I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Capitol Reef National Park. But in the past the visits have always been add-ons to other southern Utah trips, such as Zion and Bryce, or to the east Canyonlands and Arches. I spent most of last week in Capitol Reef and explored the areas that are away from the main roads. These more remote scenes are where Capitol Reef really shines.
The historical Fruita district is spectacular in spring when the orchards are blooming, as well as the fall when the leaves are turning. But the area is small and can be explored in hours rather than days. The Scenic Drive south of Fruita also has impressive scenery, but also takes only a short time to see. This time I hiked the uncrowded trails in the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. These hikes showcase spectacular scenery all along the way. And many of the hikes are worth repeating both in early morning and late afternoon light when different scenes receive gorgeous light. The Golden Throne hike ends below the base of this sandstone monolith after just under two miles. Views all along the hike are breath-taking.
The considerably less accessible Cathedral Valley is without question a natural treasure. The fact that so few people ever experience the incredible scenery makes visits through this remote region even more special. First off, getting to the Cathedral Valley from the main part of the national park requires fording the Fremont River. And the path of the ford requires driving in the middle of the river for quite a distance. I admit the first time I saw the ford, I didn’t attempt the crossing. It is possible to access the Cathedral Valley from a back road in Caineville five miles east of the ford. I’ve forded the river a few times now, but it still seems inherently unwise to drive in a river.
After driving just under 30 miles northwest of the river ford, the Cathedral Valley is reached. The view from the Overlook is stunning. There’s a small primitive campground before the road descends into the valley. From there a drive through the valley reveals sandstone monoliths and beautiful desert landscapes.
I camped at the Cathedral Campground one evening and saw wildfire smoke starting to roll in from the west. I worried it would spoil the evening light on the desert landscape. But just as sunset was peaking the smoky sky displayed brilliant color.
This was one of my favorite national park trips, and I found myself planning a return in the spring with hopes of Milky Way shots above the sandstone monoliths and maybe some desert flowers.