Tourism current begins to flow to Capitol Reef

Park in Utah boasts unusual geology, stark beauty and rewarding hikes

Destination: The West

October 10, 2004|By Bill Arsenault | Bill Arsenault,Albany Times Union

It's not easy running a national park in the state of Utah. The competition is tough, including Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches -- three of the top national parks in the United States -- as well as Canyonlands.

But keep an eye on Capitol Reef, a sort of younger sibling that's trying to make a place for itself among the giants.

Zion has its hanging gardens, its fantastic bus shuttle and the infamous hiking trail known as Angel's Landing. Because it's accessible and close to Las Vegas, it draws an average of 3.2 million visitors each year.

Bryce has its "hoodoos" -- gloriously textured standing rock formations -- great color and super trails. Close to 1.5 million people pay a visit to the park each year. And Arches -- well, it has its 2,000 arches, and draws close to 800,000 visitors yearly.

Capitol Reef, which was designated as a national park in 1971, is surely up against it. But the 65,000-acre park is starting to attract more attention.

"We got close to three-quarters of a million visitors last year," park ranger Ben Welch said. He described Capitol Reef as "Utah's park," a site with a particular appeal for in-state visitors.

It attracts foreign visitors as well, many of whom fly into Las Vegas and come to the park as part of the grand tour that hits the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce, then stopping at Capitol Reef before winding up at Arches.

"We feel we've got a lot to offer," Welch said.

Capitol Reef may not have the glamour of Zion, Bryce or Arches, but when it comes to rugged hiking trails and sheer primitive beauty, the park is a winner. "If you invest some time here, you can see the beauty," Welch said. "A lot of our visitors are surprised by the starkness of the place."

Domes and a 'reef'

Capitol Reef is actually two parks in one: the park that surrounds the visitors' center and the backcountry area that affords backpackers and more experienced hikers a chance to explore the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long warp in the Earth's crust that formed 50 million to 70 million years ago when a major geologic shift in western North America reactivated an ancient buried fault.

Capitol Reef got its name because many of the Navajo sandstone mountains in the park are dome-shaped, and because the Waterpocket Fold reminded the early explorers -- usually seafaring individuals -- of an ocean reef.

Zion and Bryce charge $20 for a seven-day pass into the park; Arches charges $10; but there is no charge to get into Capitol Reef except for a $5 fee to take the scenic highway (10 miles with no outlet).

There are three ways to get to Capitol Reef: from the east, the west or the Burr Trail, a rugged dirt road approach that descends on a precipitous switchback at Circle Cliffs.

"It's a drop of almost 45 degrees," said park ranger Jessica Sullivan. "It's a fun way to get to the park." Maybe so, but most people opt for the more sedate path on Scenic Byway 12 into Torrey, Utah, then take a right on Route 24 into the park.

Worthy trails

There are 15 hiking trails around the visitors' center. The best are Chimney Rock, Cassidy Arch, Old Wagon Trail, Cohab Canyon and Hickman Natural Bridge; the last is the least strenuous, but even that two-mile round trip begins with a tough climb. The destination, a 133-foot span, is more than worth the trip.

Chimney Rock might be the best route. It begins with a half-mile trek up a set of switchbacks, followed by a three-mile loop and the half-mile descent. It makes you feel like you've accomplished something when you pause at the high point of the trail and look down at the highway 900 feet below.

Cassidy Arch, probably the park's best trail, gained its name from famed outlaw Butch Cassidy, who reportedly once hid out there. He, or perhaps his horse, must have been in pretty good shape: It's a 950-foot climb up a pretty tough trail.

Hiking at Capitol Reef is different from hiking at Zion, Bryce and Arches.

Few of the trails here are groomed, giving the treks a much more primitive feel. This is not to suggest that Capitol Reef is an experts-only experience: There are easier trails such as Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash that are nice little walks for the entire family -- although even those are prone to flash flooding during the summer.

Capitol Reef is amping up its kid-friendliness through its Ripple Park Nature Center and programs such as ranger talks during summer evenings.

There aren't that many large animals in Capitol Reef. "The rugged terrain and the fact that it's so hot make it a tough spot for antelope and elk," said Sullivan. There are, however, mule deer, who spend afternoons in the picnic area and early evenings strolling through the campground about a mile from the visitors' center.

Before the Mormons arrived, the Native Americans who settled in the area called this place "the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow" because of the multicolored cliffs, massive domes, twisting canyons and miles of slick-rock wilderness.

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