By just about any measure, Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah is a sleeper. It falls in the shadow, largely, of the state's four other national parks. And for most people, a visit to the Fruita orchards, campground, and visitor center is the long and short of their experience with Capitol Reef.
Long, narrow, and rumpled, embracing a wrinkle in the Earth's crust known as the Waterpocket Fold, this gorgeous national park requires either a four-wheel-drive vehicle or lots of hiking to navigate. From the Cathedral Valley near the park's northern tip to the Halls Creek Narrows at the southern terminus, the park stretches nearly 100 miles.
A key to exploring a park such as Capitol Reef, with its seemingly endless mazes of canyons, is both a good map and a good guidebook.
During a visit to the park earlier this year, I had the opportunity to both meet author Rick Stinchfield and pick up a copy of his book, Capitol Reef National Park: The Complete Hiking and Touring Guide. This is not your typical national park guidebook. The author spent his professional career in higher education, both as a teacher and as an administrator. Since he retired, he and his wife have spent three months out of each of the past six years volunteering and living in Capitol Reef National Park.
Not surprisingly, the couple has had plenty of time to get to know the national park and discover how best to explore it.
In his book, Mr. Stinchfield covers front country trails, hikes along Highway 24 as it cuts across the park, four-wheel-drive routes and trails in the Cathedral Valley, routes and trails on the east side of the park, and routes in the park's Waterpocket District.
He also offers an appendix that breaks down the hikes by type, such as canyon hikes, hikes that navigate slot canyons and narrows, hikes that offer you sweeping views of the landscape, desert hikes, and hikes that lead you to arches and natural bridges in Capitol Reef. And there is an appendix that points you to best hikes or drives to view the geological formations that comprise Capitol Reef.
Perhaps because of his professional career, Mr. Stinchield's book is crammed with information. The font seems smaller than you find in most guidebooks, and there certainly is no double spacing between sentences. Due to the wealth of information provided and the attention to detail the author takes, it's best to sit down with this book and peruse it before heading out into the field.
When he discusses hikes, Mr. Stinchfield places them in one of three categories: an out and back, a loop, or a point-to-point hike.
“Many hikers, including us, prefer loops where the scenery is always new, but Capitol Reef is not richly endowed with them,” he writes in the "how to use" section of the book. “Shuttle hikes are a good alternative, and there are a lot of them in the park. They do not always, or even usually, require two cars, since a bicycle can serve very nicely in most instances. Mountain bikes are best if at least one trailhead is on an unpaved road, though several routes are accessed at both ends along Highway 24. Of course, out and back hikes in Capitol Reef often seem entirely different on the return, with both vistas and light changing dramatically.”
Sections that describe hikes open with helpful details, such as the length of the hike, the elevation gained over the course of the trail, the difficulty, any special conditions you might encounter, such as flash-flooding, reasons to take the hike, whether you'll enjoy some solitude on your hike, any interesting vegetation that you pass, best time of day to hike it, where to access the trailhead, and what topographic maps would be helpful to have on hand.
These introductory sections to hikes also provide brief overviews of what you'll experience along the way.
But this guidebook goes beyond simple hiking. Along with the content on four-wheel drives, there are nice sections on vegetation that you find in the park, such as prickly pear cactus and Utah pentstemmon, as well as details on some of the geology that you'll encounter as you explore this wonderful park. The book, which also delves into the wildlife, the Fremont culture that long ago inhabited this landscape and left behind intriguing and curious pictographs and petroglyphs, and Mormon pioneers who settled Fruita, is richly illustrated with full-color photographs, as well as maps that show you some of the driving routes possible in this park.
This is a great book to have when you visit the park, or when you're holed up at home during the winter planning your next summer's excursions.