Return to Utah: Capitol Reef National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park

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I was so taken with Utah last year that I could not wait for warm weather to make my return. My first stop was Capitol Reef National Park, which only ever seems to top the list of most underrated parks. It is a long drive and I was already worried about arriving in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception after dark when the first snow hit my windshield.

I have almost no experience driving in snow. In the years between getting my driver’s license and moving to California, there was only heavy snow once. As I turned off I-15 and headed toward the parks, a mix of rain and snow began hitting my windshield so fast that it was difficult to see and in a few sections of higher elevation, the roads were slick and dangerous. I gripped the steering wheel for three hours and powered through to arrive at Capitol Reef after everything except my hotel and the gas station had closed. 

It was cold the next morning and I was second-guessing my decision to return to Capitol Reef. Was it really worth coming all this way to see again, and why hadn’t I waited at least until May? Some combination of the long drive the day before, back-to-back trips, a hacking cough, and a potential problem with my car, left me feeling unprepared to make the most of my time. I always feel so much pressure to pack every second with adventure, and this was the first time I fell short.

I drove through the park. Visited Goosenecks. Remembered why I wanted to revisit Capitol Reef--it’s stunning! Took a really long time eating lunch. And then finally returned that afternoon with a much better attitude and ready for a hike. Since I was first there last May, I have thought back to sitting on the top of the canyon wall by myself while it rained lightly, and I wanted to do that again, so I hiked Cohab Canyon Trail and detoured to Fruita Overlook. I had the place to myself again and it was perfectly gloomy.

Perhaps it was a subconscious effort to give myself a reason to return to Capitol Reef, because I did not see everything on this trip that I wanted to see. Next time I will wait until it’s warmer and I’ll camp.

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In the morning I headed to Bryce Canyon. After so many trips to Utah, I still can’t make sense of the series of highways that connect Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef. The final one had me driving through a beautiful canyon and by abandoned buildings, all the while believing I couldn’t be going the right direction. The weather had turned around overnight and the sun was out in Bryce. I wasted no time driving right into the park.

My first stop was Sunset Point. I walked around the rim, taking pictures of the view. Bryce Canyon is a must see National Park. There really is nothing like it. It is so bright that I can’t help but feel happy when I’m there. Within minutes of arriving, two people asked me for directions like I worked there; that’s never happened to me before, and I couldn’t make sense of it, but it ended up being a theme of the weekend.

Unlike Grand Canyon, it doesn’t take much to get to the bottom of Bryce Canyon. I took the Navajo Loop, which is not currently a loop since half of it is closed, and then connected to Queens Garden Trail. There were patches of snow on the ground, but it was warm as I hiked. Once I hiked back to the top, I took some time to admire the view and then drove to a few of the other viewpoints. Bryce Canyon is a relatively small park, so it doesn’t take much time to see.

The next morning I set out to do a trail I hadn’t done when I was at Bryce Canyon last year: Peek-A-Boo Loop. The top of the trail was a little icy and muddy. I slid on one section, but remained on my feet, which prompted me to think to myself, “It’s strange that I have never fallen while hiking.” That sealed my fate.

The first mile or so of the trail is just to get to Peek-A-Boo Loop, which begins inside the canyon. It is typical of most trails that you go all the way up and then all the way down (or the opposite if you’re hiking into a canyon), but Peek-A-Boo loop is more like a roller coaster--expertly designed to go up and down, taking you on a ride. It was one of the most fun trails I have done and provided a close view of the hoodoos.

I knew I wanted to pack my day with hiking to make up for the day before, so after lunch, I headed to the Fairyland Loop, which I completed last year, to just hike to Tower Bridge, which I couldn’t remember if I had see before. I had--I should read my own blog--but it was still nice to spend some time on the Fairyland Trail.

Finally I set out to see the last remaining viewpoints in the park, stopping to see Natural Bridge (amazing!) on my way to Rainbow Point. The elevation is slightly higher on this side of the park, and there was more snow on the ground. I took the very short Bristlecone Loop, where I often walked on the snow to avoid the mud. At the very end of my hike, I stepped slightly off trail to see if I could get a better picture, slid on some mud I didn’t even see, and fell right on my butt. It had to happen eventually, so I’m glad it happened at the end of my last day of hiking, because me and my pack were covered in mud.

I have no doubt that I will be returning to Bryce Canyon. It is not only one of my favorite parks, but one of the coolest places I have ever been. Second to the beauty of nature, of course, I love the infrastructure of the parks--the crazy hikes the National Park Service has designed, the signage which varies greatly from park to park, and the small pieces of history everywhere. Bryce Canyon is particularly well designed and maintained.

This trip I found myself thinking a lot about my future travel plans. Do I want to put my time and money into visiting new places or do I want to return regularly to my favorite parks? The only answer I’m satisfied with is both.

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