From towering arches to a wrinkle in the earth, Capitol Reef National Park in Utah holds some hidden gems in a place that has gone largely unnoticed by the viewing public. But, I’m a bit partial to this park, if only for the brilliant colors that resonate from its canyon walls and shoot up to touch the azure, desert sky.
The park’s namesake is a fascinating one. It comes from two sources. One, from pioneers who once traveled the high seas and found the rocks in this new land ‘impassable’ much like the ‘reefs’ they encountered in the ocean. The other reference to Capitol shines the light on the rounded, white sandstone domes the park boasts. The pioneers often compared such formations with the domes of capitol buildings.
Names aside, the park’s biggest landmark is just as mesmerizing. It boasts a monster fold that cuts straight into the earth. Known as Waterpocket Fold, this wrinkle extends a good 100 miles almost all within the park’s borders.
There are several spots in the park where you can see the Fold. But, a short hike on Goosenecks Trail, provides you easy access to it. At only a quarter-of- a-mile round trip, the view gives visitors a true vision of the wrinkle and its surrounding rock formations.
One of our first introductions to the park, however, was the sweet spot known as Sunset Point. Located on the outer edges of the park, it opens the door to a beautiful and panoramic view of the cliffs and domes that dominate the terrain. The trail leading to the point as an easy one to follow. And as it suggests, the vista is especially stunning as the sun sets.
Rock formations and a desert climate may be this park’s ‘bread and butter’, but within its borders you’ll also come across an oasis of sorts – Fruita.
Fruita was once a pioneer community set in the shadow of the park’s towering cliffs. Here, groves of fruit trees blanket a large swath of land, while historic testaments such as Gifford Farmhouse and the Fruita Schoolhouse draw visitors for a closer look.
The most impressive insight to the history these cliffs hold was the amount of petroglyphs we found on our visit. These images – carved into stone - were left behind by the Fremont people who lived in the area as early as 700 A.D. Pictographs, images painted on rock, can also be seen here.
The panels are a window into the life these early Americans led, but it does not solve the mystery of where they went. They were last recorded in the early 1300s, but why they left the area is still unknown.
Those etchings can be found on yet another trail – the Capitol Gorge. This even-keeled trek follows the bottom of a narrow canyon and into the heart of the gorge itself. But, don’t let the distance or ‘ease’ of the trail fool you. In the height of summer, temperatures can easily rise above 100 degrees, and, without sufficient water to bring with you, the hike can be brutal.
But, what a hike it is!
The walls are towering, but quite smooth and delicate. Carvings on the sandstone are sometimes hard to spot, worn away with time. But, we lucked out with a few finds.
Settlers of a different era also kept their own records on these walls. Known as the Pioneer Register, early travelers would carve out their names on the wall as they passed by. These are a bit easier to find and gives you a fuller sense of the history here.
For those looking for a heartier hike, don’t miss Cassidy Arch. This three-and-a-half mile hike is both strenuous and spectacular. Perspectives from the top of Grand Wash highlights the arch which is named after outlaw Butch Cassidy. According to folklore, these hidden nooks were used by Cassidy as an occasional hideout and it’s easy to see why.
And that’s what I love about this park.
It is steeped in history easily ripped from the pages of local school books. And much of it is still unexplored - rugged and intimidating in all its glory – like a good mystery novel you just can’t put down until it’s finished.
SUNSET POINT TRAIL:
Distance: .6 miles RT
Distance: .2 miles RT
CASSIDY ARCH TRAIL:
Distance: 3.5 miles RT
CAPITOL ARCH TRAIL:
Distance: 2 miles RT