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The Temple of the Sun formation at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. Photo courtesy of Austin Cronnelly/Tandemstock

Finding Solitude in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park

Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park serves up stupendous red rock scenery—without the frustrating summertime crowds you’ll encounter at other nearby parks.

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Maybe it’s my rumbling stomach, but as I gaze across the sandstone domes surrounding the lofty Cassidy Arch Trail in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, I’m reminded of candy. The blond rock formations look like 400-foot-tall nuggets of caramel—or maybe gumdrops, given their rounded tops. Infatuated with the view, or just the notion of sugar, I stop hiking and simply stand in the middle of the cliffside path so I can cast my eyes across the sea of amber knobs and gullies.

This sudden halt would never work in most national parks, where popular trails see so much traffic that stopping mid-current is akin to stalling in a passing lane on I-25. More than 4.4 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park last year, and 4.5 million visited Zion, about a four-hour drive from where I now stand. Should you pause to catch your breath while attempting that national park’s iconic hike to Angels Landing, you’d obstruct a parade of other hikers unless you stepped off the trail.

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By comparison, Capitol Reef receives about one million annual visitors. Yet it’s just as scenic as the region’s more popular parks: The buffed cliffs are every bit as stunning as Zion’s fantastically sculpted canyon or the Needles section of Canyonlands.

So where is everybody? The silence of the surrounding desert makes the crunch of my granola bar—an absolute necessity after my Willy Wonka–style daydream—sound like a landslide; I pause briefly between bites to savor the emptiness. There’s no distant chatter or road noise, no birdsong, no breeze rustling the sparse clumps of blackbrush and juniper.

“Let’s have a quiet contest,” proposes Simone, my seven-year-old daughter. The winner will be the last person to make an audible sound. As my ears strain against the vacuum, I feel uneasy, as if I’ve stepped into a sensory-deprivation chamber. Then, after a few minutes, I relax and let the silence suck away the tension.

“Incredible,” I murmur, relishing a newfound sense of lightness.

“You lost,” Simone says. Yet with spectacular scenery and relative solitude as consolation prizes, I feel like I’ve won.

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I might’ve expected a comparatively crowd-free experience in Capitol Reef, especially in the spring. Eleven years ago, when I first visited the park, I backpacked off-trail for four days through beautiful canyons—and didn’t see anyone save for those in my group. And that was in the late summer, the park’s busy season. Summer might seem like an odd peak time for a desert park, but at 3,880 to 8,960 feet in elevation, Capitol Reef is relatively high—and therefore comparatively cool—so July and August are hot but tolerable. Autumns are divine.

My leader back in 2007 was Redrock Adventure Guides founder Steve Howe, a seasoned outdoorsman based in Torrey, Utah (Capitol Reef’s gateway town). He’s spent some 30 years exploring the park’s every cranny, and few hikers find their ways to his haunts without following him there. This time, I had my seven-year-old in tow, so I knew I’d have to forgo strenuous backcountry forays for tamer front-country attractions. Roadside stops and short-mileage hikes tend to attract the masses, so I had resigned myself to the distinct possibility we’d be contending with plenty of other park visitors.

I was wrong. We saw conspicuously few cars on Utah State Route 24 as we drove into the park and found plenty of open parking spots at the Grand Wash trailhead, where we began our hike. After our silence contest, my husband, Ben, Simone, and I continued to Cassidy Arch, a roughly 50-foot-long stone sculpture named for Butch Cassidy, who is rumored to have taken refuge in the Fremont River Valley with his Wild Bunch back in the 1890s. From our viewpoint, nearly 700 feet above the canyon floor, we admired not only that graceful span, but also a surrounding maze of deeply textured sandstone that extended in every direction.

Early Light Morning sun shines on the Castle and Sulphur Creek. Photo courtesy of Austin Cronnelly/Tandemstock

Capitol Reef preserves the Waterpocket Fold, a ridge of up-thrusted rock that stretches north from Lake Powell for nearly 100 miles. Erosive winds and floods created what pioneers called the “reef”—vast swaths of lumpy rock and sandstone spires that look like coral colonies. Utah State Route 24 is the only paved road across the fold, and relatively few hiking trails penetrate the approximately 240,000-acre labyrinth. But the indigenous Fremont people carved petroglyphs here 1,000 years ago, and in the 1880s Mormon settlers burrowed their ways in via the Fremont River, which they tapped to irrigate their orchards. Those trees still bear fruit, and from June through September, parkgoers can U-pick whatever’s ripe: cherries in June, apricots in July, peaches and pears in August
and September.

Alas, we were visiting in April. The only signs of fruit were clouds of pretty white petals blossoming in the roadside groves. No matter—we could get our fruit fix elsewhere. From mid-March through October, the Gifford Homestead store, located three miles north of the Grand Wash trailhead in the part of the park that preserves the historic Mormon settlement of Fruita, sells made-from-scratch pies that employ a generations-old crust recipe. After our hike, we stopped by the historic farmhouse and browsed its displays of pioneer aprons and rolling pins. But calories were the main draw. We devoured a peach pie outside on the lawn and resolved to save a cherry for a post-dinner treat.

