It may seem that Capitol Reef is the neglected step-child of the five national parks in southern Utah, and I suppose in many ways it is. In fact, I’m not sure I had even heard of it before I started researching this Grand Circle trip, which was well before I began my parks project. However, one of the reasons we decided to include it was to stay at the Boulder Mountain Lodge in Boulder, Utah (B on the map above), one of ten great budget lodges on a list I had from my favorite travel magazine ever, Budget Travel, which is sadly no longer in print but still exists online. Not only do I highly recommend the lodge, and especially the restaurant, the Hell’s Backbone Grill, but this part of the trip proved to be a lovely interlude between the twin juggernauts of Zion-Bryce and Arches-Canyonlands. In short, there are a number of reasons to travel the almost 300 miles between Bryce Canyon (A) and Arches National Park (E).
While we spent two delightful nights at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, which included chatting politics with the chef-owners of the restaurant (it was October 2008 after all) and enjoying the fruits of their on-site organic farm, I think we all wished we had factored in more time here. Boulder, Utah is just under two hours from Bryce Canyon on Highway 12, or Scenic Byway 12, a gorgeous road through the heart of the biggest national park in Utah that is not a national park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At nearly two million acres, Grand Staircase is enormous, and, yes, for this reason it is stupid that it’s called a “monument” but let’s just all hope that one day it grows up to be a real park. [Side note: There is a long history of presidents using the Antiquities Act of 1906 to immediately protect lands that are later granted national park status.] While Grand Staircase is more of a backcountry park, there is a relatively easy 5.5-mile round-trip hike that takes you out to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a lovely spot for a picnic. There are sandstone cliffs, pictographs, and various flora and fauna to keep you entertained along the way.
A fun drive to take, if your car can handle rougher terrain, is the Burr Trail Road, which starts in Boulder, winds through Long Canyon, and eventually ends up at a side entrance to Capitol Reef National Park. While you probably don’t want to go that far, it’s a beautiful drive that eventually opens up to an excellent view of the Waterpocket Fold, the 100-mile-long wrinkle in the earth that is Capitol Reef. The park itself is best entered from Highway 24.
The Waterpocket Fold is a must-see for any geology fans. I highly recommend buying the recording at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center (C), which provides you with a guided audio tour of the geological features along the 25-mile Scenic Drive. Seeing the various rock strata on full display is actually far cooler than I thought it would be.
In addition to looking at rocks, you can also walk among them. With proper planning, you could easily do the entire Grand Wash Trail, which runs from the Scenic Drive out to Highway 24, or simply walk the Grand Wash Canyon part of it and retrace your steps back to the Scenic Drive. At the end of the Scenic Drive is another short walk to some petroglyphs. During harvest season, you can “pick-your-own” in the Fruita orchards, left by Mormon settlers and now maintained by the National Park Service.
Last, but not least, this route contains a little-known gem that was recommended to us to break up the 150-mile trip from Capitol Reef to Moab, which is a long stretch of fairly dull landscape. Goblin Valley State Park has a bit more notoriety now as the scene of a viral video showing Boy Scout leaders knocking over one of its 20-million-year-old hoodoos.
This state park is hidden in the middle of nowhere, twelve miles off Highway 24 (D). It is a small valley of crazy, random, mushroom-like stones, similar to the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, but much smoother. I felt as if we had wandered onto the cheap set of an early Star Trek episode. One thing was for sure, the kids we saw were absolutely delighted to be running around and among all these bizarre shapes. I even went black & white for the occasion.*
Entry to Capitol Reef National Park is $5 per car for seven days. The day-use fee at Goblin Valley State Park is $8 per car.
*Note: This trip was back in the days of my much-loved Pentax K1000. As such, most of the pictures in this Grand Circle series are scans of my printed photos, including these black & white images.