Little-known Capitol Reef National Park offers a variety of rock formations that rival any other national park of the Colorado Plateau. Sheer monoliths, domes, canyons, and arches highlight the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long wrinkle on the earth’s crust.
Most visitors stay on UT 24 and the scenic drive, both of which cover only a tiny portion of the park. Venture on the extensive network of dirt roads south or north of UT 24, and you’ll make fantastic discoveries, as both of the southern and northern sections of the park would have been deserving of national park status by themselves. You will see only a few souls during a whole day if you come off-season, and the opportunity for solitude and the variety of landscapes make Capitol Reef one of my favorite national parks.
Thanks to the Fremont River, the park has more vegetation than other neighboring parks and makes a spring or fall visit particularly rewarding. Fruit trees growing in historic orchards bloom from March to May. At that time, the tender green of newly leafed trees along the Fremont River contrasts beautifully with the red rock. Autumn foliage color peaks during the last week of October. Hot summers and cold winters bring their own opportunities, such as monsoon clouds and snow, but are not the best seasons for exploring outside of the pavement, as melting snow and summer thunderstorms can turn dirt roads into impassable mud.
1 Goosenecks and Sunset Point
These two short trails start from the same parking area in the west side of the park. At the Goosenecks, meandering Sulfur Creek cuts deeply into the deep red Moenkopi sandstone to form an 800-foot canyon with sheer walls. From the overlook, the most striking view looks west. Most of the time, partial shadows create too much contrast. The only time I was content with my photographs was when I came at dawn, 15 minutes before sunrise, when soft light revealed the colors for which Navajo Indians called Capitol Reef “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.” Sunset Point (1 mile round-trip) offers a distant panoramic view of the Waterpocket Fold, which is front-lit in the afternoon. At sunset, the foreground is in deep shadows, which is fine for a distant shot such as the one I made in storm light, however for a wide-angle view, I prefer the light of late afternoon or dusk, after sunset.
2 The Castle and Fruita
When traveling through the Southwest, I always enjoy staying at the campground located in the historic orchard of Fruita, whose mature fruit trees and cottonwoods provide a welcome respite from the rocky and dry landscape common in the region. In any season, the trees contrast nicely with the tall cliffs dominated by the formation called the Castle. For an easy morning, I like to walk across Hwy 24 in front of the visitor center to frame a classic view of the Castle between the cottonwoods. On a November visit, I was delighted that an overnight storm had deposited a layer of snow. I went to work promptly, as I knew it wouldn’t last through the morning.
3 Fremont River Canyon
One of the factors that differentiate Capitol Reef from other Southwest parks is the presence and accessibility of the fast-flowing Fremont River. Starting from the visitor center, Hwy 24 follows the Fremont River Canyon until the eastern entrance of the park, offering great roadside photography. Surrounded by red cliffs topped by tall rock formations, the clear river is lined up with many cottonwoods, tamarisks, and other water-loving trees that add a beautiful touch of color against the cliffs, both in the spring and fall. I photographed this scene in open shade, making sure to exclude any area that was directly sunlit. The light reflected from the opposite cliff made to colors glow.
4 Hickman Natural Bridge and Rim Overlook
Hickman Natural Bridge, a span as impressive as any in the Southwest, is reached by a 2-mile round-trip trail (400-foot elevation gain) on the north rim. Morning light illuminates the bridge best because a ridge blocks the sun in midafternoon. As I continued on the Rim Overlook Trail, which has a primitive atmosphere, I found great views in all directions. After another 0.5 miles, the ground was littered with the curious black volcanic boulders found in many places in the park. They make good foregrounds for a photograph of Pectol’s Pyramid, located on the south rim. After determining that the striking structure is best lit in the late afternoon, I kept hiking, planning to photograph there on my way back. At 2.25 miles (1,000-foot elevation gain) from the trailhead, I arrived at the Rim Overlook for a striking bird’s-eye view of Fruita, and as difficult as it was to leave, I didn’t want to miss the light on Pectol’s Pyramid.
