Capitol Reef National Park is far enough off most people's radar that they miss out on this red-rock paradise when visiting Utah's other, more famous, parks.
In the wintertime? Capitol Reef becomes a virtually private playground.
It's a shame to miss this park at all, no matter the season. Comprised of a sandstone jumble that includes twisty little slot canyons, massive rock walls, and extravagantly colored stone pinnacles, fins, and arches, it's a visual delight at any season. In the winter, however, you might have the added bonus of seeing it draped in a contrasting white cover of snow. However, snowfall usually doesn't much impede any hiking plans, especially during a dry winter such as this current one.
Enticing an annual visitation of not quite 1 million people, the 378-square-mile-park that lies west of Arches and Canyonlands and northeast of Bryce Canyon and Zion is perhaps best known for the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long feature known as a monocline. Resembling a shoved up wrinkle of land that mars the Earth's crust, long ago the fold pushed up the layers of rock that today stand as some of Capitol Reef's most fascinating spots for foot exploration.
Tramping the trails for Burro Wash, Capitol Gorge, Hickman Bridge, Upper and Lower Muley Twist, and the well-named monoliths of Cathedral Valley offers up an intimate connection with the tremendous geologic forces that shaped this unique park into the truly spectacular place it is today.
Many visitors drive right through Capitol Reef in less than a day, headed on to Bryce Canyon and Zion or Arches and Canyonlands. There is no fee to travel through Capitol Reef on the main drag, Highway 24, although an unattended fee station asks for $5 per passenger vehicle or $3 per pedestrian or cyclist to cruise down the aptly-named Scenic Drive south of the visitors center. Yet, even though Highway 24 winds its way through what desert iconoclast Edward Abbey called the prettiest canyon in the park, I urge a more leisurely visit.
Spring, when the Fruita orchards are in bloom and fall, when the harvest arrives, might be touted as the best times to visit, for good reason, but wintertime here has its own charms, not the least of which is generous room in which to move, breathe, and quietly marvel.
Right now, you could hike the Chimney Rock Trail and encounter barely another soul, despite the fact that the trailhead is beside the highway. A jaunt into Cohab Canyon, which links to the Frying Pan Trail and a south-facing, longer approach to Cassidy Arch, could perhaps yield another determined hiker—but more likely you'll have the trail and the stellar views all to yourself. Head to the southern part of the park, Halls Creek Narrows and Muley Twist and the winding Burr Trail, and I doubt you'll share the immense sprawl of uninhabited land with more than a few others and perhaps the occasional bighorn sheep.
Winter temperatures can range from below zero (unusual, but it happens) to the 50s; in general, they stay between 20s in the mornings and late evenings to 40s during the day. Wind is sometimes a factor in Capitol Reef, and it can suck most of the warmth right out of you if you're unprepared. If you choose to visit before the springtime rush, here's a list of things to bring along and keep in mind:
* Synthetic layers are your friends. Decidedly chilly morning temperatures can demand a warm hat, neck gaiter, gloves, long johns, warm layer, dry layer, another layer, and of course cozy socks in insulated boots. But by early afternoon you may have stripped off all those layers, particularly if you're wandering a canyon that has been catching sun and deflecting wind.
* Don't Forget Traction. Snow on the ground is often not deep enough, or simply unlikely enough, to force a need for boots with good traction. But if you do hit the park after a good snow dump, or are hiking in a canyon angled just right so that sunlight doesn't reach its depths all winter long, consider YakTrax (which I've used for several years now) or a similarly grippy boot add-on device to give you extra purchase on slippery trails.
* Water, water, water. Sure, hiking when it's cold doesn't usually inspire you to sip down equally cold fluids. The area's high aridity, though, still dries out your tissues quite rapidly, which can put quite a damper on your day. In the same vein, carry and apply sunscreen as well.
Special sights: If you'd enjoy taking photos of sunrise and sunset light, head out to Sunset Point, which is great for either. To get there, head west from the visitors center on Highway 24 and turn left at the signed road to Panorama Point. If snow blocks the way, the continuation of the dirt road past the gravel turnaround will be barricaded, but you can park here and walk.
If it's clear, keep driving until you reach the trailhead for this brief 1/3 of a mile walk out to the point. From there, you will command a vista to steal your breath as you gaze eastward over the rock spires and nipples and domes of Capitol Reef all the way out to the Henry Mountains far to the southeast. The sun will rise behind the Henrys in the winter, and sunset will throw a golden radiance of light over the entire rock wonderland before it finales with that glorious alpenglow upon the mountains. One word: magnificent.
For easy hikes or if the weather has simply left the ground too wet or slippery for your tastes, walk the Grand Wash Trail (from the Highway 24 trailhead if the Scenic Drive is closed due to impassable roads), Capitol Gorge to the Pioneer Register and the Tanks, Hickman Bridge, or along the Fremont River Trail (this one might be muddy).
For unsurpassable views, check out these trails if the ground is dry or if you are fully prepared for slippery traction if wet: Cassidy Arch off of Grand Wash, Fremont Gorge Overlook (this has a 1,000 foot elevation gain), Rim Overlook off the Navajo Knobs Trail.
There is an excellent Fremont Indian petroglyph (rock art) panel right along the highway, east of the visitors center on the north side, with a large, obvious pullout. These ancient cousins of today's Pueblo people made Capitol Reef their home, leaving faint traces of their habitation all over the park. This is one of the few panels that is well-advertised and open to public admiration, possibly because they're set back from the road and up a rock scree and therefore generally undamaged. The park built a very nice, sturdy wooden walkway that runs alongside the cliff wall, complete with viewing scopes for the largest panel.
Keep an eye on your speed. Through the park Highway 24 has a limit of 45 mph. The Scenic Drive is enforced at 25 mph, with some twisty sections and blind curves as low as 15 mph.
Local lodging: One of the Fruita campground loops is open throughout the winter. There is no water available in the winter, so there is no fee charged then. Pit toilets are available. Torrey is the nearest town, 11 miles west. A number of chain motels and independent hotels and B&Bs are located here, and most of them are opened throughout the winter. Rates are also low this time of year.
Dining options: Unfortunately, the area goes belly up in the winter as far as local restaurants are concerned. Closest to the park is the Patio, a pizza and beer joint that opens daily at 5 p.m. For breakfast and lunch, Castle Rock Coffee & Candy at the junction of Highways 12 and 24 is your best bet. Some of the local hotels may have continental breakfast offered; check beforehand.
Capitol Reef National Park: www.nps.gov/care, 435-425-3791
Capitol Reef Country: http://www.capitolreef.org/
Wayne County, Utah, tourism information: http://www.waynecountyutah.org/
Capitol Reef Natural History Association: www.capitolreefnha.org . This nonprofit organization was "founded in 1963 to support historical, cultural, scientific, interpretive and educational activities at Capitol Reef National Park. CRNHA operates the book store in the Visitor Center, online catalog and manages the Gifford farmhouse offering museum tours, daily craft demonstrations as well as selling items that relate to the historic scene of Fruita, Utah in the 1930s. CRNHA provides approximately $150,000 in aid annually."