Capitol Reef National Park

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I would have canceled this trip if I could have. At the end of a gloomy week in Southern California, I did not want to drive nine hours and deal with holiday crowds to visit a not-much-talked-about National Park with a forecast of rain and lightning. But, as the story always seems to go, I’m so glad that I did!

I had no idea what to expect of Capitol Reef National Park, because every picture I saw looked different. People have started to ask me, “Where are you going this weekend?” and when I said Capitol Reef, no one had heard of it. So I took I-15 forever and then followed a series of Utah highways, the same that lead to Bryce Canyon and Zion, before I finally arrived in Torrey.

The reason the park looks different in every picture is that it’s incredibly diverse. There are red rocks that extend far outside its borders, sand-colored canyon walls, cliffs covered in vegetation, a brownish-river, and a historic orchard. You can drive the main road through the park and see everything within a matter of minutes. You can eat in a restaurant outside the park and admire views in almost every direction.

I got there late on Saturday, and it had been overcast and rainy all day, but the sun came out just in time to set, so I stopped at Sunset Point. I was too impatient to sit there and watch the sun go down, so I kept driving through the park, pulling over whenever I saw something interesting. I knew Capitol Reef had a historic orchard, which you can eat from in the right season, but I didn’t expect it to blend naturally into the surrounding area.

I have loved every park I’ve visited so far, but even after returning from Yosemite, I had to admit that the Utah parks--Bryce Canyon and Zion, at the time--were my favorites. The colors are so vivid and they have an almost unnatural look to them. Nothing that I am at all used to seeing having lived in Washington and California. When I arrived in Capitol Reef, my first thought was, “Utah does National Parks better than any other state.” The only reason Capitol Reef doesn’t get more attention is that it’s so close to Zion (and Bryce Canyon and Arches, too).

The next day I got an early start and hiked to Hickman Bridge, which is a natural bridge that forms an arch you can walk under. I then returned to the fork in the road where I had turned left and went right instead to attempt Rim Overlook Trail. This trail was listed as “strenuous,” but the most difficult thing about it was simply staying on the trail. It would cover large rock surfaces and the trail would disappear, but dozens of cairns guided the way. I only got completely off trail once and retraced my steps until I found my way.

Despite the warnings of rain and lightning, the weather did not cause a problem. The sun would disappear behind clouds periodically and it started to rain a couple times, but everything passed very quickly. When I made it to Rim Overlook, I had the place completely to myself, which was such a change from Yosemite. I don’t know enough to talk about the vegetation, but it struck me how much of it there was, a difference from Zion and Grand Canyon. There are so many places in Capitol Reef where you can choose to get lost or be alone.

Even on Memorial Day weekend, the only part of the park that was at all crowded was the area right around the visitor’s center and campground. I had every intention of taking the 20-mile scenic drive (the only part of the park that requires a fee), but I quickly realized I didn’t have the patience or interest to go for a drive, so I turned around and headed for Cohab Canyon Trail.

The trail starts with switchbacks, but once you get to the top, it’s a mostly easy hike through the canyon. There are a lot of opportunities to go off trail and climb into cracks in the walls, some of them filled with brown water, but I didn’t take any detours. When I had almost reached the other side of the canyon, I noticed a trail to Fruita Overlook. Fruita is the name of the part of the park with the orchard, and I was looking for more adventure, so I decided to start climbing.

When I had been at Rim Overlook, I noticed that the canyon wall across from me seemed to be covered in grass, and when I reached Fruita Overlook, I saw that it was indeed. I felt like I was in a field and not hundreds of feet up on a canyon wall. Again I had the overlook to myself and because I had been struck by a bad mood about an hour before, I found a large flat surface, sprawled out, and stared up at the gloomy sky. And that is when I discovered the meaning of life. Or I had zero profound thoughts, but it was a nice moment.

There was more I wanted to see, but I had exhausted myself hiking, so I headed back into town where I ate at the same restaurant I had the night before. As the manager kindly pointed out, “Hey, weren’t you here yesterday and didn’t you eat the same thing?” I can only handle so much adventure in one day.

The next morning I probably should have hit the road immediately, but instead I decided on one last hike--an easy four miles through Grand Wash. This is the kind of hike where you’re startled whenever you see another person, because this canyon was meant to be abandoned. There are these strange holes in the walls, many of which are filled with smaller rocks. Even though the sun was finally out without the obstruction of clouds, some parts of the canyon were cold and dark, others bright and full of sunshine. I noticed at the end a trail leading up to Cassidy Arch (named for Butch Cassidy, who reportedly had a hideout in the Wash, something it is easy to imagine), but I didn’t have enough time to see it for myself.

I walked back through Grand Wash, drove out of the park for the last time, and prepared myself mentally for holiday traffic. It was me and the entire world on I-15 back to California.

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