Putting in the Work

After exiting Interstate 70, the Land Cruiser immediately touched dirt.  “Where is the entrance to Capitol Reef?”  My wife, Louise asked.  Yep, Utah’s National Parks are stunning and undeniably increasingly popular. However, Capitol Reef is one of the least visited national parks.

“We’ll travel south a few miles and then enter the park.”  I replied.   The northern entrance is how all national parks should be entered.  A long, dirt road leads to a simple fence line with a plain, brown sign signifying the entrance into one of America’s Best Ideas—A National Park.  There’s no visitor center or entrance station.  Just a sign that reads Capitol Reef National Park.

We marveled at the tall, sandstone monoliths that makeup Cathedral Valley, located within the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park (CRNP), a stunning natural wonder.  At the base of one of the monoliths, we hiked to an old cowboy cabin formerly used as a resting stop for horses and cowboys who “worked” the land long before its designation as a national park.   A 360-degree view of the desert valley revealed numerous towers and monoliths rising above the desert floor and  Thousand Lake Mountain rose in the west.  Utah’s contrasting landscapes make it such a wonder-filled state.

At the first marked intersection, we took Cathedral Valley Road to the west and soon came upon two impressive, towering sandstone monoliths.  The Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon rise hundreds of feet from the sandy, desert floor.  Speechless, we strolled around each of the monoliths; how did this happen?  Without any answers, we retraced our route a few miles to the intersection.

This time, we continued to follow the road as it ascended to the Cathedral Valley campground, the only campground in the northern section of CRNP, to offer us a different view.  The campground was tidy and clean, and free!  All of the campsites were located in and around juniper trees.  On this night, most of the sites were empty, so the place was ours for the evening.

“What was that?  Lilly asked laying on her back inside her sleeping bag.

“Ahhh…. I’m not sure. “ I responded.  “Let me wake up.” I attentively listened for the sound and  I didn’t want to unzip my cozy down sleeping bag.  Sure enough I heard it too.   Confused and bewildered, I quietly unzipped the door of the tent and saw two jackrabbits skipping around our campsite.  Wildlife….  Awakened, Louise prepared breakfast.   I packed the vehicle; we ate and then traveled south on the Hartnet Road.

In our vehicle, we paralleled the actual Waterpocket Fold for which CRNP is known.  Roughly 50 to 70 million years ago the uplift of rock created a 100-mile fold in the Earth’s crust.  The name Waterpocket Fold comes from the constant erosion of the soft sandstone rock.  We pulled over to inspect a gushing natural spring and an old dilapidated truck next to it.  Long before this place was a national park, men and women tried to settle this wild, desert land.  Water is essential for humans and livestock.  What was the story of this truck?  Settlement? How did it end up stuck?  With more questions than answers, we continued down the Hartnet Road to its water crossing.

In order to access the Cathedral Valley from the south, we needed to cross the Fremont River. We traveled from the north, so we needed to cross the river to access Highway 24.  Luckily, the river bottom was supportable rock and the river was shallow.  The river crossing was uneventful; and the oncoming vehicles traveling at 60 mph signified we were back in civilization.

Highway 24 provides the main east/west thoroughfare through the CRNP.   I steered toward the visitor center outside Torrey, Utah.  The visitor center sits on the edge of old apple orchards planted by the Mormon pioneers who settled in the valley a hundred or so years ago. Flash floods and harsh growing conditions “pushed” them out.  The apple trees survived, and visitors can still pick the apples from them.  We just needed H2O, so we stopped to fill our water container.  We walked around the visitor center, viewed the park video, and planned our next destination.

CRNP is 60 miles long and roughly 6 miles wide; it is located in the south central part of the state. To the south of CRNP lies the Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  Most visitors access the park via Highway 24, the only paved highway running east-west.   We were determined to find and enjoy some of the “touristy” parts of the park.

In the Land Cruiser, we cruised down Scenic Drive along the Waterpocket Fold trying to find a way through this massive uplift of rock.  We took a left turn on Capitol Gorge Road and followed the natural watercourse, now a dirt road, through the canyon until the road dead-ended at the trailhead for the hike to Register Rock.  We set off on foot and enjoyed the experience of walking and wandering in canyon country. High sandstone walls towered above us, and the canyon attempted to constrict us many times.  We found ways to continue. High on the southern wall of the canyon were hundreds of pioneers’ signatures.  They carved their names as they sat atop their wagons traveling through the canyon many years ago.     We tried to focus on the names and the different style of script.  Today, this would be called graffiti not a historical landmark.  Regardless, it was neat to witness.

We selected a campsite for the evening located on BLM land just outside the park boundary.  On our way, we hiked to appropriately named Sunset Point and witnessed magic hour in canyon country. The rock appeared on fire, and old juniper trees added character to this redrock landscape.  We sat in silence atop the overlook and listened to a raven’s wings at it flew skyward toward the west and the last rays of sunlight.

Change is evitable; and as I turned south on the Notom/Bullfrog road, I was reminded of that very fact. The first time my wife and I ventured on this road, it was gravel as soon as we turned off of Highway 24. However, on this day, we found it paved; the “change” made this land more accessible and vehicle friendly. We made good time and passed Burro Wash, an awesome hike into the Waterpocket Fold via a slot canyon.  We continued and re-entered into CRNP via a dirt road.  The landscape changed.  Sagebrush and plant life was more evident, not constantly ingested or trampled by cows.

