It was our third day of touring Utah’s Mighty 5® and we were in store for many surprises as we made our way to Capitol Reef National Park. On our first day, we explored the vistas of Canyonlands National Park and on the second we visited the impressive formations of Arches National Park.
On our guided van trip out of Salt Lake City with Southwest Adventure Tours, we explored five breathtaking national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. But sometimes it was the stops on the way that created some wow moments.
On the Way to Capitol Reef National Park
We were expecting a warm day as we packed up and left Moab. Our first stop was just outside town along the beautiful Colorado River.
We drove down Utah Scenic Highway 279 (Potash Road) and encountered massive cliffs with a long, petroglyph-filled section. The panel extends on the cliffs along the road for about 125 feet. There are human-like images and horned figures holding shields and abstract images, as well as a wide variety of drawings.
Further up the road is a panel on the cliff where you can see three-toed dinosaur footprints. This is just one area around Moab where you can see rock art. But not even the experts can give a good interpretation of the stories told there.
Goblin Valley State Park Will Wow You
We drove down back roads with open pastureland, stopping to let cattle cross. We saw pronghorn antelope grazing in the high desert. Several times we saw cowboys on horseback herding cattle and fixing fences providing us with a real western experience.
Our next stop was a real surprise. Dennis, our guide, knew we would love Goblin Valley State Park. As we turned a corner, we came upon some human-like sandstone columns before passing through the gate of the State Park.
The landscape, covered with sandstone goblins and mushroom-like formations, is often compared to Mars. Movies have been made there. Cowboys, searching for wandering cattle, were the first to come upon this magical place where soft sandstone has eroded into interesting shapes. In some spots, the rock formations are close together and produce a maze-like playground ideal for family explorations.
We stopped at a shaded overlook and walked down into the valley of formations. Children climbed on them, something most parks won’t allow. I have to admit, being so close to and on top of the formations was fun! I was wowed by the experience of being overshadowed by the building-sized sandstone formations and lost track of my traveling companions as I wandered and photographed.
And then, it was off to lunch in yet another interesting place. Dennis, our guide, had been telling us about the mining history of the areas where we toured. The little campground at South Temple Wash with a view of Temple Mountain was a place he knew well. In fact, he had a mining claim in the area. We enjoyed a picnic lunch from Sweet Cravings in Moab and walked down the wash to explore a cabin with quite a history.
The quaint stone cabin, we were told, was where Madame Curie, who discovered radium, had once stayed. Madame Marie Curie had isolated radium from uranium ore, and she and her husband Pierre conducted research on what was known at the time as “The Wonder Element.”
After lunch, it was off to Capitol Reef National Park and overnight at Torrey, Utah. The questions in my mind were, why “Capitol” and why “Reef?”
About Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the hidden gems of Central Utah. It is filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, bridges, petrified wood, geodes, and even fruit orchards. The park is one of the least visited in the U.S.
All of this is tucked into the middle of what they call the Waterfold Pocket, a 100-mile geologic monocline (one-sided fold) slowly being exposed by erosion. Capitol Reef offers visitors the opportunity to experience over 15 unique rock layers all within a small area. Throughout our trip, we learned about the layered earth and the ages associated with each layer. You can’t visit the Mighty 5 without learning about and being impressed by the area's geology.
Capitol Reef, like the other areas we had been visiting, was once ocean. The environment, over the past millions of years, was ocean, desert, swamp, and riverbeds. This created the nearly 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock made of limestone, sandstone, and shale. With tectonic shifts in the earth, the rock layers folded over the fault line, and then erosion sculpted the rock layers into the interesting forms that we were seeing.
And why the name capitol? The name represents the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes.
Discovering the Wonders of Capitol Reef National Park
Our first stop the afternoon we arrived at Capitol Reef was for pie! We had been warned that the home-made pies were huge and decadently delicious. So why pie in a national park? Well, in the 1880s Mormon settlers founded little Fruita, which is in the park near the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. They irrigated the land and planted fruit trees.
The park now maintains the apple, peach, pear, and apricot orchards and you can visit the Gifford Homestead and purchase pie (not a slice, a whole personal pie) to enjoy at a picnic table in the orchard. The historic home also serves as a museum and gift shop featuring the work of local makers.
Hiking and Exploring Capitol Reef National Park
As with all the areas we visited, our guide suggested both long and short hikes for us. The next morning the guys, who were the hardier hikers of the group, headed out on a steep trail we had seen when we were enjoying our pie the afternoon before.
Cohab Canyon Trail was only 1.7 miles long but in the beginning, it was 440 feet straight up! After that, the hikers explored hidden canyons, enjoyed views of Fruita’s orchards and panoramas at spur trail viewpoints.
Meanwhile, the suggestion for the lighter hikers was to hike up to a view of Capitol Dome and Hickman Arch near where the guys would be coming down the Cohab Trail to meet us at the Hickman Bridge Trailhead.
The trail, starting along the rushing river, was rocky but safe if you followed the signs! Hiking to Hickman Bridge is an easy, spectacularly scenic trek up to a large natural arch. While not long or all that steep, it provides access to some interesting sites, including the large arch itself, as well as a smaller arch, and a Fremont pit house ruin and nearby granary.
You can hike as much or as little as you want to at Capitol Reef. There is also a paved, 8-mile scenic drive through the park offering breathtaking views of the Waterpocket fold.
Where to Stay and Dine in the Capitol Reef Area
It had been a long day when we pulled into the Capitol Reef Resort. The rooms were comfortable and furnished with western touches. But the wow factor for us was the view. Each room had a balcony overlooking the sandstone cliffs. Although we missed the sunset, I got up early and enjoyed the sunrise over the desert. The resort also had cabins and tipis where guests could stay so I put it on my list for a return visit.
Dining was across the street at the Rimrock Restaurant, also with a view and western décor. We dined on local favorites such as Cowboy Cut Ribeye steak and a mixed grill made with whole quail, buffalo bratwurst, and trout served over a bed of pan-seared greens.
We enjoyed the delights of a full bar that night and looked forward to the adventure to Bryce Canyon the next day.
About Southwest Adventure Tours
Southwest Adventure Tours is a Utah based business providing individuals and groups with scenic, photography, and adventure tours throughout the Southwestern US. Their specialty is on small group experiences… usually between 14 and 25 passengers. They offer a wide range of multi-day tours and day tours from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and other local areas adjacent to the National Parks. Our group numbered six and we enjoyed the comfort of a new Mercedes touring van with driver/guide. Our guide took care of all the details and made sure that everyone, no matter what their physical ability, had an enjoyable adventure along the way.
The next day we were on our way to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations, and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.