The loneliest road in southern Utah

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?

Our rental car looks pretty lonely on the Scenic Drive towards Capitol Gorge.

In mid-February, our rental car looks pretty lonely on the Scenic Drive at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

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.”

The walls of Capitol Gorge close in, at times less than 20 feet apart.

The walls of Capitol Gorge close in, at times less than 20 feet apart.  Capitol Reef National Park is part of the “Waterpocket Fold,” a 100-mile long north-south wrinkle in the earth’s surface.  The rough  terrain of the Fold presented a barrier to 19th century pioneers, who eventually discovered Capitol Gorge (above), a crack in the fold through which people, animals and wagons could travel through more easily.  Just beyond the Gorge, a small group of families settled at Fruita, along the Fremont River, with the last resident leaving in 1968.

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.

Exploring at Hickman Bridge.

Exploring at Hickman Bridge, a popular destination on a one-mile hike from the road.  On this morning hike, we did meet one small party on the trail but otherwise had the place to ourselves.

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.

Another view of Hickman Bridge.

Another view of Hickman Bridge.

Lots of fun nooks, crannies,  rock formations and otherworldly geology on the Hickman Bridge Trail.

Lots of fun nooks, crannies, rock formations and otherworldly geology on the Hickman Bridge Trail.

Good-bye, Capitol Reef, I'll be back some day as a vagabond retiree in a souped-up camping van.

Good-bye, Capitol Reef, I’ll be back some day as a vagabond retiree in a souped-up camping van.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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