Capitol Reef's defining geologic feature is a wrinkle in Earth's crust called
the Waterpocket Fold, extending nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to
Lake Powell. It was created over time by three gradual yet powerful
processes: deposition, uplift, and erosion. Capitol Reef is an especially
rugged and spectacular segment of the Waterpocket Fold by the Fremont River.
With beautiful scenic drive, narrow canyons, towering cliffs, stunning
landscapes, Capitol Reef is an amazing park and definitely an under-rated
national park compared to Utah's other national parks (e.g.,
Bryce Canyon, and
Getting there ...
We had an early 6AM flight to SLC (so we had to get up at 3AM!).
I rented a mid-sized SUV so we could go off road to explore more
backcountry regions in Capitol Reef. I also planned a side trip to
Bonneville Salt Flats and Onaqui
Mountain (for wild horses) on the last 2 days so we could have some more
diversified activities for this trip.
- We drove directly from SLC airport to Capitol Reef National Park, and entered
the park at about ~1:30PM after ~ 4 hours driving with a quick stop at a
McDonald's. State Route SR-24 is the main road that runs through the
park, traversing east-west for 16 miles inside the park boundary.
It is a very scenic section with massive cliffs and rock formations, and
provides many hiking options.
- Hickman Bridge
Hickman Bridge Trail is a moderate 1.8-mile round-trip
hike. After ascending through a scenic sandstone side-canyon (~ 400
feet elevation gain), the trail loops under the grand 133-foot (41m) span of
Hickeman Natural Bridge. The lighting might not be the best at this
time of the day (or this time of the year), from the eastern side, the
bridge was backlit; from the western side, the bridge is partially in the
shade. Nonetheless, it was a good first hike which introduces some
main features in Capitol Reef.
- Petroglyph Panel and Fruita Schoolhouse
From 600 to 1300 C.E., native
people of the Fremont Culture made their home at Capitol Reef. Petroglyphs
carved into the Wingate sandstone remind us of their time.
Schoolhouse was built in 1896 although the classes had been conducted for 2
years. Even though only eight families lived in Junction (later called
"Fruita"), these farmers had large families. The Behunins (who donated
the land for the schoolhouse) raised thirteen children themselves, one of
whom, Nettie, became the first schoolteacher, at age twelve, and the first
class had 22 students
- Gooseneck and Sunset Point
The Second Day (11/26) ...
- Capitol Gorge
We took the Scenic Drive (where the self paid entrance
fee is required unless you have the national park annual pass) to
the Capitol Gorge, where the road becomes unpaved and continues to a winding
and deep canyon. We took the Capitol Gorge Trail (2-mile round-trip)
into the canyon passing by the
where early travelers recorded their passage on the canyon walls (it's
historical "graffiti"). We did see some surveillance camera nearby so
do not do anything stupid :-). The trail continues to climb to
The Tanks, large
waterpockets created by erosion that collect rainwater and snowmelt,
enhancing a rich ecosystem. The water in the tank we found was all
frozen as it was in the shady side of the mountain.
- Grand Wash
Grand Wash is a 2.2-mile hike (one way from western side
to eastern side) following a dry streambed deep into the rocky, sculpted
heart of Capitol Reef. As the canyon floor narrows, footsteps echo
between sandstone cliffs looming hundreds of feet overhead. It is said
that it is similar to the Zion Narrows, but without having to walk through a
river. We did not really go through the entire Grand Wash (end-to-end
round-trip will be ~ 4.5 miles). Instead we turned back at about half
way where the canyon becomes the
narrowest and most interesting.
- Cassidy Arch
From the same trailhead as Grand Wash, the Cassidy Arch
trail (3.4-mile round-trip) climbs steadily (~700 feet) to the canyon's rim
along scenic terraces. The last 0.5 mile of the trail was marked by
stacked cairns across colorful slickrock to the arch. I think this
trail provides one of the most stunning scenery and impressive views over
the Grand Wash (the arch itself is actually much less impressive in my
The Third Day (11/27) ...
Temple of the Sun and Moon, Cathedral Valley
The Cathedral Valley
District of Capitol Reef National Park is a remote, rugged region. It
was more than 1.5-hour driving on the unpaved road to reach the Cathedral
Valley. In order to get there before sunrise, we had to get up early
and left our hotel before 5:40AM. Since our sunrise destination was
Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, so we took the counter-clockwise
route instead of the suggested clockwise route from NPS website. Driving
the rugged unpaved road in the dark was actually fun and not that scary (you
could not see far anyway), and the road condition was not bad at all that we
could drive ~30MPH on average. The sunrise over the temples were really
serene especially when we were the only souls around these grand monoliths
(there was only one other photographer who left
shortly after sunrise).
