My family knows that I’m a National Park Junkie. National Parks can be beautiful, wondrous, and thrilling. It’s harder to enjoy some of the more popular parks nowadays with the traffic they receive, but there is one park in Utah that remains relatively accessible, Capitol Reef. Capitol Reef is my favorite National Park, and I make it a point to visit it multiple times yearly. It’s insanely beautiful, remote, and a great hiking destination. Years ago, when I decided that I was going to become a backpacker, capitol reef was my first solo backpacking trip. I completed a 36-mile trip in two days following a loop strung together from day hikes.
I over-packed and made all the mistakes that a first-time backpacker makes. It was one of the most challenging things I had done up to that point. At the end of the trip, I was exhausted, more so than I had ever been. Even though my body was bone tired, it is one of the most important and memorable outdoor experiences that still affects me today. Nowadays, I am a frequent backpacker, mountain biker, pack rafter, and overland explorer. Back then, I was just beginning. I remember the feeling of awe that I experienced during that trip. I remember stopping and staring at the wondrous, jagged desert scenery. I verbalized the word “Wow” on what seemed like a hundred different occasions. This backpacking trip was a seminal event for my adventuring. I realized how important it is to seek awe in our lives. I started to understand what the emotion of awe can do for us mentally and emotionally and how it can change us. Capitol Reef opened a door for me, and I am so glad I walked through it.
These are the impressions that I wrote down shortly after that first backpacking trip:
April 16, 2011
I left at 4:30 am for Capitol Reef this morning. The Plan is to tackle six of the park’s trails in three days:
- would start with the water hike Sulfur Creek Goosenecks which is 6.6 miles one way and would take me to the Visitor Center. Then I would link the Cohab Canyon trail to the 9-mile round-trip Hickman Bridge/ Navajo Knobs trail.
- I planned to camp on the Navajo Knobs trail and link up with the Frying Pan Trail, which turns into the Grand Wash Trail, another 8.5 miles. After Grand
Wash, all I needed to do was ford the Fremont river and hike another 9.5 miles up Spring Canyon and link up with the Chimney Rock trail, and I would be back at my car.
It was a rugged loop hike and an ambitious plan for my first backpacking trip.
The Land of the Sleeping Rainbow is what the Native Americans called Capitol Reef. It is a breathtaking and colorful wonderland. Every one of my trips to the park has unlocked something new and exciting. In the 1930s, it was proposed that the staggeringly fantastic sandstone formations and the entire Reef become a National Monument called Wayne’s Wonderland after the county of Wayne. Franklin Roosevelt dropped the name but made the monument. The idea of Capitol Reef as a protected national refuge was born. In 1971 it became a National Park. And what a unique and under-appreciated park it is. Although a local favorite, Capitol Reef is the least visited Utah National Park. Because of its remoteness and inaccessibility to 2-wheel drive cars (except for highway 24, which cuts through a small part of the park), few get the opportunity to witness the majesty of this remarkable place.
Capitol Reef, however, is a hikers’ paradise. And when I say paradise, I mean that quite literally. Hiking the Frying Pan trail is akin to a trip through a garden planted by God. The desert fauna is strategically placed and beautiful. The desert architecture is amazingly surreal and lonesome. The colorful rocks and earth only add to the flavor. When you walk through Capitol Reef, you are trekking through a desert paradise crafted for the wonderment and enjoyment of man. To stop and stare at one’s surroundings every few feet along the slick rock path marked with cairns is as uncontrolled a reflex as one’s heartbeat. A trail of only a few miles could take hours and fill multiple memory cards.
After each trip, the depth of my experiences in Capitol Reef continues to call to me as if trying to beckon me back. Nature’s siren seduces me. If only I could have lingered on the Navajo Knobs Trail and stared at the white sandstone domes. Around each corner and peaking over every ridge, courtly sandstone towers rise as I crane my neck back. These walls appear to have been chiseled by celestial artisans. I am captivated and surprised by each new scene laid before my eyes as I climb. I must look into the clear blue sky and watch the clouds pass behind the domes, multi-colored cliffs, and monoliths. I want to feel the thrill of seeing that bighorn sheep that makes its home among these cliffs and snapping its picture again. My heart beats faster as I think about seeing that animal in its environment. My heart rate is nearly uncontrollable as I approach the ram almost on tiptoes. Can
he hear it, my heart thumping as a metronome tuned too fast for music? I got closer to wildness than I ever thought possible. And I fear I may never get as close to it again as I did that day on that trail.
The History of the Park adds to the experience, from the Fremont Indians who lived within the park boundaries from 700 -1300 AD to the Mormon settlers who planted the orchards that are still maintained today. History is everywhere. There are petroglyphs on rock walls depicting bighorn sheep and other animals. There are pioneer buildings and homesteads still standing for us to remember. The Fremont River reminds me of that history as if it flows through the Fruita District and the park. The river flowed for the ancient peoples, and it flows for us still. Water brings life to the desert. It creates riparian oases in extreme places. Water built this National Park and is still shaping it today.
I find myself freed from the weight of my pack in Spring Canyon. I am emancipated from the world’s cares as I glory in the majesty of thousand-foot sheer cliff walls. The rainbow is more evident here. White faces, maroon monoliths, and pink peaks, with oranges and brown walls, are the primary colors here. The light of the sinking sun does its dance on the rocks. My pack weighs heavy again until suddenly, magnificence surrounds me, which is an all too frequent occurrence. I have forgotten that my journey is almost complete. I am alone, but I speak vocally, “Wow!” repeatedly with each new vista that spreads before my eyes. With each step, I am closer to reality and the world. My adventure will be over soon. I will reach my destination, and I will go back to life. I am leaving my desert haven. And soon, I will have a yearning to return to Capitol Reef.