On the road we weaved our way in and out and up and down through the desert lowlands.  Colorful clay hills came into view, and we were glad the road was dry.  Clay roads, when wet, are a total quagmire.  The deep reds and grays popped through our polarized sunglasses as our Land Cruiser continued south.    Eventually, we stopped at the Burr Trail intersection.

The Burr Trail is an old cattle route that was used to move cattle from the high country pastures to the low country pastures depending on the seasons.  Today, it’s a magical dirt road that ascends/descends a cliff face in a series of switchbacks.  It’s an engineering wonder and a road that offers astounding views of the Henry Mountains, Waterpocket Fold, and Lake Powell country.  Before we ascended, we stopped to hike Surprise Canyon.

Like many desert trails in Utah, the beginning of the trail doesn’t offer “the goods” or showcase what’s to come. The trail followed a dried watercourse; and soon we strained our necks to view the towering sandstone walls. “Surprise!”  I yelled as Lilly rolled her eyes at me.  Surprise Canyon lived up to its name.  As we progressed into the canyon itself, 500-600 foot walls engulfed us.  Mother Nature’s work was evident, and we could not deny the grandeur of canyon country.

After a quick snack back at the vehicle, we motored up the Burr Trail.  The ascending views were magnificent.  We approached a sign that read: “Muley Twist Canyon.”  As Yogi Berra once said, “When there is a fork in the road, take it!”  We took the right hand and entered one of the prettiest “roads” in Utah.  Well, actually it was a dry, river bottom in which the park allows driving.  We spotted arches, neapolitan colored sandstone rock, and picture-worthy spots galore.  Time was against us, so we didn’t stop until we arrived at the parking lot to Strike Valley Overlook Trail.

By following cairns on the slickrock, we ascended the backside of the Waterpocket Fold.  From the top, the relief dropped drastically.  Hundreds of feet appeared in front of us as I glassed with the binoculars the Notom/Bullfrog Road.  I tried to grasp how this place happened.  Yes, there are scientific theories and data to support those theories.  I guess I tried to comprehend all of it while staring at this geographic wonderland.  Utah is full of places like this.  Places with stunning beauty and scenery that make it difficult to comprehend and understand the powers of Mother Nature.  We retraced our steps and returned to our vehicle.

We traveled further west on the Burr Trail to find a campsite.   Now that we had exited the CRNP boundaries, we found a nice, dispersed site for the night.  As we entered another geographic wonderland, the Grand Staircase National Monument, magic hour lit the Circle Cliffs on fire.  The intense orange light reflected off the rock blinded me.  I hoped to see some Ancestral Puebloan ruins.  But, that discovery would have to wait for tomorrow.   And, that’s another story….

Utah is a state like no other.  Yes, numerous places exist; and yes, beauty and grandeur “stare” back at each observer. But, many places in Utah call the visitor to “work a little” to find that beauty and grandeur.  If willing, I suggest you “work a little” in Capitol Reef country.  I think you’ll be happy with what you find!

Travel Tips


-Travel on the Hartnet, Cathedral Valley, Burr Trail, and Notom-Bullfrog Roads is remote and mostly on dirt.  Stay off if wet!  Many of the roads have a clay base.  Go prepared. Bring extra water, gas, and food.

-Four-wheel drive is nice but not a necessity on the roads in CRNP.  With the exception of Upper Muley Canyon.   Good tires are a must.  Once the roads are wet, all bets are off.

-Walk the Fremont River crossing before attempting.  Keep the vehicle at a steady, consistent momentum when driving through water.

-Suggested Hikes include: Surprise Canyon, Upper Muley Twist Canyon, Strike Valley Overlook, Sunset Point, Sulphur Creek, Pleasant Creek, and Capitol Gorge Hike

-Free Campgrounds are Cathedral Valley Campground in the northern section and Cedar Mesa Campground in southern section of CRNP.

One Response to “Putting in the Work”

  1. Seriously? You wrote this for the Fall 2018 issue of Adventure journal:

    …We pulled over to inspect a gushing natural spring and an old dilapidated truck next to it. Long before this place was a national park, men and women tried to settle this wild, desert land. Water is essential for humans and livestock. What was the story of this truck? Settlement? How did it end up stuck? With more questions than answers we continued…

    How many natural springs have you seen in the middle of a dirt desert? They’re always associated with ledges or horizontal sandstone strata. The old truck is a classic cable tool rig, the traditional drilling method of choice long before rotary drilling. I suspect it was abandoned there, not stuck, and natural forces such as wind have buried it up to the axles.

    I hope your unanswered questions included: Who paid for this endeavor? What science did they use to decide to drill in this unremarkable location? Were they actually looking for water or something else? Did they punch holes all over the place and this was the only one that found anything? What magic of geology concentrates very scarce water here and produces enough pressure to get it to flow out of the bore? Why abandon a drill rig next to a successful (as we see it) well?

    Perhaps you would consider writing a piece about the real men who “put in the work” of scrabbling a living from this land whose legacy is now only the curious fragments we find on every trip: abandoned cattle trails blasted through cliff bands, thoughtfully-placed survey markers, line shacks, claim markers, adits, chiseled initials, barbed wire fences and rusty cans…

Leave a Reply