Capitol Reef National Park....why is called this? Well, the answer takes us back to the early settlers of the area. Settlers thought the white Navajo domes looked like the capitol building in Washington DC while others thought the long wrinkle in the rock layers looked like a oceanic barrier reef. Reefs in the ocean make it difficult to travel, as did the Waterpocket Fold. Settlers once struggled to cross the fold hence the name "Capitol Reef". It is the least visited national park in Utah and in fact, most people will drive through it without even realizing it on their way to Bryce or Zion Canyons. This makes Capitol Reef one of the best kept secrets Utah has to offer and it sure won't disappoint anyone who spends some extra to see the wonders hidden here. I like to call it an "outdoorsman Park" as opposed to a "tourist park" as most of the tourist crows don't spend much time here. There is no entrance fee for the park and the visitor center is located at the intersection of Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive in the middle of the park along the Fremont River. Capitol Reef is a strange park in the way it's shaped, it's about 75 miles long in the north to south direction but is at most only 10 miles wide in the east to west direction. In some places the park is only a half mile wide! Utah Highway 24 cuts right through the middle of the park following the Fremont River Gorge. This drive alone is very beautiful and the stretch of Highway 24 between Hanksville and Torrey is one of my all time favorite stretches of road. These two small towns are the closest to Capitol Reef, Hanksville on the east side and Torrey to the west. Every kind of outdoor activity you can think of is found at Capitol Reef in some way. There are some great summits and towers for those looking to climb something as well as deep slot canyons for those looking for a canyoneering adventure. There is even a whole network of back roads for people to see some of the hidden wonders without straying too far from their car. Many of these roads do require higher clearance vehicles but for those with only an extra day or a few hours this can be a great way to experience the beauty of Capitol Reef. The Park is typically divided into two distinct regions which are the Cathedral Valley District on the northern part of the park and the Waterpocket District in the middle and southern part. These two areas have drastically different characteristics and attributes that make them both special. So sit back...relax...and enjoy Capitol Reef National Park.
Capitol Reef Alpenglow
Sunset over The Castle
Capitol Reef in Spring
Getting There - Cathedral Valley District
Cathedral Valley is a large open area of unspoiled desert lands encompassing the northern most part of the park. This area is much different than the remainder of the park because its beauty isn't really associated with the Waterpocket Fols but rather the Entrada Sandstone Towers and open vistas. Just about everyone who goes to see Cathedral Valley drives the 59 mile loop tour which starts at the Fremont River Ford 11.8 miles east of the visitor center on Highway 24. The loop follows the Hartnet Road to the Cathedral Road (also known as the Caineville Wash Road) and returns back to Hwy 24 just west of the small town of Caineville located 18.6 miles east of the visitor center. The River Ford is easy to cross most times of the year, except during spring runoff or following a thunderstorm. The river bed at the ford has a hard packed, rocky bottom and water levels are normally only a foot deep. However with this being said it is highly advised you do the loop in a clockwise direction and ford the Fremont River first in case foul weather comes and the river levels suddenly rise, leaving you stranded. The access road to the ford does cross private land so please honor the posted no trespassing signs and do not camp here. Below is a mile by mile description of the tour that highlights the main attractions. Keep in mind this 59 mile tour will take at least 3 hours just to drive. When you include stops and short hikes you should probably plan on half a day for this. See the "Maps" section for a map of the park which shows this loop tour.