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Fully sated—and a little sticky—we headed just down the road from the Gifford Homestead to find the Fruita Campground, a grassy, riverside oasis beneath towering orange cliffs. Because the park had seemed so empty earlier, we hadn’t thought to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites sandwiched between the orchards and cliffs ahead of time (a rookie move, even if the numbers had seemed in our favor). Finding the campground full, we drove east on Utah State Route 24 to camp on Bureau of Land Management land near the Fremont River, where several user-created dispersed sites flank Hartnet Road between the highway and the water. (There is private property in the area; make sure you’re camping on public land. Maps are available at Henry Mountains Field Station in Hanksville.) Our spot among the willows wasn’t the prettiest place we’ve ever pitched our tent, but it was convenient since the following morning, we’d planned to drive the Hartnet/Cathedral loop through the most dramatic corners of the Capitol Reef backcountry.

Let Redrock Adventure Guides lead you through Capitol Reef’s mysterious mazes. Photo courtesy of Steve Howe/Courtesy of Redrock Adventure Guides

Scenic drives have always been a major element of the national park experience, and if the Hartnet/Cathedral circuit were paved, it would probably add another million visitors to Capitol Reef’s annual tally. The 65-mile route plumbs the park’s northernmost reaches and delivers visitors to some of its best-known landmarks: the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, two jagged, freestanding stone monoliths. But the dirt road includes sections of bentonite clay that turn to glue when wet, and although much of the road is smooth enough for your everyday sedan, there’s no bridge across the Fremont River. In short, a high-clearance SUV isn’t a terrible idea, but your average Subaru would likely suffice. After breakfast, I walked across the rock-bottomed stream to gauge its depth. The river never surged higher than my knees (or the axles of our Toyota Tundra), so Ben eased the truck forward while Simone peered out the open window, hooting at the novelty of driving through the waterway.

We continued through stark gray hills, which reminded me of Iceland’s barren landscapes. Feeling the urge to stretch our legs after about 13 miles, we parked alongside the road at the junction for the Lower South Desert Overlook, unloaded our mountain bikes, and pedaled one mile west to the vista point. There, we eyeballed striated badlands and golden buttes with eroded gullies. Returning to the truck, we continued north and parked among the junipers that shelter six primitive sites at Cathedral Valley Campground. They’re first-come, first-served, but we saw just one other group; four sites sat empty that night.

As I watched the stars blink on above those unused nests and their views of rosy red rock at sunset, I pondered why more people don’t come to this gem of a park. I silently ticked off the perceived downsides. The higher elevations meant that on that April night, we shivered in our sweaters. Plus, Capitol Reef’s topography has, so far, sidestepped the celebrity status that attracts visitors to other nearby parks. Grand Canyon National Park has its rims; Rocky Mountain has Trail Ridge Road and Longs Peak; Mesa Verde has Cliff Palace. The draw of Capitol Reef is more democratic. It’s the entire Waterpocket Fold, rather than one or two particular points within it.

Though I’d say Cathedral Valley deserves marquee billing. Resuming our drive before dawn the next morning, we looked down on a vast plain peppered with wind-and-water-sculpted clay spires, like the pinnacles at Bryce Canyon, only taller. I wished we had time to hike among them—we glimpsed the mile-long Cathedrals Trail leading away into the spindles—but our goal was to see the Temples at sunrise, so we drove on.

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These two stone pyramids rise abruptly from the valley floor, and with the cliffy mesas at least a half-mile away, the Temples look startlingly incongruous amongst the sagebrush. Arriving at the base of the larger Temple of the Sun, we spied just one other visitor, a photographer busy with his tripod. He, too, was waiting for the light to set the stone ablaze. The formation’s cartoonishly tall walls made me imagine Wile E. Coyote plummeting from its pointy peak.

Suddenly, that point became a fiery match head. The sun’s rays cloaked the Temple of the Sun in a dazzling shade of orange that sizzled against the cobalt sky. We applauded the show, skipping around the base of the cliffs as we tested out various angles. We captured our rapture with selfies. After all, there was no one else around to snap our photo.

If You Go

Visit: Torrey is Capitol Reef’s gateway town, with hotels and convenience stores but no large-scale supermarket.
Explore: Redrock Adventure Guides offers dayhikes and multinight trips though Capitol Reef’s backcountry.
Camp: Fruita Campground comprises 64 RV/tent sites and seven walk-in sites ($20/night). Starting this year, only a few sites remain first-come, first-served: From March through October, most are reservable here.
Stay: The Lodge at Red River Ranch has 15 rooms (starting at $179/night). The ranch is located just eight miles west of the park.

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