Capitol Reef National Park: Scenic Drive, Frying Pan, and pie

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The views of sandstone domes and iron-rich spires in Capitol Reef National Park.

Enjoying the views as we walked around our backcountry campsite in Capitol Reef. Photo credit to Alex Romanyshyn at alrophoto.com

Our short tour of southwest Utah began in Capitol Reef National Park, a quiet and less-talked-about park between Moab and Bryce. We spent the early afternoon on the Scenic Drive, which starts at the visitor’s center. At the end of the paved 10 mile road, we continued for a couple miles on a dirt road that got us up close and personal with the canyon walls.

Capitol Reef is varied in its geology: towering canyon walls, white sandstone domes, potholes (solution cavities) carved into the sides of rocks, hoodoos, and red spires. It may not be as dramatic as Utah’s other national parks, but it seems to have a little bit of everything.

After the Scenic Drive, we got our free overnight backpacking permit and headed to the Hickman Bridge trailhead. The first backpacking trip of the season is always interesting; every single year, I tend to feel like I’m new to backpacking as I try to remember what to pack and how it all fits just right. I guess feeling like a bumbling novice at least once a season is part of what keeps the hobby fresh!

From the Hickman Bridge Trailhead we headed up the Cohab Canyon trail until we reached a junction where we could either head through Cohab Canyon and end at the campground or head up the Frying Pan trail. Because this trail links to the campground, we encountered a fair amount of big groups of hikers (including one with a diapered toddler that was crawling over rocks) within the first mile or so. But we didn’t see many other people after we were about a mile up the Frying Pan trail.

Backpacking in Capitol Reef is all dispersed camping, which means that you can pitch your tent in non-designated campsites as long as you are out of sight of the trail. We soon left the trail and tromped around, careful to scamper from rock to rock and avoid stepping on the living soil, which is made up of lichens, mosses, bacteria, green algae, microfungi, and cyanobacteria and accounts for 70-80 percent of the living ground cover. We climbed up, around, and through various small rock faces with no success in finding a suitable site. We endured a blowing drizzle, during which I started thinking about flash floods, which is my number one biggest hiker’s fear even if I am high up on top of a plateau. Soon, we were in a sunny sprinkle and watched the storm move over the tops of the Henry Mountains, the the Southeast of us.

After about an hour, we found a spot to camp on the west side of the trail. From here, we had almost a 360 degree view. We can see the Cohab Canyon to the north of us, the rounded slot canyons striped red and white like candy and backed by the tall sides of plateaus. West of us are rich, rust-colored spires, slowly separating from the plateau walls as wind and water grinds them. To the south we see tall Navajo Sandstone formations, Fern’s Nipple, and surrounding red and white hoodoos, with the Henry Mountains as a backdrop. And to the east are more rolling domes of Navajo Sandstone.

We set up camp and go exploring. Climbing among the rocks, with no trail to follow, we are reminiscent of the freedoms and mischief and simplistic adventures of childhood. We marvel at the various rock formations we come across and try to guess at the science behind them. In the morning it is especially still and quiet as the mustard-yellow sun rises over the white rock. As it gets higher and hotter in the sky, we pack up and set out on our short journey back. Before we head on to Bryce Canyon National Park, we stop at the historic Gifford House to share a delicious mini-pie, something we’ve never had the chance to do in a national park before. The park’s history has shaped it in a unique way.

Sharing a mini-pie at the historic Gifford House in Capitol Reef.

Sharing a mixed berry mini-pie at the historic Gifford House in Capitol Reef.

Native Americans in the area left their mark in petroglyphs carved into the rock walls and the later Mormon settlers planted orchards that are still present throughout the park. Fruit products from the orchards are sold in the visitor’s center and the historic Gifford House. The heart of the park has a lazy spring day feel about it: the groomed and wide-open picnic area, the picturesque country horse barn, and the blooming apricot trees. Situated between Utah’s more dramatic parks this one is easily passed by, a well-kept secret worth the short detour.

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