I love the raw beauty to Capital Reef National Park: the towering cliffs encasing a green oasis of Fruita valley, the mysterious canyons and distant cliffs of the south, and the monolithic temples of Cathedral valley. But If I were to advise anyone visiting for the first time to this highly underrated national park, take the Scenic Drive as a sample of what this spectacular place has to offer.
Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive
For our tour, Hitch and I start out at Chimney Rock Loop Trail. We turn-off just after we cross the park borders. The total loop is a little under 4 miles, giving us an intimate inspection of Capitol Reef’s geology. From the trail, we can see Chimney Rock, a tower made of red Moenkopi topped with gold Shinarump. Facing North, there are Chinle formations colored an earthy maroon and a pale green, and I can see shards of petrified wood scattered about. If you are wondering what Moenkopi , Shinarump, and Chinle are, they are geological formations or layers of rock and soil found in the earth’s crust of this region.
Back in the truck we turn right near the visitors center and drive past Fruita, along the rough face of Capitol Reef itself. Scenic drive from this point was once known as Blue Dugway, a wagon trail from a hundred or so years ago. There are numbered stops along the way, describing history, geology, and wildlife.
At one of the stops, we learn that the Waterpocket Fold is a 100 mile narrow, but long north-south feature uplifted 6,800 feet on the west side. The name Waterpocket Fold was given because of the numerous small potholes, tanks, or “pockets” that hold rainwater and snowmelt.
Next, there’s a short spur leading to Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch, which we skip and will reserve for another visit. Beyond that turn-off, we see Wingate Sandstone cliffs: sheer, massive and fortress-like. There are small ledges of red shale beds, which make up the Moenkopi Layer. While the Shinarump, by contrast, is a yellow-grey earth.
Our goal is at the end of the drive: Capitol Gorge spur road, a long winding road that twists through extraordinary sandstone cliffs.
At the turn-off, there is a parking lot for cars not capable of tackling a rough dirt road. Our RAM truck tackles it with ease, and we wind through beautiful red, white and pink cliffs.
At the second parking lot, there are two trailheads here: the Golden Throne trail and Capitol Gorge Trail. The Golden Throne towers over 1400 feet and is an icon of the park, drawing many tourists and photographers every year. We skip that trail and head for Capitol Gorge.
Winding through the wash of a deep canyon, Capitol Gorge Trail is mostly level and blissfully shaded from the hot sun. It runs deep and at some locations and is very narrow. Along the way, we found evidence of Mormon pioneers and ancient native Americans using it as a pass through the fold. Near the trailhead, there are samples of petroglyphs 1000 years old. At about half a mile, Pioneer Register is a cliff displaying a jumble of names and dates over a hundred years old. Some of the inscriptions are of famous historical figures.
Beyond the register, there is a spur trail leading up to a set of switchbacks, then to a location called The Tanks. It’s a rough and rocky path, but at the end, there are half a dozen potholes filled with water. Each water hole is a microenvironment housing insects and some interesting organisms called fairy shrimp, which at first glance look like tadpoles.
Back on the main trail along the Capitol Gorge Wash, and opposite The Tanks spur is Waterpocket Canyon. Within this short scrambling, wash are widely separated potholes, and although the lower end is blocked by a dry-fall, I can see spots along the right-hand side where people have traversed beyond.
Further east on the main gorge, the path soon opens out at the edge of the reef, where the smooth, whitish Navajo sandstone is replaced by the more uneven, yellow-brown Carmel Formation. If we wanted to we could take the wash beyond the border of Capitol Reef National Park, where the wash leads to a small town called Notom. Instead, we find a nice shaded spot rest for a while, then head back the way we came.