If you ever visit the national parks in Utah, you’ll see stickers and posters everywhere for The Mighty Five. The Mighty Five are: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion National Parks. We’d visited the first 3 on our previous trip to Moab, and with this visit, we were able to complete The Mighty Five.
Capitol Reef is probably the least-known of the Five. It is quite a bit smaller than the others, with less famous landmarks. This also means it’s generally not as busy as the other parks, which we appreciated. The park is centered around the Waterpocket Fold, an uplift in the Earth’s crust, probably caused by the same colliding tectonic plate activity that created the Rocky Mountains. The Fold has weathered and eroded to expose the layers of rock seen below. The park was so named because white dome-like outcroppings have formed in the rock, and the reef (Fold) was a barrier to land travel. In this photo, the Fold is the slanting rock in the upper left, and the campground and orchards are the green areas below.
We pulled into the Fruita Historic District, which was originally a Mormon settlement. It now has historic buildings, and acres of orchard. Unfortunately nothing was in season, but normally you can pick the fruit from the trees for a small fee. We were amazed by this oasis in the desert, how the river through the center of this park makes life possible.
Although this park is generally less busy than the others, we couldn’t find a campsite for the night. There were no established campgrounds near the park and we didn’t feel like backpacking for miles in hot, sandy desert washes, so we decided to just ask someone with an RV if we could set up camp next to their vehicle (8 people are allowed per site). As luck would have it, Jake pulled up to a couple who turned out to be from the Midwest! They were more than accommodating, letting us set up our tent (they had plenty of space as they were in the middle of a grassy field). They were also kind enough to share their drinks and dinner while telling us about their travels. They’d been retired and traveling full-time for 15 years! We attended a ranger program with them, and they also gave us a tour of their RV, which really was just a rolling home. If you’re reading this, thank you so much for your hospitality! Please email me, because I really want your granola recipe =)
We did some day hikes here, the highlight of which was Sulphur Creek. For the first bit we thought we’d end up hiking through a dry wash, but it quickly turned into a cool, rushing river, complete with waterfalls. We met some friendly Germans who had been working in Canada and were now traveling all over the West in their van. The trail ended at the Visitor’s Center, and they were kind enough to give us a ride back to our car, which would’ve been a 5 mile hike back up the creek, or 3 hot miles along the road.
We also did Hickman Bridge, the Rim Overlook, a hike along the river, and the Fremont Petroglyphs.
Oh yeah, and this might be one of my favorite parks ever, because right next to the campground was this little homestead store that sold DELICIOUS PIE!
After Capitol Reef, we headed to Escalante, Utah. Not much in this tiny town, but we grabbed drinks at the one bar in town so Jake could watch the NBA finals. The 100+ degree weather was really getting to me at this point, so it was nice to sit in air conditioning for a bit. We met some other traveling Germans, in the States for a few weeks to do a grand tour of the West.
We camped at the start to Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which has something to do with the early Mormon settlers blasting a hole in a rock. The next morning we drove down a very bumpy gravel road (and lost a few hubcaps) to visit some slot canyons! Our favorite was Peekaboo, and we also visited Spooky.
After The Dew (Jake’s car) survived the road on the way out, we stopped at Calf Creek Falls, where I took a quick jaunt through the desert to a large waterfall with icy cold water.
We also caught a few tumbleweeds… The biggest ones we’ve seen are taller than Jake!
On to Bryce Canyon, land of the hoodoos. At 8,000 feet, it was quite a bit cooler than our previous stops in Utah. Bryce is not actually a canyon, but got its name from the original Mormon settler. They make a lot of fun of good old Ebenezer Bryce, because when asked about the beauty of the canyon, he reportedly said, “It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.” Not sure how true this is, because would a Mormon really say “hell”? Haha.
Anyway, hoodoos are the tower-like rock formations seen below. They’re formed by the weathering and erosion of sedimentary rock. The rim is eroded a few inches every year. I felt a bit like I was on Mars while hiking in the hoodoos. They are so mystical that the early Paiute Indians believed the hoodoos were people frozen into stone by the trickster spirit Coyote. We spent a few minutes finding people-like shapes in the hoodoos, and it’s not that far of a stretch.
We took several trails down into the hoodoos. We did the Fairyland Canyon loop, and a figure-eight loop in the Bryce Amphitheater, including the Navajo and Peekaboo loops.
This long, steep switchback led to a portion called Wall Street, presumably for its high cliffs that are almost as tall as skyscrapers.
One of the most spectacular spots we hiked to was Queen’s Garden.
Despite reports that the air here is very clear, it was quite hazy each day of our visit, so much so that sunset looked as if we were watching from behind a veil. We were also very surprised that when we went to inquire about a backcountry permit for the Under-the-Rim trail, the ranger told us it wasn’t worth doing, just a trail in the forest with few good views of the hoodoos. We did meet some people later on that confirmed this, but we’ve never been told by a park ranger not to bother backpacking in their park. Very odd. Since it was still hot and water sources were scarce below the rim, we decided visit some overlooks, take a chill day reading at our campsite, and drive onward to find wi-fi to watch Game of Thrones.
I’ve never been anywhere quite like Bryce, and it was definitely worth visiting for a few days. A tip for tent campers: Just outside of the park is a gravel forest road, where you can camp for free anywhere with a fire ring. But beware, you may be caught unawares by roving cattle! A whole herd of cows and calves passed within 50 yards of our campsite daily.
Our last stop to complete The Mighty Five was Zion, which was full of adventure!