This week, I’ll take you to Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah. We stayed in nearby Torrey, a town of just over 300 residents. It’s ten miles west of the park visitor center with a convenience store that sells gas and a few groceries. There are a few restaurants and motels, we were booked into the Broken Spur Inn. It was a Saturday night and the town was quiet. There are no bars in Wayne County where Torrey is located. Restaurants can serve alcoholic beverages if food is ordered.
We arrived in Torrey after driving the two-hundred miles from Blanding. We left early, making stops at Bears Ears and Natural Bridges National Monuments and the Colorado River. Click here to read my post on this portion of our journey. As we approached Torrey, we had to drive through Capitol Reef on State Route 24. From what we saw as the sun was setting, we couldn’t wait to spend the next day exploring what this park has to offer.
A Little About Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef protects the Waterpocket Fold, a S-shaped rocky spine that runs north to south through the park for nearly 100 miles. This feature makes the park narrow, six miles wide on average, and long, about sixty miles. The park is bordered on the west by the Fishlake and Dixie National Forests and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. On the east side, the boundary is primarily in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Capitol Reef was declared a national monument in 1937 and a national park in 1971. It wasn’t until road access was improved in the early 1960s that visitors began to see the ridges, canyons, buttes, and arches that define the park. The Capitol portion of the name comes from the sandstone dome formations in the park that resembles the domes on capitol buildings. Reef comes from the fold described above with similarities to an underwater coral reef.
The Fruita Historic District
The 240,000 acre park receives about 1.3 million visitors per year. It’s often overlooked because of it’s remote location. The vast majority of those visitors see the park on the 8-mile Scenic Drive that offers excellent views of the Waterpocket Fold. The park includes the Fruita Historic District near the visitor center and Fremont River. Fruita was settled by Mormons in the 1880s. They built irrigation systems to water their apple, peach, pear, and apricot orchards as well as pastures for livestock and gardens for produce. These families were essentially self-sufficient for decades. The remnants of their settlement include the orchard, a blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and the Gifford House and barn.
The Gifford House is a both a museum of home life of the Mormon settlers as well as a gift shop for books, postcards, soaps, candles, jams, and jellies. We gravitated to the locally baked fresh pies that were available for sale. We chose a cherry pie in a six inch tin and devoured the pie when we stopped for lunch.
After a brief stop at the park visitor center, we took to the Scenic Drive. It was a Sunday and there were a lot of visitors but it wasn’t crowded. We made several stops at the turnouts and overlooks. Here are a few photos from some of those stops.
At the end of the paved portion of Scenic Drive, visitors can either turn-around or take a half-mile gravel road to Capitol Gorge. We found a parking spot at Capitol Gorge, then hiked about a half mile down to the Pioneer Register. This is the spot where prospectors, cowboys, surveyors, settlers, and early visitors carved their names into the canyon walls. Over the years, this place of historic significance has been subject to graffiti. Don’t try it these days, I noticed a camera mounted high above the trail to keep an eye on any potential scofflaws.
Across the way, high up on the canyon wall are carved six names with the date Sept. 24, 1911. They appear to be locals. The bottom name Sam Gifford is the head of household at the Gifford House mentioned earlier. The first person listed, John R. Stewart, was a civil engineer. Quinby Stewart was his half-brother. It’s likely this group explored this area and carved their names in the wall. The mystery to me is how they did such a neat job more than one-hundred feet up on the canyon wall. We may never know.
There are also petroglyphs along the canyon walls left by the earliest inhabitants, the Fremont culture. An example is below.
After our refreshing walk at Capitol Gorge, we took the Scenic Drive back to State Route 24 and turned east to the Hickman Bridge Trailhead. We were told this was a good hike, about one-mile and a half each way. We were a little leery of the 400 foot change in elevation but decided to go for it. We grabbed some water and set out, first up a path to the top of the ridge then to a gradually inclining trail over the rocks and through the canyons to the bridge. The day was sunny, the air was cool and fresh. The pleasant smell of the pinyons and sage wafted in the light breeze. By the time we reached the Hickman Natural Bridge, we had a sweaty glow even after removing our fleece sweaters. It was a relief to reach our destination without falling or having a heart attack!
Along the way, we saw this odd pyramid type formation protruding out of the rock.
This is Hickman Natural Bridge. It’s 133 feet long and 125 feet high. One of the best views of the bridge is after passing underneath to the back side. See the third photo below. While we were resting after our invigorating hike, six physically fit young men arrived at the bridge. One was wearing a Minnesota Vikings shirt. I asked him about the Vikings, he gave me a funny look then replied in English that they were visiting from Germany. He had little knowledge of the Vikings and that they were playing the Packers in a couple of weeks. We had a fun conversation, welcoming them to the U. S. and wished them well on the rest of their journey. While covid travel restrictions were somewhat relaxed around the world, we wondered how they were able to travel here from Europe.
The way back to the trailhead was much easier. As we neared the end, we met a young fella with flip-flops on his feet, carrying a cell phone and no water. He asked how the trail was, we said rugged, you’ll need proper footwear, at a minimum shoes with soles. He said he didn’t have shoes and would take his chances. No water, no problem! And he was on his way. We wondered if he made it there and back.
Just down the road from Hickman Bridge was the Petroglyphs Park. The path to the petroglyphs was on a long boardwalk, I think to keep visitors from climbing on the rocks. While we were looking at the images, I first noticed the prickly pear cactus growing on a ledge. Then a few feet away, clinging to the rock wall, was a small lizard sunning himself.
Back to Torrey
The afternoon light was waning, time to make our way back to Torrey. We stopped to view the Fremont River that was so important to the indigenous peoples and the Mormon settlers who relied on the river as a water source. Closer to town, we checked out Panaroma Point and did a quarter mile walk out to Sunset Point. Unfortunately, the sunset was on the dull side so no photos.
Below are a few random photos of the park scenery.
It was nearly dark when we arrived back at the Broken Spur that Sunday evening. We noticed the parking lot was nearly empty, we assumed most visitors left after spending the weekend.
For us, another day or two at Capitol Reef would have been nice to visit some of the more remote sections. In the north, Cathedral Valley can be reached by a thirty-mile gravel road with a four-wheel drive vehicle. To the south, the Notom-Bullfrog Road is paved for about 15-20 miles then turns into gravel. Both looked interesting so they go on the “next time” list. For more information on Capitol Reef, check out the National Park Service website here.
Next up, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park.
Until then, happy travels!