Capitol Reef National Park
After we left Moab, we made our way southwest. We had done all our planning for Bryce Canyon and were well on our way before I realized, well shit, we completely forgot about Capitol Reef. This national park is less popular than the other national parks in Utah, but we had every intention of visiting it. We didn’t have cell service for long stretches down that highway, so as soon as one little bar of AT&T made it’s way to my phone, we pulled over and quickly found a few options for places to stay and adjusted our route. Highway 24 actually traverses straight through the park and we were not prepared for how much different the geography was here than in Moab! There were massive white domes that we slowly wound our way through. Poor Bryan was doing his best to keep us safely on the road, while the wind was doing its darndest to push us off. We managed to snatch an incredible site at a dispersed campsite just outside of the park and Bryan could finally release his death grip from the steering wheel.
Our home outside Capitol Reef was such a cool site. We were tucked in between giant red rocks, so even though there were some other travelers there, we felt like we were completely isolated. We managed to get set up just in time for sunset and the views were incredible. Our site ended up being even more functional than we originally realized, with Bryan using one of the rocks as a table for the grill. I also did some laundry and used the rocks to anchor one end of our clothesline.
Where does the name Capitol Reef come from?
When you hear the word reef, you probably think of the ocean, not the Utah desert. The park’s name actually comes from the large white Navajo Sandstone domes which travelers thought resembled the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Travelers also associated the steep rocky cliffs with ocean reefs, which created obstacles to navigate. This region’s geographical formations certainly made traveling a challenge. So there you have it - Capitol Reef.
Hickman Bridge Trailhead
On our first morning in Torrey, UT, we woke up before sunrise and headed to Hickman Bridge Trail. The trail starts along the Fremont River and has a view of the park's namesake - Capitol Dome. The hike offered amazing views of the massive domes, but only a short distance into the hike, we encountered black boulders that seemed starkly out of place. It almost seemed like someone had come and strategically placed these dark rocks along the contrasting oranges, reds, whites, and browns as a prank, however, they continued all the way to the end of the trail. It turns out these are volcanic rocks, called basalt boulders, that migrated to this area after the glaciers atop mountains to the west of the park melted.
At the top of the trail, we were rewarded with a view of Hickman Natural Bridge, which is 125 feet high and 133 feet long. In the rock formations behind the bridge, we caught a view of tafoni. This is a type of weathering that occurs on vertical surfaces and results in a honeycomb appearance.
All national parks should taste this good
After our hike, we headed over to the Gifford House to treat ourselves to some delicious fresh baked goods. The few residents in the town of Fruita helped plant the fruit orchards along the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek in the 1880s and they are still flourishing in the park today. There are 1,900 fruit and nut trees that you are allowed to harvest from, depending on the season. The Gifford House is the only homestead that remains in the town of Fruita and was sold to the National Park Service in 1969 by the last resident in Fruita, Dewey Gifford. It is now used to sell delicious fruit pies, jams, and other assorted items. All the reviews we read said to arrive early, because they sell out fast! It was only 7:30 am when we finished our hike and there was already a line when we got there. When it was our turn to order, all the choices looked so good, but we narrowed it down to a giant cinnamon roll, mixed berry pie, and apple pie. They were all delicious and we enjoyed snacking on them the rest of the week.
The other remaining building in Fruita is the one room schoolhouse. It was built in 1896 and served as a community center, Sunday school, and classroom. They utilized it as a schoolhouse for grades 1st through 8th from May through October, when the students didn't have to help on their family farms. Outside the schoolhouse is a sign explaining the history of the school, as well as a recording from the class of 1934's teacher, Janice Oldroyd Torgerson. She discusses the hardships of living in such a remote town, the pranks the children would play on her, and her salary, a whopping $57 per month! Eventually most of the residents moved out of Fruita, so the schoolhouse was closed in 1941.
That evening we decided to watch the sunset from Panorama Point and Goosenecks Point. It was a quick hike up from the trail head and there were amazing views in every direction. We sat near the edge, looked down at the 400-foot canyon, and enjoyed some delicious Utah beer while watching the sun sink below. If you stay until the sun is completely set, you are in for a treat. Capitol Reef is a designated International Dark Sky Park, meaning there is no light pollution, so the view of the stars is incredible.
Cassidy Arch Trail
The next day, we hiked Cassidy Arch Trail. It is named for Butch Cassidy, who was rumored to have used one of the caves along this trail to hide. I’m going to be honest; this was not our finest moment. We ended up walking for quite some time along an incredible trail, with huge mesas and white domes towering over our narrow path. However, we absolutely missed the trailhead for Cassidy Arch and by the time we turned around and found it, sunset wasn’t too far away. I was 99% certain we were going to become a mountain lion snack, but somehow I convinced Bryan to run up and down this 3 mile, very steep trail, to see the arch at the top. Spoiler alert – we made it to the top to see Cassidy Arch and we didn’t break our ankles running down in the semi-dark and most importantly, I didn’t have to figure out what to do if we encountered a mountain lion. We won’t be doing that again, but I would highly recommend doing that hike when you have adequate time, as well as the trail we got lost on.
Chimney Rock Loop Trail
After surviving leg day and getting horribly lost, we hiked Chimney Rock Loop Trail. This trail was no joke, with an incredibly steep first ¼ mile going up switchbacks. After making it close to the top, we could view Chimney Rock, a spire 300 feet above the trailhead. Gazing out at the chimney shaped rock, we felt fairly confident that today we were on the correct trail.
It started drizzling at the top, which we happily welcomed, because we were hot and out of breath. The rest of the trail slowly meandered down and back to the trailhead and we were treated to amazing views of the park all along the way.
Waterfalls in Utah?
We were heading out the next day to get a spot in the forest outside Bryce Canyon before busy Memorial Day traffic arrived, so we wanted to get one more hike in before sunset. We found a trail off the beaten path on AllTrails with multiple waterfalls along the creek. The trailhead was unmarked and behind the visitor center, but our trusty app assured us we were going the correct way. We had this secret creek all to ourselves, walking along it, hopping from rock to rock, and at some points, just having to walk through it. The trail ended at a rushing waterfall. I once again convinced Bryan that we should go further. We made our way through almost waste deep water, being very grateful for our long legs, and that more of our bodies weren’t submerged in the brisk water. When we were far enough out, it got shallow again, and we stood and watched the water crashing down into the creek. It was a peaceful moment that we were happy to enjoy, just the two of us.
Although this park has less visitors, it is not lacking any of the beauty of the other parks. It is only lacking the long entrance lines and crowds. Capitol Reef, you truly are a gem, and I’m so sorry we almost forgot about you! We will be back!