If you’re just tuning in, last week we shared the first leg of our jaunt through Utah — Bryce Canyon. From Bryce Canyon we headed to Capitol Reef, which was a much quieter, but no less spectacular experience. It seems that in the pick among Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Park (our next post!), Capitol Reef can fall by the wayside on people’s agendas.
The 2 1/2 hour drive from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef alone, though, was worth it. We passed through Grand Escalante National Monument on Highway 12, which was beautiful.
And once again, THERE SEEMS TO BE NO BAD VIEW IN UTAH. At various points, we try to snap pictures out of the car window, but it’s hard to capture the massive scale of the landscape and its beautiful alien quality (at least to a couple of Northeasterners) in a photograph.
This was a very exciting moment for another reason, though, because driving through southern Utah, one sees some puh-retty compelling town names.
One of these was “Escalante,” which I insisted on saying in an exaggerated Westworld villain cowboy voice every time I saw a sign for it. (ESCALANTE. Just say it. Heck, just think it. Now you know.) Naturally, as you can imagine, it was extremely sad when we finally left Escalante behind.
When we arrived at Capitol Reef, we headed straight to Fruita Campground, which was situated in the heart of the old Mormon settlements. Our campsite was at the base of a sheer cliff, nestled alongside one of the many orchards and a stone’s throw away from some of the historical exhibits.
Fruita houses the biggest working orchard in the national park systems, and during the summertime, when fruit is on the trees, you can pick apples, peaches and cherries and eat as much as you want while in the orchard.
We also stopped by Elijah Cutler Behunin’s cabin, which was only inhabited by his family for a year and then abandoned because of the harsh flood conditions. You can probably tell from the outside that it was more than a little creepy. Thinking about all the history of the canyon and the struggle of those first families of settlers to grow crops, raise livestock, and navigate the fickle weather conditions can sure give you the creeps when you happen to be standing in the cabin where they lived, looking at dusty artifacts.
Unlike some of the other national parks we’ve visited, where history is referenced but not seen, this part of Capitol Reef really worked to preserve a look at what life was like back then.
From there, we headed to the visitor’s center to figure out our plan of attack–per always. It doesn’t take long to figure out in the national parks that if you’re not hitting the visitor’s center, you might as well wander around aimlessly gawking at rocks.
We ended up starting our Capitol Reef hiking adventures by going to the trailhead for Hickman Bridge, a large naturally-formed stone bridge, with some sights along the way…
As we walked and drove through Capitol Reef, it seemed like the Virgin River zig-zagged through the entire park. And I’ll pretty shamefully admit at this point (much to Sarah’s glee, I’m sure) that I really didn’t do much at all to plan this trip back in January, and that I had no idea what to expect from Capitol Reef.
But of course, like Bryce Canyon, it didn’t disappoint! Per my earlier comment on not as much people going to Capitol Reef, we don’t know why they don’t!
Anyways–back to the trail–it was fairly short and pretty moderate, and after not too long and a minor fake-out with what really could only be considered an indent in a wall of rock (something to be said for a New Yorker’s eternal skepticism: “Is that it?!”), we came upon Hickman Bridge, which was pretty spectacular.
We didn’t walk over the bridge, we did walk right under it.
Sarah and I scrabbled down the jagged rocky slope under the bridge to catch the view from below.
At this point, I’d like to mention to anyone who’s wondering what the appeal of all this seemingly repetitive canyon and red rock is, that these hikes were SO FUN. Our experience in Sequoia National Park, for example, was great, but it was mostly flat trails in the forest.
Many of the trails we took in Utah were different. You hike, climb, and crawl over rocks, looking for handholds and a convenient crack to rest your foot on, hoisting yourself up or navigating down the rocks to get different vantage points. It’s a little mental game to find the best route, and sizing up the rocks is so fun. But, as always, stay on the trails and designated areas, kids!
After Hickman Bridge, we headed back to the campsite for a little rest and dinner. There was a rather unfortunate moment of jealousy when we walked by one of the many big RVs in the campground, where they were breaking out their gingham tablecloth, tabletop grill, and bottles of red wine.
We, meanwhile, trudged back to our fire for reheated pork, beans, kale, and rice. Not that it was bad. It was still really good.
After dinner, some star-gazing by the fire was in order. We couldn’t snap a photo of the night sky with our iPhones (hop to it, Apple…), but Capitol Reef is a designated dark sky park, which means that it’s privileged to special rules that prevent certain amounts of artificial light and make for some great stargazing.
After waiting for a couple hours, and even with a little bit of incoming fog here and there, we were treated to a pretty great blanket of stars to end our first day in Capitol Reef.
The next morning, we got up bright and early to head to Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch.
