We drove into Capitol Reef from the west, having left Monument Valley, crossed the Colorado at Hite, and turned west on Highway 24 toward the park at Hanksville. The rain that threatened during our stop at Natural Bridges was now pouring down, washing out any thoughts of seeing what this tiny junction town in the wilderness had to offer. As we headed west into the canyons, the rain began to let up, and by the time we reached the park’s western boundary it had stopped.
But its after-effects hadn’t. Sheets of water now poured off the white domes of rock all along the road, and we lost count of the impromptu waterfalls as the road wove upstream through the canyon carved by the Fremont River. We thought we’d picked out the capitol-shaped dome that gave the area its name, but it was easier to see as we headed east later that evening.
The skies were still gray as we arrived at the Visitor Center in late afternoon, but looked like they might clear soon. The center was both larger than it looked and larger than I expected, with a good-sized bookstore. The slide show in the small theater on the north side is shown on request, and we headed there after picking up maps and trail guides. I remember thinking that it was a decent presentation, but any specific memories of were wiped out by the way it ended—as the last image faded, the portion of the wall containing the screen rose up, leaving the large red rock formation called ‘The Castle’ perfectly framed in the exposed window.
We’d planned to take a trip down the Scenic Drive, but the rangers at the desk were just announcing that the rain had washed out the road, closing it after a mile, just south of Fruita. We switched our plans, headed to Torrey to check in at Austin’s and eat at Brinks, and then headed back into the park about 7pm. The skies were now perfectly clear, just in time for the terrific light ahead of sunset.
The fading sun really brought out the colors in the rocks along the north side of the highway. As the sun continued to set, they looked increasingly golden in the late-day light. This made it a particularly nice time to see the Twin Rocks and then Chimney Rock, both of which are visible from Highway 24 just inside the park boundary. The turnoff to Goosenecks and Panorama Point is just a bit past Chimney Rock, and is well worth visiting for a good view east along the Waterpocket Fold before the highway descends into Fruita.
Panorama Point is not far off the highway. The road continues past here to a short hike to the Goosenecks, the deep bends in Sulphur Creek. The trail isn’t well marked, but it’s not too hard to sense the general direction you should take. There were just enough markers along the one-third of a mile to get us to the overlook, which is nearly directly above the big turns in the river. A small fenced platform is directly on the edge of the bluff.
The Goosenecks are far enough down that they were deep in shadow by the time we arrived. I was up for returning the next morning for a better view (and better photos), but the urge to head on to Bryce Canyon won out with the rest of our crew.
We retraced our steps to the parking lot, and then sprinted the short distance out to Sunset Point. There was another good view of the Waterpocket Fold and the Henry Mountains beyond, but any thought of staying for the actual sunset was squashed by my oldest kid’s desire to get to the Petroglyphs before we lost the sunlight.
Our experience of Capitol Reef was directly tied to Highway 24. Our minivan wasn’t appropriate for Cathedral Valley, the Scenic Drive was closed, and we’d chosen not to risk the drive north along Notom-Bullfrog road for both time and safety reasons. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this park nearly as much as any of the others. The combination of wilderness and pioneer community was intriguing, and the large stretches of the park that remained off-limits to us meant that we’d only scratched the surface here. The Grand Canyon aside, I’d probably return here first before revisiting any of the stops on this trip. In part, the additional time we spent at both places gave me a better sense of each location. In addition, I know I’d be more likely to experience this place without the crowds that fill those two parks.