Side Road Trips in Capitol Reef
Views in Capitol Reef are considerably more “open” than those in Zion, which is rather confined by the narrow canyons. Even more so than Zion, much of Capitol Reef can be seen right from the car. The highway is lined with pull-outs that let you stop and take it all in. One highly recommended stop is the Panorama Point/ Goosenecks view area, on the park’s west end. From the scenic drive, several nice, short side drives on well-maintained dirt/gravel roads can be negotiated in virtually any vehicle.
The first of these, Grand Wash, is sort of like taking a Disneyland ride in your own car. The hike through the Narrows, from the trailhead at the end of the Grand Wash drive, is highly recommended. You can either take the entire 2.5-mile walk, which ends at Highway 24, or just go about 0.25 mile to a cutback trail (somewhat steep) on the left to visit Cassidy Arch, where the ubiquitous Butch is said to have hung out.
You should definitely drive out to the end of the unpaved but well-maintained Capitol Gorge spur, a few miles father along the scenic drive. This 2.2- mile road is a little narrow for RVs, and nothing you would want to pull a trailer through, but other vehicles will make it without difficulty. It is hard to imagine a more unusual driving experience for a conventional vehicle: The gorge ends in a narrow channel carved between sheer cliffs.
An easy and interesting 1-mile hike from the trailhead at the end of the Capitol Gorge drive takes you into this slot canyon, where on a rock wall called Pioneer Register you can see the names of miners, settlers, and other adventurers who passed through here starting in 1871. In fact, the labyrinthine Capitol Gorge road here was the main transport route through this region from 1884 until Highway 24 was opened in 1962. Pioneers had to remove boulders and other debris after every flash flood, and at its best, it was a tight fit for big wagons or trucks.
Turn around and retrace the scenic drive; an unpaved road that heads off to the right when the gorge spur cuts off to the left leads to a rough road best suited for 4x4s that eventually connects with Highway 12.
There are many excellent walks in the park and very good rock climbing in vertical cracks of hard Wingate sandstone. Inquire at the visitor center for information on specific hikes and climbing routes. The rangers at the visitor center will also issue free backcountry (overnight) hiking permits along with recommendations for backcountry campsites.
After a visit to Capitol Reef’s rocky wilderness, the green groves and fruit orchards around the intersection of Highway 24 and the park scenic drive are a cool and welcome sight. Just after the turn of the century, the Mormon community of Fruita, nestled in the shaded canyon formed by the Fremont River, was a lively, vibrant town of nearly 50. Though most of Fruita’s residents gradually moved away after Capitol Reef’s establishment as a national monument, the fields and orchards (and an abundance of wildlife) remain for your enjoyment. Visitors may even pick small quantities of fruit: cherries in June, apricots in July, pears in August, and apples in September. Look for U-Pick signs and be prepared to pay a small donation for any fruit you take with you (there is no charge for fruit you eat on-site). The money, collected on an honor system, goes to maintain the orchards—a very worthy cause.
The park campground, with 71 sites, water, and toilets (but no showers), is located in the shady area of old Fruita. Apart from water and the orchard fruit, the park provides no other services or amenities. Nearby Torrey is the best bet for accommodations and food.
Tear yourself away from the wonders of Capitol Reef and continue east along Highway 24; there is much more to enthuse over on this drive. Just after returning to Highway 24, note on the left the old Fruita schoolhouse, nicely restored and in a beautiful setting beneath towering sandstone cliffs. The one-room schoolhouse, built in 1896, remained in use until 1941. It also served the community as church and town meeting place, with the desks pushed aside for Saturday dances. Check in at the visitor center to see if this and other Fruita buildings are open to the public while you’re there.
Just after the old schoolhouse, also on the left, is a petroglyph trail; beyond the petroglyph trail is the trailhead for the easy to moderate (2 miles round-trip) hike to Hickman Natural Bridge. This is perhaps one of the best park walks in all of Utah, with quintessential scenic views and glimpses of Fremont Culture ruins. Hickman bridge itself is a must-see. From this trail you can also see one of the large white sandstone domes that inspired the park’s name. In this lightly traveled part of the world, you will probably have this highly recommended walk mostly to yourself.
About 5 miles east of the turnoff for the park visitor center is the well-marked Grand Wash trailhead on the right. From here, you can do the aforementioned hike through the Grand Wash Narrows but in reverse.
As might be expected, as soon as you leave the park boundary the landscape diminishes in interest—from incredible to just terrific. It is still beautiful, and because this is still public land, there is absolutely no commercial development immediately outside either park entrance. The most dramatic landscape features are enclosed within the park boundaries; otherwise, it is just as pristine and wild out of the park as within.
About 4.5 miles east of the Capitol Reef boundary, Highway 24 enters a valley flanked by odd, soft-looking, tannish-yellow sandstone cliffs. Next comes an area of blue-gray Mancos shale, much younger in geological time than the more colorful rock of Capitol Reef. Just after you cross the Fremont River at the little gas station/cafe/campground (with showers) called “Sleepy Hollow,” look quickly to the right through a gap in the sandstone cliffs at the curious area of gray sand dunes. More of this gray stuff follows soon after. The landscape has really changed by this point. The views are more expansive, the rock formations look much softer, sort of halfway between sand dunes and sandstone cliffs.
Scenic driving information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press).