In the middle of the Southwest’s Grand Circle, Capitol Reef is a forgotten National Park. Visitors travel great distances specifically to reach the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Arches, or Zion. Capitol Reef just does not have the same tourist magnetism. Nevertheless this overlooked National Park warrants a visit. Indeed, if Capitol Reef weren’t surrounded by the Southwest’s iconic National Parks it might just be the prime destination.
Still plenty of visitors reach Capitol Reef. In 2010, 662,661 park visits were recorded. The tourist’s count slots in as an above median 26th of all 58 of America’s National Parks. After all, when touring the Grand Circle, Capitol Reef is hard to miss. This National Park is on the scenic route between Mesa Verde or Arches and Bryce or Zion. It is too convenient to just pass through Capitol Reef on the way to some place else.
For us, for this visit, we vowed to pause and see Capitol Reef more intimately. In the end we could have stayed and seen much more.
Our plans of exploring Capitol Reef’s backcountry dirt roads were abandoned when we reached the park’s Visitor Center. Before arriving we imagined that we’d drive to the less visited areas of the park. With a ranger consultation at the Visitor Center our plans changed. There is just too much to see in the front country. We always underestimate how much Capitol Reef has to offer.
From the Visitor Center past the old “Fruita” orchards still prospering on the fertile land of the old Mormon homesteads we headed to Capitol Gorge. Capitol Gorge is a road accessible slot canyon. Spectacular steep sandstone walls bracket the dry rocky drainage. The gravel park road and the rocky canyon floor streambed coexist as the narrow canyon twists into the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef’s defining geological feature. When gaps open in the gorge’s sidewalls glimpses of the park’s unusually shaped slickrock peaks, including the Golden Throne, come into view.
Our next excursion was a hike up to Hickman Bridge. Hickman Bridge is a natural sandstone span near Capitol Reef’s distinctive Navajo Knob formation. Navajo Knob reminds us a lot of the scenery in the southern part of Zion National Park; Hickman Bridge is reminiscent of Natural Bridges National Monument. The scenery in Capitol Reef is familiar to Southwest travelers. Is Capitol Reef the Cliffs Notes version of the Grand Circle’s National Parks?
Stops at the Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point wrapped up our day. The Goosenecks, a meandering slot canyon, were a surprise. I’ve driven by many times on the main park road and never knew that this deep canyon was so close. Near the overlook the view of the colorful sandstone escarpments from Sunset Point was predictably brilliant. Indeed, in the low light of the end of the day, it was a great place to end our stay.
We left Capitol Reef with plenty remaining to see. But that’s OK. We will certainly be back. After all, Capitol Reef is always on the way.
More pictures from Capitol Reef are on Picasa.