April 2016: After our wonderful visit with Sterling and Teresa on the Kaibab Plateau, we headed for Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef is the most remote of Utah’s National Parks and therefore the least visited. That sounded perfect to us after the crowds we had encountered at Zion and Bryce, so off we went. BLM camping near the little town of Torrey was our destination. Torrey is a tiny little town but it has several restaurants, a small market, and a small laundromat. We drove through Torrey and found our destination: Bea Lewis Flat. Bea Lewis Flat is a large area with lots of beautiful dispersed camping sites. We chose one with views of the cliffs just inside Capitol Reef and not another camper in sight. Aah. We had to knuckle down for a few days to catch up on work, but with an office view like this and a cost of zero dollars, you really cannot complain. The cats even had chipmunks and ground squirrels to watch.
That’s Capitol Reef behind us, and in the opposite direction:
Unfortunately, rain was moving in, and we realized we might only have a single day of clear weather left before a week of rain set in. We had to decide between hiking or an off-road drive out to Cathedral Valley. The scenery on the Cathedral Valley drive was said to be spectacular, but part of the road is impassable when it rains. We opted for the drive and weren’t disappointed.
We headed into the Park and spent a little time at the Visitor’s Center reading all about the geology of the Park and its history. I had mistakenly guessed that it contained ancient coral reef formations, but it turns out that pioneers referred to any geological obstruction to travel (except a mountain range) as a “reef.” The reef was pushed up during a major mountain-building period and is nearly 100 miles long. It exposed nearly 200 million years of geological history, including many layers of soft sandstone. Over the millennia, erosion by wind and water created lots of depressions or pockets which collected water, giving rise to its name: the Waterpocket Fold. It was a formidable obstacle to a pioneer in a covered wagon, but Mormon settlers found that the high cliffs of Capitol Reef gave them protection from wind and radiated heat in the spring and fall that extended their growing season. The Fremont River provided all the water they and their crops needed, and the fruit trees they planted are still producing fruit today that can be picked by visitors, including an apple variant called the Capitol Reef Red. As for the “capitol” part of the name, it refers to the many white domes of Navajo Sandstone throughout the Park. I’ll give it to ’em, but I suspect there may have been peyote involved, or smoking Mormon tea or something.
We headed off to Cathedral Valley and spent a great day driving through this remote area of the Park. The Bentonite Hills are a multi-hued stunning spectacle. Bentonite is a type of clay that expands drastically when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry. The expansion & contraction crush the roots of most plants, so bentonite areas are usually devoid of plants. It readily absorbs minerals though, resulting in its bands of color. Fun fact: bentonite is commonly used in clumping cat litter. If you’ve ever been washing out your cat’s litter box and felt how slick and slimy the litter is, that’s bentonite. That’s why the road is impassable when it rains: I can’t even imagine trying to walk on that stuff, much less drive on it!
The remainder of the drive looked more typically like Utah, with pink and red sandstone cliffs and formations. This section was very reminiscent of Bryce.
Toward the end of the drive we came to Glass Mountain, a 10-12′ tall mound of selenite crystals. Selenite is also known as Moonstone and is commonly used in jewelry. It was amazing and I can’t imagine how it must dazzle on a sunny day!
That evening the rain set in and it alternately rained & snowed for several days. We had hoped to hike and drive in the Waterpocket Fold, to hike in the Grand Wash and other slot canyons, and to see Hickman Bridge (a 133′ long arch bridge). But being wet and cold just didn’t seem tempting to either of us so we stayed mostly snugged in our house. Sometimes it’s hard to give yourself permission to not “go all the places and do all the things.” We took short walks in the campground, and drove into the Park a few times and did some short “overlook” walks, before low propane levels meant we needed to leave our slice of paradise. The red clay of our campsite wasn’t quite as slick as bentonite, but we almost didn’t get the motorhome out of Bea Lewis Flat! If we hadn’t feared suffocation by cat (brought on by no heat in freezing temps) we’d have stayed until it dried out a bit more, but desperate times…
Capitol Reef may not have as many hoodoos as Bryce, or cliffs quite as tall as those of Zion, but it has both of those features plus arches and even its own back-country narrows hike, all without the crowds and craziness. If I could only visit one of those 3 parks, I’d pick Capitol Reef, no contest. I wish the weather had been better so we could have spent more time exploring. I guess we’ll just have to plan on a longer visit next time!
Up next: Canyonlands, Arches and Moab, oh my!
TIPS FOR YOUR CAPITOL REEF TRIP
- The town of Torrey is tiny. The market has essentials but you’ll probably want to do a big shop before you get here.
- There’s an RV park in Torrey if you prefer hookups or if you need propane or a dump station.
- Check road conditions at the Visitor’s Center before heading out on any offroad excursions. The Cathedral Valley and Waterpocket Fold drives require a vehicle with some ground clearance, but in dry conditions 4-wheel drive isn’t necessary. I’d rate Cathedral Valley as a “just don’t take a Honda Civic” kind of road.
- Just because it’s late April doesn’t mean it won’t snow!
MUST-SEE AND DO LIST
- Hickman Bridge is a 133′ long arch bridge and is the most popular hike in the Park.
- Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge offer great slot canyon hiking.
- Gain some elevation and get a good view of the Waterpocket Fold – it’s incredible.
- Slacker’s in Torrey has great burgers, fries & ice cream!