Capitol Reef NP – Waterpocket District

I was hankering for a weekend trip in October, but Zach’s schedule was pretty full. Thankfully he had an open weekend in the middle of the month (20th/21st), so I planned a trip to the San Rafael Swell with the goal of driving to Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef. The week leading up to our departure there were massive rains throughout Utah, and I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to visit Cathedral Valley after all. I called the park for road conditions on Friday as I was leaving my office, and the prognosis was bad: the loop road was closed as was the road to the Temples of the Sun and the Moon. I considered calling off the trip, but Zach had already packed up the car, and I did want to get out of town, so we kept to the original plan.

We arrived after dark at Temple Mountain and felt lucky to score a spot secluded from the road. It was more crowded than I had expected, and we realized a school holiday on Thursday/Friday lent itself to more families also out for a final camping trip of the year. It was a clear night, and we sat up for a little while watching the meteor shower. In the morning we fixed ourselves a nice breakfast taco spread before hitting the pavement for Capitol Reef.

It was our first time to drive the stretch between the Swell and Capitol Reef. It was a breathtaking drive to Hanksville where we turned west and followed the Fremont River to Capitol Reef. Highway 24 crosses through a section of badlands and sandstone hills of varying color ultimately passing by Factory Butte, the most impressive of the formations in this area. I regret not stopping as we drove through. It’s an oddly barren area and in stark contrast to the golden-leaved cottonwoods along the banks of the Fremont.

A viewpoint south of Temple Mtn.

A Hanksville gas station

Since the road report was from Thursday, I wanted to stop at the Visitor Center and get an update on Cathedral Valley. The ranger thought we’d be fine in our Forester to the Temples, but the entire loop was out of the question as was fording the Fremont. I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit the Temples without completing the full loop (my original plan), so I asked for other recommendations. We had Truman with us which also limited our options. She told me which areas Truman was allowed to explore on leash and agreed that the Waterpocket District would be a good alternative. Since we were already in Fruita, we drove to the orchards to grab pie and stretch our legs.


Fremont River

I love the contrast of the red rock with the Fruita orchards

Gifford House

I hemmed and hawed – too much probably – but ultimately decided to save Cathedral Valley for another time. We left Fruita and drove to the edge of the park. To get to the Waterpocket District you actually leave the park’s boundaries and drive along the Notom-Bullfrog Road for roughly 20 miles before re-entering the park. The road parallels the Waterpocket Fold providing stunning views even from a distance. But it’s most spectacular after the intersection with the Burr Trail Road when the landscape opens up and the view from the road is unencumbered. We had the grand fortune of seeing the Fold illuminated in the sunlight as the clouds, which had clung overhead, dispersed.

(You may recall from our first trip to Capitol Reef that the Waterpocket Fold is a monocline which the park brochure describes as a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. It is nearly 100 miles long and the basis for the ‘reef’ part of the park’s name.)

The road was dry enough but slightly rutted


Looking north near the trailheads for Headquarters & Surprise Canyons

It was late afternoon, so we didn’t have time for a full day hike AND we had Truman with us. I really wish dogs were allowed on these more remote, less trafficked National Park trails… but alas. We decided we could do a quick hike of Surprise Canyon. It’s only 2 miles (RT), Zach and I are fast, and the temperature was cool enough that Tru wouldn’t fry. It wasn’t the most spectacular of canyon hikes, but it was nice to get out and move around. It was also pretty awesome to walk into the Waterpocket Fold!

Our view when crossing the drainage to the canyon was breathtaking

I should’ve taken this photo on the way in instead of out…

Once we were done, we decided to slowly make our way back to Hanksville for dinner. We took our time driving back out of the park and even made a detour once we’d reached public land for a better view of the Henry Mountains. I toyed with the idea of making the drive out to the Temples, but again, decided against it.

Roadside hoodoos

Earlier in the day when we drove through Hanksville, I had noticed an interesting road side attraction, Carl’s Critter Garden. On our way back into town, I asked Zach to stop so I could take a look around. There was a path winding through all of the creations, and it was fun to wander around the metal critters. I left a small donation. Zach decided to get out as I was wrapping up, and shortly thereafter we noticed a pit bull mix slowly tracking us. I guess it was a good thing we left Truman in the car. We grabbed dinner at Duke’s Slickrock Grill and then drove back to our campsite for the night.

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