Deep erosion has carved Cathedral Valley's free-standing
monoliths, or temples, out of the soft reddish-orange Entrada Sandstone, which
was originally deposited as sandy mud on a tidal flat. The scenery
of the Entrada Sandstone temples of Cathedral Valley is complemented by evidence
of other geologic processes at work. The flowing and dissolving of gypsum, a
soluble mineral from the underlying Carmel Formation, created Glass Mountain, an
exposed plug of gypsum.
- Gypsum Sinkhole & Cathedral Road
The Gypsum Sinkhole is a large
hole which was formed when ground water dissolved and drained away the
- Cathedrals Trail
The Cathedrals Trail is an easy 2.4-mile
(out-and-back) hike following a low ridgeline that parallels a line of
monoliths known as the Cathedrals. The trail begins with a short,
steep ascent, followed by a relatively level walk along the gentle ridge to
the west. In fact we did not really finish the hike to the end (a
small hill provides a broad view of the Cathedrals according the trail
description). We turned around after about 30 min into the hike as it
had been a very similar view (a nice view though) along the way.
- Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
A short, rolling trail leads to an
excellent view of Upper Cathedral Valley. The panorama is highlighted by a
line of monoliths in the valley below known as the Cathedrals where we hiked
along a parallel ridgeline earlier.
- Upper South Desert Overlook
A short path affords views of the upper
reaches of the South Desert, flanked on the north side by steep cliffs, and
the Henry Mountains to the east. It's amazing that these two overlooks
(Upper Cathedral Valley and Upper South Desert) are so close together (less
than 0.5 mile apart), but they provide such different landscapes and views.
- Lower South Desert Overlook
We continued the unpave road (which
beomes Hartnet Road) which crossed several dry (or not totally dry)
riverbeds. It exits and re-enters the national park boundary to the Lower South Desert Overlook. A short walk to the overlook which
provides one of the best and diversified views along the drive.
- Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook
We followed the faint path (~ 1 mile
one-way) to the north across a brushy flat, then climbed a short, steep
pitch to the rim of a saddle that affords views of Lower Cathedral Valley to
the north. It's interesting to point out that we were looking up at
the Temples of the Sun and Moon from below in the morning, and now we had a
bird’s eye view of the two monoliths from above in the opposite direction in
To complete the Cathedral Valley loop
(counter-clockwise), we should visit the Lower South Desert Overlook as the last
stop and continue the drive on the Hartnet Road. But it will require a
river crossing before connect back to SR-24. When I checked with the
ranger at the visitor center on the day before, the water level at river
crossing was about 13 inches (higher than normal at this time of the year).
We decided not to take the risk to cross the river (at the very end of whole loop
journey and closer to getting dark). Instead we turned back at the Lower South Desert Overlook
and visited the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook as the last stop, and took
the longer route to go through the forest/mountain on the west to connect to
SR-72 and SR-24 back to Torrey.
The Fourth Day (11/28) ...
- Notom-Bullfrog Road
The spectacular Waterpocket District is in the
remote southern section of the Capitol Reef National Park. The
Notom-Bullfrog Road runs parallel to the eastern slope of the Waterpocket
Fold, offering great views of the Golden Throne and other “muffin” or
“biscuit”-shaped formations in the Navajo and Page sandstones. The
road becomes unpaved after ~ 15 miles and re-enters the Capitol Reef
National Park boundary a few miles later.
- Headquarters Canyon
Headquarters Canyon features sheer, vertical
walls and slopes of Navajo sandstone streaked with color. A
sandy track cuts west across a sagebrush flat and crosses the dry drainage
of Halls Creek. The route continues to cross a couple of dry washes, edges
around orange Entrada sandstone outcrops, and descends to a wide, stony
gulch into the Waterpocket Fold. The entrance to the deep gorge
is an impressive narrow slot
canyon (the narrowest canyon we visited in Capitol Reef).
- Surprise Canyon
The short Surprise Canyon route crosses a broad,
grassy drainage before entering a deep canyon in the Waterpocket Fold.
The trail drops steeply into a rocky ravine. From here, follow the wash
bottom into the deep, relatively narrow canyon. The route ends at the base
of a spiraling pouroff (about 1 mile from the trailhead). Some rock
surface was so slippery (covered by fine sands) that I fell to the bottom of
the slope (after taking this
picture) and dropped my camera into the sand :-(
It is hard to
compare the Headquarters Canyon vs. Surprise Canyon as they have quite
different characteristics in their canyons. Both are spectacular.
But if you only have time to choose one, I would recommend the Headquarters
Canyon because of its narrowest section.