|0||Fremont River Crossing - This marks the beginning of the tour where you must drive through the Fremont River. Usually the river is less than a foot deep but high clearance is required to make it across however this tour can be done without four wheel drive. Be sure to leave with a full tank of gas and emergency supplies as any help might be a long time away.|
|9||Bentonite Hills - The Bentonite Hills appear to be rounded masses of clay. Actually, they are formed of layers of soft stone of various colors, the surface of which turns to clay when exposed to weathering. What is seen by the eye is a veneer of color-banded, popcorn-like clay, which obscures the basic rock layers beneath the surface. When wet, the clay absorbs water and becomes gummy and very slippery, making vehicle or foot travel difficult or even impossible: hence the warning to avoid areas of clay when wet or when rain or snow threaten. More about the Bentonite Hills in the Geology section below.|
|14||Lower South Desert Overlook Spur Road - This short spur road has a sign for the Lower South Desert Overlook. This beautiful spot overlooks an interesting rock formation called Jailhouse Rock to the west. A short scramble from the main overlook takes you up to a high point with even more views to the south.|
|27||Upper South Desert Overlook Spur Road - This short road leads to my favorite overlook in all of Cathedral valley but that's because I was there when the lighting was perfect. Views to the north here are stunning with a series of orange towers below you which glow in the afternoon sun. Look closely and you can see the road way in the distance.|
|27.5||Junction of the Hartnet, Polk Creek and Caineville Wash (Cathedral) Roads - Turn right here and continue north heading down the very steep hill|
|33||Junction of Caineville Wash and Baker Ranch Roads - Stay straight and continue east. The Baker Ranch Road heads left (north) going through a large expanse of open desert reaching I-70 after 27 miles.|
|33.1||Gypsum Sinkhole Spur Road - Bear right and continue maybe a mile as the road wraps around and ends at a very deep (60ish feet) sinkhole caused by underground gypsum dissolving and creating large cavities. The overlaying sandstone then collapses leaving a sinkhole.|
|42.5||Lower Cathedral Valley Spur Road - Bear right and continue about a mile to the Temple of the Sun and Moon as well as Glass Mountain. This very interesting feature is made of pure gypsum and was pushed up likely by heat caused by the intrusion of many basalt dikes. Please refrain from taking gypsum pieces with you as this small feature won't last very long. Every rainstorm makes it smaller.|
|59||Junction of Highway 24 and Caineville Wash (Cathedral) Road - Reach the highway once again a couple miles west of Caineville. There is a Roadway Inn here, the only hotel for many miles.|
This 6,308 foot peak is likely the best place to go if you are itching for a summit hike. It lies 4.5 miles east of the Temples and Glass Mountain and can be easily climbed in a six mile round trip hike from where the road crosses Caineville Wash 2.6 miles east of the spur road to the Temples. Although the route I have done on this peak is from the north using Salt Wash as an approach, Bob Sihler has a great description of a south side route from Cathedral Valley that is most likely shorter than the route I have done. His Black Mountain page is linked above. As you can probably guess, the mountain is black but why? Although all the surrounding rocks are red, orange or white colored sandstones, the rocks on Black Mountain are dark colored basalt which is the result of lava flows fed by dikes that cut through the rock layers all the way to the surface in some places. Driving the Caineville Wash Road you will see many thin but very long dark colored linear towers of basalt that stand proud above the ground as they are much more resistant to erosion than the surrounding sandstones. These towers are the volcanic dikes. The source of this volcanism and why there was volcanic activity in central Utah is still not exactly known. Perhaps it was related to the San Juan volcanic field where huge super-volcanoes existed in the present day San Juan mountains in SW Colorado 30 million years ago.
Getting There - Waterpocket DistrictThe Waterpocket District is the bread butter of Capitol Reef. This long, monoclinal fold in the earth exposes all the rock units you see in southern Utah in perfect sequence as you drive along Highway 24 from east to west through the Fremont River Gorge. See more in the geology section below. Although the Waterpocket Fold extends well north of Highway 24 and west of Cathedral Valley, the fold in this part of the park is less dramatic and offers less in the way of deep canyons and big towers. The area surrounding Highway 24 and extending south all the way to the Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell is one of the true gems of Utah. A loop tour similar to the Cathedral Valley tour, however much longer, can be done for those people with less time to spare. This loop starts at the visitor center on Highway 24 in the middle of the park and it is best done in a clockwise direction. It is very important your gas tank is full for this trip as the loop is 125 miles long and side trips are a must since the area is so beautiful. From the visitor center follow Highway 24 east for 9 miles to the Notom Bullfrog Road where the fun part begins. Turn south on this road which is paved initially. This intersection also has a nice restroom facility on the north side of the highway. Below I will describe the three main road tours within the Waterpocket District starting with the popular loop tour.