Grand Wash was an easygoing hike through a large gorge, which was dry as bone at the time, but can flood at a moment’s notice.
We also caught a little bit of narrows action.
It’s about mid-way through the hike, when we pass yet another leisurely family, that we realize that we hike at a New Yorker’s pace. Arms pumping, purposeful even though we literally did not know what was coming around the bend, and pounding the gravel underfoot with the conviction we’d normally use to sprint down subway platform stairs to catch the train. Other hikers ambled by, craning their necks to take everything in as we breezed past.
But hey, we made great time and had plenty of room for photo ops.
After a few miles, we were getting pretty tired of marching through the pebbly bed of the gorge (think walking through sand for 3 miles, but harder on your feet), and were pretty relieved and excited to see the sign for the Cassidy Arch Trail.
Winding our way up the sides of the canyon walls was fairly steep and a little bit treacherous in some places where there was a mild risk of rock fall. Yeah, we’re tough.
But actually we scurried through these parts saying a silent prayer as we went. Getting clobbered due to the whim of a random falling rock is a bad way to go.
The higher the elevation, the more the landscape started to feel like a weird in-between of Earth and Mars. The shrubs and trees were fewer and farther between, giving way to the big striped red rocks and clay underfoot and not much else.
But, we kept on keeping on until we hit some pretty spectacular views.
And then there was Cassidy Arch! As we approached, we could see tiny people in the distance walking over the arch itself, so of course, we had to see for ourselves. We headed along the flat top of the canyon and had a little trail mix break riiight on the righthand side of the arch.
And the snack break was definitely needed, because we then had to reverse course, going back down the cliffside and back through the dry gorge to get back to the trailhead. All in all, it was a 7-mile morning. Trail loops are really underrated, guys.
When we made it back to the campground, a little lunch was in order. This was a pretty nondescript instant ramen situation (greens with an egg), but check out our other camping ramen recipes: Campfire Curry Ramen, a family favorite we revived in the Adirondacks last summer and Pho Ramen, which Sarah and I immensely enjoyed during our trip to Sequoia National Park!
But at this point, we’re cooking over a campfire, because the fuel pump that powers our MSR Whisperlite inconveniently BREAKS before we even crack open the packet of instant noodles.
This forces me to get pretty crafty about building hot cooking fires, and also, placing coals. Word of advice: two sticks are better than one. Literal stick chopsticks make for great coal tongs. Remember than next time you’re struggling with one measly stick to finagle a piece of burning coal into the flames.
(Note the boots, which at this point are completely coated with orange dust and not at all their original color.)
After our quick lunch (“quick”–i.e., after building a fire that took a solid 30 minutes to heat up, scarfing our food down in 5 minutes, and pouring water over the whole thing -___-), we wandered over Gifford House to see what was up.
This big guy greeted us on our way in.
Inside were local wares–we had to resist from jumping on the cutting boards and stoneware…
But *more importantly* there was PIE–a CABINET of pie–which, in the summer season is usually full of mini pies made with fresh local fruit from the surrounding orchards.
Obviously, we downright deserved to split a strawberry rhubarb pie, despite it’s potentially non-local origins given the bare trees in the orchard.
When we opened the cabinet to make our selection, a huge waft of pie air hit us. Yeah, that’s right. Pie air. What’s more, they were *warm*.
After enjoying our dessert, we decided that the afternoon lull + sugar high was made for a shower. We took a couple of hours to venture into Torrey, a surrounding town, to seek out a local shopkeeper or inn-owner who would offer showers for tired and dusty campers looking to feel human again. By the time we were done, it was perfect timing to wait to catch the sunset.
We drove along the main road to check out “the Goosenecks,” which after much speculation we concluded were these long, thin, uniform formations. Correct me in the comments if we’re wrong!
And where better to savor the end of the day than Sunset Point?
The great thing about visiting the national parks is the atmosphere that sets in at the end of the day.
Everyone’s a little tired, a bit in awe of what they’ve seen, and everyone slows down to reflect and enjoy the sunset.
In short, the views were amazing, and we even passed by this couple who completely un-ironically supplied some dulcet guitar playing as informal soundtrack.
The other great thing about visiting the national parks? Dedicated hippies-in-spirit like these awesome people.
Geography was never my strength, so if anyone knows what mountain range it is that we were looking at, feel free to chime in, but my only thought was that they were wonderfully purple and majestic, and a great way to cap off the day.
On our third and last morning in Capitol Reef, we took the quick scenic drive through the park…
And we headed out in the direction of Zion National Park! Stay tuned for a story of insane weather changes, pressing steak dinners, and how we maybe almost kinda could have died in the name of a good view…