Valley is barely mentioned in the park’s publications. Located in the northern section, it requires a circuitous drive to get there. Some might even call it risky. Definitely off-the-beaten track. A place I knew must be seen to be believed. And Chris would say the same thing about the “road” he would be required to take.
Nary a car in sight on this most perfect of mornings.
The sun breaks the horizon, and suddenly the world around us lights up. The scenery explodes in vibrant colors and I’m convinced this makes the effort all worth it. My driver might need more convincing.
Cathedral Valley presents a landscape unlike any other in Capitol Reef. Towering monoliths, panoramic vistas, and a stark desert landscape could easily be seen as “badlands”. But what lies out here will pull you in, give you pause, and compel you to take a closer look. You’d have to be immune to Nature’s power not to do so. The scenery is that overwhelming. Chris would say it was the drive that was so overwhelming.
In 1945, Frank Beckwith and Charles Kelly, the first superintendent of what was then Capitol Reef National Monument, christened an area of fantastically eroded cliffs, sandstone monoliths and panoramic views. To them, the scene seemed downright Gothic. So they called it Cathedral Valley. “It’s spectacular and remote,” observes Al Hendricks, superintendent of today’s Capitol Reef National Park. So why don’t their guidebooks even mention it? (Perhaps it has something to do with the route?)
The scene-stealer of the entire drive are the rock monuments of Lower Cathedral Valley. Set in an amphitheater with its east-facing side open to the morning sun, the Temples of the Sun and of the Moon together create one of the most awe-inspiring scenes in the entire Southwest. IMHO at least.
Melinda and Chris