- Burr Trail and Strike Valley Overlook
From the junction of Notom-Bullfrog Road
and Burr Trail Road, the
narrow switchbacks of the Burr Trail gain some 800 feet (244 m) in only
one-half mile (0.8 km) as they cut through Page and Navajo sandstones.
Strike Valley in Capitol Reef is a prime example of the geologic feature for
which it is named. Strike Valley is the product of rock layers eroding at
different rates, depending on how soft or hard they are. Erosion-resistant
rock layers form into ridges, or hogbacks, while the softer layers erode
into valleys parallel to the ridges.
The Strike Valley Overlook Trail (0.9 miles/ 1.4 km
round-trip) offers views of the valley with nearly 150 million years of geologic
history visible. This trail is accessed from the Strike Valley Overlook road
which is unmaintained and requires a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle.
The overlook sits atop a low saddle reached by way of a sandy trail, followed by
two moderate-grade slickrock climbs marked by rock cairns. However I
missed one of key cairns and lost my direction. Instead of going for the
gentle climb, I headed to a
super-steep slickrock uphill and found it was too dangerous to pass.
Luckily Woanyu quickly found the right cairn and we were back to the right trail
(otherwise we may miss the Strike Valley Overlook after all these efforts of
- We continued to drive on the Burr Road entering Grand
Staircase-Escalante National Monument and took Utah SR-12 back to
Torrey to complete the 120-mile loop.
The Fifth Day (11/29) ...
- Capitol Reef Scenic Drive and Fruita Historic District
I did not have
any big plan for today. After check out of the hotel, we went back in the
park again to have a quick final tour around the Scenic Drive and Fruita
We started our 5-hour long drive north at about 10:30AM.
The drive was smooth and fast (we could drive 80+ MPH most of the time).
However, I got a speed ticket around a small town Aurora where it was one of
slowest sections on the entire route (46 MPH at 35MPH zone). The policeman
was "kind" enough to put down at 40MPH so I was only penalized for 1-5MPH range
- Bonneville Salt Flats
The Bonneville Salt
Flats are found west of the Great Salt Lake, in western Utah. They cover a
large area (30,000 acres) and have a very unique environment. The flats can
easily be seen as you drive I-80 between Salt Lake City and Wendover, NV.
The famous Bonneville Speedway is located in the western portion of the
flats, near Wendover. It is perfectly flat and has a thick crust of salty
soil without any vegetation. There are several auto racing events
yearly during summer months and numerous land speed records in various
vehicle categories and classes have been set on the Bonneville speed way.
In winter and spring, the Salt Flats is often covered by a thin layer of
water and becomes a huge mirror of reflection. Although you will not
be able to drive on the Salt Flats when it is wet (I am not a race car fan
anyway), it is a delight for photographers when you are surrounded by
perfect reflection in every direction. I tried to walk
into the water
barefoot, but the water was so cold that I had to jump out after less
than a minute.
The Sixth Day (11/30) ...
- Bonneville Salt Flats
We came back to the Salt Flats
before sunrise. It was really a serene and magical scene. The
radiant clouds reflected symmetrically looked like
a feather on flame.
Onaqui Wild Horses
When I did the research for
this trip, I found there are quite a few herds of wild horses scattering
around central/western Utah. The Onaqui Mountains near the
southeastern corner of Tooele County has relatively large herds, around 200
horses, and provides the most easily accessible and reliable viewing
opportunities of any Utah herd. I booked a
wild horse safari (by
photographer Jennifer Rogers) which offers the private tour to search
for wild horses in the
Onaqui Wild Horse HMA (herd management area).
We started our tour at
~9:30AM from Tooele (after a long drive from the Bonneville Salt Flats).
We found a herd of about 15 horses and stayed with the herd for more than an
hour. Many of the Onaqui wild horses are habituated to close human
presence and we could
walk into the field without using any blind or camouflage (although we
should still stay at least 100 feet away). The first hour was quite
calm and ordinary (and a little boring to be honest) as most horses were
either standing still or lying still. When the herd started to move,
the action and excitement began to show. Free roaming, running,
chasing, playing, fighting all happened quickly, and also quieted down
Going Home ...
We returned to Tooele from the Onaqui Mountain at ~ 2:30PM and headed back to
SLC airport. The weather in central Utah was good at this time of the
year: cool at night (just below 32°F/0°C) and comfortable during
daytime (~50°F/10°C). We have visited less-known places in Utah
this time (Capitol Reef National Park, Bonneville Salt Flats, and
search for wild horses at the Onaqui Mountain), and there were certainly no
crowds at all (we can have the whole canyon to ourselves for hours), but they
are just as magical as other big named Utah national parks like Zion or Arches.
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