“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
As a long Memorial Day weekend approaches, I’d like to suggest a place to visit that I know will provide lasting memories.
The place is Capitol Reef National Park. Its slick rock towers, bold escarpments, dark washes and slot canyons harbor secrets waiting to be discovered by the adventuresome hiker.
Capitol Reef is roughly 250 miles from Tooele and it takes about four hours to get there. But every mile and minute spent in transit is well worth it once you arrive in Utah’s color country.
To get there, follow Interstate 80 east from Tooele Valley to Interstate 15 and proceed south on I-15 for 130 miles to the tiny town of Scipio. There you will exit the freeway and head southeast on U.S. Highway 50. Scipio is a great place to stop, get a drink and take a short break. While there, look west towards the bold, east face of the Canyon Range.
Follow US-50 and then turn south towards the tiny town of Aurora on SR-260 and follow it through town and then turn right onto SR-24. At this point, you will be on the road that will take you all the way to Capitol Reef. As you follow SR-24, take in the scenery of Koosharem Reservoir with Fishlake Hightop rising to the east and Monroe Mountain to the west.
You will pass through the towns of Loa, Lyman, Bicknell and Torrey and then you will arrive at the Capitol Reef Visitor’s Center near the old pioneer town of Fruita. Back in the old days, pioneers took advantage of the climate in this canyon and grew fruit trees. The orchards are still there and are maintained by the National Park Service. It is claimed you can pick apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, pears and other types of fruit from these orchards free of charge.
Park information is available at the visitor’s center including trail and road maps, road and weather conditions, and general information on wildlife, ecosystems, natural history and the ancients and pioneers who once occupied the mountains and canyons.
Keen awareness of the weather is crucial when you visit the southern Utah canyon country. While it may be clear skies where you are, clouds over the mountains can produce torrential thunderstorms that can send giant walls of water down the narrow canyons.
Be safe and always inquire at the visitor’s center about the weather forecast and flash flood potential before you hike the narrow canyons, cross the Fremont River or drive the back roads.
From the visitor’s center the options for world-class outdoor adventure are limitless. You could spend a day exploring the main gorge where the visitor’s center is and follow several short trails, such as the Cohab Canyon Trail near the campground, or see the petroglyph panels in the main canyon. The petroglyphs inspire wonder about the ancient peoples who came before and what these canyons must have been like before European explorers arrived.
The topography of the park is stunning. On the west flank of the park, the enormous, high plateaus of Boulder Mountain and 11,306-foot-high Thousand Lake Mountain are covered with mature pine forests to their rocky summits.
Both of these large plateaus contain lakes and alpine terrain on their summit tables that are heavenly to visit once the snow melts off in mid-summer. The land falls away sharply to the east in a jumble of sandstone cliffs, spires, towers, and castles at the bottom of which is a stunning geologic feature known as the Waterpocket Fold.
The fold, according to park literature, is a 100-mile-long rock wrinkle in the earth’s crust and is a wild and beautiful reef of multi-colored sandstone that runs the length of the park on the east, terminating in a hot, inhospitable desert.
If I had to recommend one short adventure for visiting Capitol Reef it would be the Cassidy Arch/Grand Wash Trail system. To get there, head south from the visitor’s center on the paved “scenic” drive and follow the signs to the Cassidy Arch/Grand Wash Trailhead. There is a parking area and primitive restroom in a high-walled canyon at the trailhead. These trails are not long or too difficult, in my opinion, so I did both of them on the same outing in a few hours.
The Grand Wash Trail is 2.25 miles long one way and it follows a wash northeast as it cuts through the terrain and ends at SR-24. As you walk along the sandy, gravely stream bed, the canyon closes in on you and sheer, vertical walls of pink sandstone rise in sweeping cliff faces that block out the sun.
These high walls are streaked with black water stains that look as if a giant had tried out a new paintbrush. Large boulders and chunks of rock that have broken off and fallen from the heights, litter the canyon floor. It is said that Butch Cassidy, a.k.a. Robert Leroy Parker, and his Wild Bunch, periodically hid in Grand Wash back in the day.
Cassidy Arch Trail is even more picturesque than Grand Wash. It is only 1.25 miles one way but it starts out at 5,400 feet and ends at Cassidy Arch high on the plateau rim at 6,350 feet. The trail gains significant elevation via natural sandstone steps hewn out of the rock, or piled in blocks in places where the trail hugs the cliff and drops away alarmingly to the south.
As you climb higher a wonderland of towers, spires, pinnacles and castles of pink, white, orange and red sandstone fill the 360-degree view. Once you get up on the rim there are sparse, dark green junipers, gray old bleached juniper skeletons, Mormon tea and sagebrush. Looking southeast towards Grand Wash, you can see narrow crack canyons that cut deep into the giant sandstone plateaus.
Cassidy Arch is located on the edge of the summit rim and overlooks the canyon below. It’s almost like a giant stone toilet bowl. The trail takes you right over to it and you can walk across the arch — but you must use extreme caution because there is considerable exposure in areas and a fall would be catastrophic. This giant, red stone bridge was named after Butch Cassidy. If you visit the arch, you will have a fond wilderness memory to enjoy.
If you visit Capitol Reef, make sure to check the weather. Slot canyons and slick rock can be deadly places if you are caught in a thunderstorm there. Take plenty of water: a couple liters per person, and if you can, take more. This is hot, dry desert country. Make proper investigations, get necessary information and then experience some of the most magical scenery in the world at Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.
For more information contact Capitol Reef National Park at 435-425-3791.
Maps: Park Service Brochure; USGS Fruita 1:24,000 Quad covers “Grand Wash” and “Cassidy Arch”
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.