5 Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge
Aside from UT 24, the Scenic Drive is the only paved road in the park. It follows the west side of the Waterpocket Fold, and my favorite view of this continuous line of multicolored cliffs is looking north in the late afternoon. A roadside photograph emphasizes the foothills and the ground, which was my intention since fresh spring wildflowers dotted the usually arid clay. On the other hand, views from the top of the opposite hills emphasize the cliffs. To find such a view, at the end of the first uphill section after the campground, stop at a pullout and hike up a steep ridge until you are high enough. The scenic drive enters canyons in Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash. The rock walls, best photographed in reflected light, present fascinating patterns of holes and vertical stripes of desert varnish.
6 Cathedral Valley
The most memorable drive in the park is the Cathedral Valley, a majestic landscape of stone and silence. The place is so remote that during the whole day of driving its primitive roads, I hardly encountered any other vehicles. Arriving there by night in November, I camped alone in Lower Cathedral Valley, just below huge monoliths. The next day, I located in semidarkness a viewpoint that captured the Temple of the Moon in the foreground, with the Temple of the Sun behind. However, I noticed that in the light of dawn, the former did not glow as much as I expected. When the sun rose, I realized that it was in the shadow of a hill. I waited for the shadow to move down to the ground to photograph. Although the uneven sky resulting from using a polarizing filter with a wide-angle lens is often questionable, I liked the gradient it created in this image because it ran uniformly from one side of the image to the other.
The 59-mile loop road passes a great variety of landscapes different than those seen in other sections of the Waterpocket Fold, including the badlands of the Bentonite Hills and overlooks of a narrow valley called South Desert. The 500-foot sculptured monoliths in both Lower and Upper Cathedral Valley are among the most impressive I’ve seen anywhere. Taking a half of a day to drive, the 59-mile road is normally passable by any high-clearance vehicle, but be sure to inquire about road conditions at the visitor center. Storms can wash the road, and wet weather turns the stretches of bentonite into a slick clay, which can be too slippery to walk, let alone drive. While the east entrance of the road is easily passable, the west entrance can involve a deep river ford. It is best to evaluate beforehand whether your vehicle can pass it so that you can better plan your itinerary.
7 Strike Valley Overlook
The official National Park Service map of the park features an aerial photograph as the cover image, revealing the structure of the Waterpocket Fold, a sight not readily available in anywhere in the park, except for the Strike Valley Overlook. To get there from the Burr Trail, at the “tour stop” sign about a mile from the switchbacks, take Upper Muley Twist Canyon road to the north. Its 3 miles are rough, but with careful driving, I was able to cross it with a Subaru Legacy, which doesn’t have particularly high clearance. From the trailhead parking, you will see two trails: One heads north into Upper Muley Twist Canyon, and the other heads east to the Strike Valley Overlook. It takes about 30 minutes to hike to the rim of the Waterpocket Fold, 1,000 feet above the Strike Valley. Arriving in the afternoon, using a telephoto lens, I photographed immediately the curve of the Waterpocket Fold stretching to the horizon in the south. As the Strike Valley went into the shade, I took a break from photography and just enjoyed the view, changing light, and tranquility. When the light became even again, at dusk, I made a few wide-angle, long exposures of the whole valley before hiking back down to my car.
8 Halls Creek Overlook
The southern section of the park (including Strike Valley Overlook) is even less traveled than Cathedral Valley, and civilization seems far removed. However, the unpaved Notom-Bullfrog and Burr Trail Roads are well graded and easily driven with a passenger vehicle. The Halls Creek Overlook offers an excellent view of the east side of the Waterpocket Fold. After camping there under the stars, I awoke early and began to set up the camera while it was still dark. Although the light there is excellent until early morning, my favorite time was just before sunrise. There is a short moment when the earth casts its own shadow on the atmosphere, resulting in a dark blue band in the sky, low on the horizon, below a glowing pink band known as the “Belt of Venus.” In the clear air of the Colorado Plateau, the phenomenon was particularly strong.
A number of the twisting, vertical-walled canyons cut through the Waterpocket Fold. A couple of them start from the Halls Creek Overlook, but they can be difficult to maneuver, and the return is steep. Further north along the Notom-Bullfrog Road, Surprise Canyon is very easy to access. There are no real destinations there other than to see what surprises the canyon has in store for you. Even at midday, sunlight doesn’t reach inside, so the light was excellent for photographing intimate scenes of trees and rocks.
The text of this article is excerpted from my book Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks. It has won six national book awards. The New York Times writes: “No one has captured the vast beauty of America’s landscape as comprehensively.”