I took a short exploratory trip to the Capitol Reef area yesterday. I suppose I’m getting bored with the San Rafael Swell, since I haven’t felt like going there for a couple of months. I initially got the idea to go to Capitol Reef about a week and a half ago when I was looking for something the whole family could do. National parks were offering free admission on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, but I couldn’t talk Traci into doing that much driving with the kids (I can’t say that I blame her, but the rewards would have been worth it to me). Instead, I ended up going alone this weekend, but I didn’t do any of the “touristy” national park stuff so that I could enjoy doing it with my family later. The trip consisted of just over 400 miles of driving and took about 13.5 hours. I left Price around 7:00AM, topped off the fuel in Hanksville (at $3.59/gallon!), then headed west toward Capitol Reef. My route took me south on the Notom-Bullfrog Road, then west on the Burr Trail to Boulder, north on UT-12 to Torrey, then east on UT-24 back toward Hanksville to complete the loop.
I had never been west of Hanksville on UT-24–in fact, it had been a long while since I’d been as far south as Hanksville–so from that point on it was all new territory for me. I stopped just south of Factory Butte for some photos and a bathroom break (since the gas station in Hanksville wasn’t open), then proceeded to the Capitol Reef park boundary. Instead of entering the park there, I turned south on the Notom-Bullfrog Road and stayed on BLM land for another 20 miles before entering the park. I stopped to check out the old town of Notom, where there’s really not much left to see, and I also stopped to find a geocache (my only find of the trip) just north of Cottonwood Wash. The road is paved all the way to the Wayne-Garfield county line, but even after that it was dry and hard-packed for another 15 miles, suitable for just about any vehicle.
I reached the park boundary at 11:15AM, and a few miles later I encountered some fairly bad mud. I didn’t want to get out of the truck and walk in the mud to lock the hubs in, so I pressed on carefully and slowly in 2WD and eventually made it through the worst of it. Although I didn’t need 4WD to get through the mud, I certainly wouldn’t have been out there without the option of using 4WD. The views from the road in the bottom of the valley were nice, but I wanted to gain some elevation to get a better overview of the valley, so I parked the truck and took a short hike up the Oyster Shell Reef. The Reef consisted of what appeared to be Buckhorn Conglomerate and the upper layers of Morrison Formation, so thankfully the ground was mostly gravelly rather than muddy. I drove farther south and passed through some interesting uplifted layers of Morrison Formation, through which the road was quite muddy, but 2WD was again barely adequate to get me through.
I reached the junction with the Burr Trail and turned west toward the switchbacks. I wasn’t sure what to expect here. I’d seen photographs of the switchbacks and I knew they were steep, but the possibility of mud, snow, and ice had me worried. I actually did lock in the hubs before starting the ascent. The lower end of the switchbacks were dry, but higher up there were some shaded areas on the southern hairpins with a little bit of hard packed snow and ice. Still, I left the transfer case in 2WD and made it up with ease, as just about any vehicle could have done. Nevertheless, driving the switchbacks got my adrenaline pumping a little bit. At the top of the switchbacks I’d planned on stopping at the picnic site and eating lunch, but the short road leading down to the picnic site looked quite wet and I didn’t want to tear it up. I also tried going down the side road to Upper Muley Twist Canyon, but it was muddier than it looked and I turned around very shortly after starting down the road. Instead, I continued west on the main road and found another spot with a picnic table a couple of miles farther down the road. I made a sandwich, relaxed, and just enjoyed being out of the truck for a bit.
My lunch spot was near the park’s western boundary, so shortly after I got moving again I exited Capitol Reef National Park and entered Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The next 15 or so miles were boring (well, only in comparison to the incredible scenery I’d passed through earlier) until I got to the Circle Cliffs and started down Long Canyon. The road climbed a steep dugway up the Circle Cliffs to Long Canyon Overlook, and from there the view east was nice. Long Canyon was also interesting. It was relatively narrow, but there weren’t many pulloffs to stop and enjoy the scenery without blocking the road, and the tall canyon walls had prevented a lot of the snow from melting. Near the mouth of Long Canyon where it meets up with the Gulch, I spotted a natural arch high on the southern canyon wall. Not far from there where the road begins to climb up out of the Gulch, I stopped to try to find another geocache, but I couldn’t find it. I took some time to hike up a short side canyon there where water from a natural spring had frozen along the canyon bottom and made a nice ice skating rink (Torrey did not like walking on this). I later found out that there is a cliff dwelling in that canyon within sight of where I was, but I didn’t know to look for it.
I got back on the road and made another quick stop at Deer Creek Campground. It’s a primitive BLM campground for tents only (if you drove a trailer in there you’d have to back it out, as there’s barely room to turn a full-sized truck around), with firepits and tables. I hiked up Deer Creek a short distance, but I felt like time was running short so I didn’t spend a lot of time there. I kept driving toward Boulder, and I eventually got into cell service for the first time since leaving Hanksville. I sent a text to Traci letting her know how things were going, then passed through Boulder and got onto UT-12. Heading north from Boulder, I entered Dixie National Forest, and it didn’t take long for the road to gain a lot of elevation as it ascended Boulder Mountain, and the snow got much deeper.
I stopped at a wide spot in the road with a nice view to the southeast, but when I opened the door, the wind ripped the handle out of my hand and slammed the door open hard. I could tell that it was forceful enough to have done some damage, and when I got out of the truck and tried closing the door, I found out just how bad. The door would close, but the leading edge of the door rubbed the fender pretty hard, and then I couldn’t open the door! The door was sticking on the fender when I tried opening it more than about an inch, but after banging on the door while trying to pull it open, I got it to swing open again. I took a few photos of the view from there, then got back into the truck and out of the freezing wind. I drove farther north on UT-12 until I found a less windy spot to work on the door. I rolled down the window and banged on the door some more in order to get it open so I could get out of the truck, then I used a long tire iron as a lever to bend the hinges somewhat back into shape. Between that and simply lifting up heavily on the door while it was fully open, I got it bent back into shape enough where it would open and close without binding up on the fender. It will still need some adjustments once I get the time and inclination to fix it.
As I continued toward the town of Torrey, I stopped at a couple of overlooks with incredible views east down into Capitol Reef. The sun was low in the sky and everything to the east was glowing. I, however, was in the shadow of Boulder Mountain, and that combined with the wind kept my photo ops very short. Still, I expected this stretch of the drive to be the least scenic, but the views were amazing from the mountainside. Continuing north on the highway, I lost elevation quickly and eventually closer to Torrey there was no snow on the ground at all. The sun was shining brightly on the cliffs north of Torrey as I descended the mountain, but by the time I reached town the sun had set and there was very little point in taking scenic photos there. I couldn’t, however, pass up the opportunity to take a photo of my dog Torrey standing next to the Torrey sign at the city limits.
Back on UT-24, I cruised east toward Capitol Reef again. I stopped at the park boundary to get some photos of the setting sun still shining on the Henry Mountains far in the distance. I also took a few photos as I passed through the park, but the lighting was poor and I skipped several otherwise great photo locations. It didn’t take long to pass through the roughly 15 miles of UT-24 through Capitol Reef, and soon I was back at the north end of the Notom-Bullfrog road where the loop had begun. I made one more quick stop again south of Factory Butte, at the same place as I’d stopped in the morning, to try for a couple of long exposure photos. From there it was a long and boring drive in the dark toward home, but it left me with a lot of time to begin making plans for my next trip back to the Capitol Reef area.
GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Earth .KMZ Format)
GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Maps)