Waterpocket Loop Drive
|9||Junction of Highway 24 and Notom-Bullfrog Road - Turn south onto this road and climb up the first hill. This whole loop can be done in a passenger car when the conditions are good however since many of the roads atr on Bentonite Clay, nothing can drive them when they are wet. Be sure to leave with a full tank of gas and emergency supplies as any help might be a long time away.|
|11.2||Pleasant Creek Dispersed Camping - After 2.2 miles from the highway you will cross a small bridge over Pleasant Creek and just after the crossing there is a spur road heading sharp left and wraps around to a few very nice dispersed camp spots right along Pleasant Creek that are outside the National Park boundary. It is only about a quarter mile to eash site but the brush and cottonwood trees hide the area nicely.|
|19.1||End of Paved Road - Here the pavement ends and dirt/clay roads remain for a long time.|
|21.8||Sheets Gulch - Here the road crosses a fairly large wash known as Sheets Gulch. You can pull off the road and drive up the wash for about a mile before you are forced to park. Be sure you don't park in the wash bed itself in case it rains. Further upstream, the gulch has some very photogenic narrows with no technical difficulties. The gulch goes on for nearly 10 miles so pick a turn-around point based on your allotted time. Just before Sheets Gulch you will also cross Burro and Cottonwood Washes both of which are signed. ).8 miles past Sheets Gulch is Sandy Junction. Continue straight (south).|
|31||Cedar Mesa Campground - This campground is one of the two operational backcountry campgrounds within the park. A free permit is required to camp here and is run on a first-come first-serve basis. No water is available here but there is a pit toilet facility.|
|43||Junction with the Burr Trail - This stretch of road between the Cedar Mesa Campground and the Burr Trail is exceptionally beautiful. To continue the loop, turn right here and begin climbing the steep switchbacks up to the top of the Waterpocket fold. Continuing straight will take you on the Halls Creek/Bullfrog Marina route (See Below). Heading up the switchbacks, the views will continue to expand and at the top, there is a nice picnic area and this spot is known as the Strike Valley Overlook. Views of the Henry Mountains are stunning.|
|80||Town of Boulder and Junction of Burr Trail and Highway 12 - Continue west on the Burr Trail which becomes paved the rest of the way to Boulder. See lodging section below for more information about Boulder. During this long drive you will pass through amazing country within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and will pass the signed Moody Road junction, drive through Long Canyon and pass the Grand Gulch Trailhead.|
|100||Junction of Highway 12 and Lower Browns Reservoir Road - Highway 12 north from Boulder ascends the eastern flank of Boulder Mountain. The hot desert gives way to cooler air with big aspen forests that are glorious in the fall. Snow lingers up here well into spring and you can look down on Capitol Reef to the east and see the fold very well. This spur road heads east off the highway and descends steeply for 3.8 miles to Lower Browns Reservoir where abundant camping and even fishing can be found. With 4WD you can continue past the reservoir on the South Draw Road all the way to the Scenic Drive (See Below)|
|117.2||Town of Torrey and Junction of Highways 12 and 24 - Continue winding across Boulder Mountain and descend to Torrey (More Information Below). Turn right onto Highway 24 and continue 9 miles down the big hill back to the visitor center. You will pass Sunset Point on the way which makes a great photo stop late in the afternoon|
Halls Creek/Bullfrog Marina
From the junction of the Notom Road and the Burr Trail, continue straight (south) instead of climbing up the steep switchbacks. There is a big sign at this junction and is impossible to miss. After two miles you will reach a short spur road heading off to the right (south) to The Post corral. Remnants of an old corral are still found here and this is the trailhead for a variety of hikes and canyons including Surprise and Headquarters Canyons, The Post Cutoff Trail, and Muley Twist Canyon. Continue another 8.7 miles past the Post corral and around a very broad left turn in the road and reach a signed junction with the Burr Trail. It is important you turn right here and continue south on the now paved road. After only 0.9 miles on this road you can turn right at the signed Halls Creek Overlook dirt road. This road loops around Big Thompson Mesa and takes you to the Halls Creek Overlook Trailhead for access to the southern end of the park. The most popular things people see way down here is the Brimhall Double Bridge and Halls Creek Narrows. Some very technical slot canyons are found beyond the southern park boundary for those who dare to venture for miles down Halls Creek. If you continue south on the paved road (Burr Trail) it will descend steeply down to Bullfrog Creek where it fords the creek. This crossing is almost always dry and passable for any car but after a storm or a very wet winter season water can flow here. After crossing Bullfrog Creek the road ends at a junction with Highway 276. Turning left here will take you north up to Highway 95 and on to Hanksville. Turning right will take you to the Bullfrog Marina after only a few more miles.
The Scenic Drive
The Scenic Drive starts at the Visitor Center and heads south through the historic town of Fruita and provides access to Cohab Canyon, Grand Wash, Capitol Gorge, Pleasant Creek, and the South Draw Road. It's an 8.2 mile paved road with dirt spur roads into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge that are accessible to ordinary passenger vehicles in good conditions. Unfortunately during the off season these roads are gated so for those people with the tough 4WD vehicles these roads will still be closed in winter. This road is not a loop, so you must return the way you came. There is a five dollar entrance fee that is charged for this road using the honor system. This is the only source of public income for Capitol Reef National Park so it's best you pay the fee. The road ends for passenger cars at Capitol Gorge where a nice dirt road leads to a popular trailhead. The Golden Throne Trail takes off from here. Four wheel drive vehicles can continue on the South Draw Road as it parallels the western flank of the Waterpocket Fold to Pleasant Creek and beyond all the way to Lower Browns Reservoir and Highway 12.