The least visited of the Mighty Five National Parks in Utah, Capitol Reef is mostly overlooked.
Nearly everyone flies by, racing down I-70 towards the stunning hoodoos of Bryce Canyon and the traffic jams in Zion. Heck, I’ve done the same thing myself. But in doing so, we’ve all missed out on a true desert oasis. As we left Colorado, I was determined see if Capitol Reef could hold its own against Utah’s other great parks.
Following Highway 24, we cruised by some dusty towns scattered in an otherwise truly empty country. Near the East boundary of the park, we veered south, following the Notom Bullfrog Basin Rd. The road is the access point to several slot canyons in the park, including Burro Wash. The wash begins as just that… a dusty, dry creek bed thirsty for some water. Battling deep sand and biting flies, we hiked 2 miles through the grueling June sun to the start of the slot canyon.
Little sun ever penetrates the narrow canyon, creating quite a gloomy passageway. Sticks and dry kindling were jammed in the nooks and crannies of the dark rock, as well as a few choke stones from previous floods. We could only make it a short distance before a deep pool of rancid water halted our progress. Retracing our steps, we got back in the car and drove into the park proper.
The park centers around a historic town called Fruita. It was established in the late 1800’s by Mormons who settled in the area. With sheer force, they irrigated the Fremont River and planted vast orchards in the fertile soil. In the valleys between steep canyon walls, they grew cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, and apples. Now under the management of the National Park Service, around 3,000 trees remain as well as a few historic buildings.
Nearby is the park’s only designated campground. It’s very small and was completely full when we arrived. Thankfully, we met some nice RVers who let us set up our tent in their unused spot. They were extremely generous, offering us food and drinks. Grouped at the picnic table, we shared stories of life and travel. They had been permanently living, and traveling, in their RV for the last 10 or so years. Inside, it was a nice, decked out rig! We watched that night’s ranger program together, before going to bed.
The next morning we started the morning with a few delicious pies from the Gifford House. This was one of the original farms in the area and has been renovated and outfitted to sell locally made products, including jams, jellies, and unbelievable pies.
We worked the calories off with a hike to Hickman bridge, a 130 foot natural bridge. Pushing on past the bridge, we climbed to an overlook that provided sweeping views of the iconic waterpocket fold and the Fruita valley far below.
After the hike, we briefly visited a panel of petroglyphs that were drawn by the native Fremont people. The petroglyphs were created between the years 600-1300. While very basic, it was fun to try to figure out all the different animals and to guess at what kind of story these ancestral people were trying to tell.
Sulphur Creek (5.5 miles)
That afternoon we escaped the sun by hiking through Sulphur Creek. Starting at the Chimney Rock Trailhead, we crossed the road and took a winding path down to the river. The shin deep river had carved a deep canyon through layers of sandstone. We followed the flowing water 5.5 miles to the Visitor center, bypassing 3 waterfalls en route. Along the way we chatted with a couple German guys who were on a road trip of their own. They had worked the winter up in Whistler, Canada, purchased a van, and were driving through the Western half of the U.S. They generously gave us a lift back to our car.
The next morning we hiked up the Fremont River Trail to some more great views. Then we drove the scenic drive down to the entrance of Capitol Gorge. It was a pleasant drive. For the more ambitious, it leads to plenty of hiking possibilities. For us, it signified the end of a brief, but fruitful, visit.
We were onto more of the iconic sights of Southern Utah… Slot canyons!