The route we took from Panguitch to Torrey (and Capitol Reef), while not officially a scenic byway, was beautiful nonetheless — up U.S 89 to Highways 69 and 24… and as we approached Torrey, the vistas became breathtaking — although even more so once we drove up and through the national park. In fact, this national park quickly became another of our favorites — for the number of hikes and drives, the variety of vistas, and the interesting history of the area. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit over multiple days.
Capitol Reef only became a national park in 1971; however, it was first established as a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt… in order to protect the area’s colorful buttes, monoliths, canyons, and ridges — as well as as a unique uplift formation (that divides the landscape) called the Waterpocket Fold. The park protects 241,904 acres. Originally known (in the early 1900s) as Wayne Wonderland, the park gets its name from the Navajo Sandstone dome formations that appear similar to the domes on capitol buildings — and reef from the term used for referring to barriers to travel.
As we drove into the park, on our way to the visitor center, we hit Panorama Point, Chimney Rock, and The Castle — all of which can be enjoyed right from your vehicle, though Chimney Rock also offers a hiking trail. After hitting up the visitor center and watching the informative video (and buying a magnet for our fridge), we decided to start this adventure with learning more about Fruita — a Mormon community established in the late 1800s at the junction of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, and known for its fruit orchards; we went into one of the existing orchards and found a few remaining apples left to pick… and enjoy. (Fruit consumed in the orchards, now all owned by the National Park Service, is free to park visitors.)
Next up, we headed over to the Hickman Bridge Trail, a moderate 2-mile (RT) trail that goes up and under the Hickman Bridge arch. The trail travels along the lower slopes of the Waterpocket Fold before continuing up past a small (below-ground) arch known as the Nels Johnson Natural Bridge. Keep climbing and turn to the right to reach the best-known view of the Hickman Bridge; from there, the trail continues under the arch and circles back around to the main trail — but not before offering some superb canyon vistas. (A trail brochure available at the trailhead showcases 17 things for people to observe along the trail.)
From Hickman Bridge, we decided to take a break from hiking and follow Highway 24 east to the end of the park — and beyond — to see what other crazy rock formations we would find. And just wow… what we found! The pictures in the collage do not do justice to the colors and details of these formations! The drive eventually lead us to a stop at Mesa Farm Market — more details to follow about this wonderful organic farm, goat ranch, and bakery — before we turned around and headed back to the park. (Navajo Dome is featured in the top left picture of the collage.)
The Capitol Reef area has been populated by people for centuries — and some of the oldest inhabitants left cliff wall drawings, known as petroglyphs. This “rock-art” has been attributed to the Fremont Culture, which existed in areas of Utah from approximately 600 to 1300 AD. (The Fremont people lived in pit houses that were dug into the ground and covered with a brush roofs, as well as in natural rock shelters. Their social structure was likely composed of small, loosely organized bands consisting of several families.) The meaning of the petroglyphs is unknown — but along a nicely developed boardwalk trail, one can see all sorts of people and animals — some of which are shown in the photo collage.
The park also includes a 25-mile scenic drive — that starts right past the visitor center. The Capitol Reef National Park Scenic Drive offers numerous stops (including the Ripple Rock Nature Center) and pull outs so that visitors can stop, snap pictures, and marvel at the amazing variety of rock formations, layers, and more — formations that have been uplifted, folded, carved, and heaved. The paved road ends at Capitol Gorge — one of the main gaps in the Waterpocket Fold. (An unpaved road continues into the gorge — a trail used by Native Americans and later as a frontier trail.) A parking area provides vistas of the gorge — and of Eph Hanks Tower.
We ended our visit to Capitol Reef National Park with two short hikes — one up to Sunset Point (about .67 miles roundtrip) and the other to the Goosenecks Trail (less than .5 miles) — both accessible from the Goosenecks parking area (which is on a fairly well-maintained gravel road located at Panorama Point). The views from Sunset Point are phenomenal — and while we were there late afternoon (and not sunset), we can simply not imagine a time of day when a visitor would not marvel at the vistas… including across the landscape to the cliffs and domes of Capitol Reef, but also down 400 feet into Sulphur Creek.
The park also offers numerous other hikes, including the moderate Fremont River Trail and Cohab Canyon Trail, as well as the more strenuous Old Wagon Trail Loop, Rim Overlook, and Navajo Knobs trails.
On our way out of the park, as we headed to our next stop in Green River (with stops at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks), we drove more of Highway 24 — again stopping at Mesa Farm Market. This organic, sustainable, and non-GMO market offers fresh fruits and vegetables, many goat-milk products, juices, and free-range chicken eggs — as well as artisan breads baked daily in a wood-fired stone oven. Proprietor Randy Ramsley is entertaining, enlightening, and a joy to chat with — when he is not busy baking those breads. We bought two dozen eggs — and he graciously threw in freshly-cut kale and basil. So yummy! We made omelets for dinner for days! If you go to Capitol Reef and want quality foods, take the extra drive east on Highway 24 and visit Randy and the Mesa Farm Market; we HAVE to support the folks who are doing things correctly — our lives depend on it.
Next up? Two more national parks and one or more state parks from our camp headquarters in Green River, Utah.