As the road changed from pavement into dirt, and the canyon walls pressed in on both sides, it seemed that we were heading deep into a wilderness where we might be stranded by a broken axle or punctured tire. We hadn’t seen another car, or person, for miles. My son wondered aloud, nervously, if we should continue as we bumped along the packed dirt road in our rental SUV. What would we find at the end?
I pulled out the map, which showed, at the end of the road, a parking lot icon. “It’ll be fine,” I said. “Look, there’s even restrooms.”
And indeed, when we reached the parking lot, we found signs that sometimes, this place is full of people: picnic benches, rustic restrooms, a well-trodden path to the Pioneer Register. But on this day, no people, not even a park ranger’s vehicle. On this late afternoon in February, we might be the only visitors in Capitol Reef National Park.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. In these 378 square miles, at least three other people were exploring. Earlier, at a Highway 12 pullover, we had met a father and two sons traveling in a rugged camper with monster wheels, heading towards Cathedral Valley, the remote section of the park that gets few visitors, even in the summer. Then, I envied them, for the solitude, but now, here we were, alone, feeling like pioneers.
The sun was setting as we drove back to Torrey, where we were staying at the Sky Ridge Inn bed and breakfast. On the Scenic Road, not a single car or hiker. But as we approached the campground next to Fruita, an abandoned Mormon pioneer settlement, I spied a single vehicle and a tent. A small campfire burned in the twilight, making the scene a little less lonely. Or maybe more so.
I’m guessing that in the summer months, when the park gets most of its 668,000 annual visitors, solitude at Capitol Reef feels hard to come by, even if it nowhere nearly as crowded as Zion National Park (which gets 2.9 million visitors). Families pick peaches, cherries, apples and pears in the orchards planted by the Mormon settlers. Everyone stops to look at the Fremont petroglyphs carved on a rock wall, and almost everyone completes the 2-mile round trip hike to Hickman Bridge.
However, even in peak season, Capitol Reef offers plenty of lightly travelled backcountry nooks and crannies, canyons and trails. I can’t wait to explore them when I come back. Even though our visit to Capitol Reef was short, the park was my favorite of the three we visited in southern Utah. The landscape here feels so vast and grand, that it almost makes me feel like I might become a grander person just by spending time here.