We had just left our camp in Wildhorse Canyon and were thinking; there couldn’t be anything more spectacular than that. But driving highway 24 from Hanksville to Capitol Reef National Park proved us wrong. The Waterpocket Fold is a massive ridge of broken rock in the middle of Utah, and highway 24 cuts right through it. Now the rock was even more colorful; pinks, purples, reds, blues, yellows and chocolate brown in layers, one on top of the other, or in huge stripes down the mountain faces.
We entered Capitol Reef National Park, and it just got better. Jagged peaks of colored sandstone were cut by narrow, deep canyons as we reached Fruita, an old Mormon homestead now the national park visitors center for Capitol Reef. Fruita is an oasis of apple orchards with Fremont River running through it. You can still buy fresh pies from the apples grown there. There is no fee to enter the national park, but the campground there cost $20/night with water and bathrooms. Typical of national park campgrounds it was nice, but crowded. We moved on.
We drove on, out of the western side of the park looking for a camp site, and finally reached tiny Bicknell ten miles from the park boundary. Here we found Sunglow, a small U.S. Forest Service campground set against a deep red rock canyon. At $12/night ($6 for us with my America the Beautiful senior pass) it was perfect; almost deserted with fresh spring water from community spigots, a flush bathroom with sink and, as a bonus, a weak Verizon cellular signal but enough to get online with our portable router. We set up amongst the juniper trees for the next four nights.
We spent our first day in Capitol Reef taking the “Scenic Drive.” This is actually the heart of the park and though there are no entrance fees for the park itself, it costs $10 to drive this route and worth every penny (we paid nothing with my senior pass).
The route enters a valley of incredibly colored rock with major canyons entering it from the sides. We hiked a few miles up the Grand Wash, one of the major canyons along the drive. The canyon walls rose hundreds of feet above us and the rock was twisted into fantastic shapes, some smooth and striped with color, others riddled with holes and caves.
We drove on to Capitol Gorge at road’s end. Once a wagon route through the Waterpocket Fold for early pioneers, the Capitol Gorge is magnificent with ancient petroglylphs etched into the rock walls along with signatures from early pioneers. We spent the day exploring the canyons and gorges along the drive before heading back to our quiet camp.
We settled in at camp for the next day, doing long overdue laundry in nearby Bicknell, writing, reading and relaxing. Nights had been dropping below freezing and a Forest Service crew stopped by to turn off the water for the year. No problem, we were self-contained with jugs of drinking water and a full water tank in the trailer.
The following day we drove twenty miles down a dirt track outside the east side of the park to Cathedral Valley in the remote northern part of Capitol Reef. This was a special treat. The road was rough in places, but we never needed four-wheel drive to pass through it. And, it took us through amazing valleys of painted hills, striped in bright purples, reds, golds and white. The desert stretched out before us for miles and miles with higher mountain peaks looming in the distance.
We finally reached our goal, two sandstone formations named The Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. These were massive towers, hundreds of feet tall, and jutting up abruptly out of the flat desert floor, ending in pointed towers high above us. Behind the “temples” the mesas dropped into a labyrinth of towers and canyons. It was an amazing sight, but something else was strange about this place.
From a distance we could see reflections twinkling from the desert floor and hills as if they were covered in broken glass. I had noticed some black, basalt boulders spread around the valley as we neared the temples which indicated previous volcanic activity in the area and so I assumed the glass mountain would be obsidian (black volcanic glass). When we reached the temples, we noticed a small sign pointing up a dirt spur road to “glass mountain.” I expected an outcrop pf black obsidian, but when we approached the “mountain” we found a twenty-foot high mound of bright white crystals sticking straight up out of the ground.
The crystals averaged about ten inches long and six inches thick, but there were millions of them all jumbled together, broken and twisted around each other as if they had been melted and fused back together. It was pieces of crystal like this that were mixed into the golden sand of the desert all around us and this was the reflections we had seen from a distance.
The crystals were slightly slick to the touch and the surface was easily scratched with just with my fingernails. Selenium perhaps, or some other soft crystalline mineral? There were no other concentration of crystals like it nearby and we assumed they had formed in some kind of underground chamber eons ago. No matter how they formed, it was an extremely strange sight to see out in the middle of the desert with the massive temples of sandstone forming an unearthly backdrop to the shining mound of crystals here in the middle of nowhere.
What a day! We drove back out to highway 24, back through Capitol Reef National Park on a glorious, sunny fall afternoon with the cottonwood trees golden in the late October sun and the towering sandstone cliffs towers shining in the sunlight. Wild turkeys strutted under the apple trees by the old schoolhouse in Fruita, fanning their tail feathers in courtship displays. As we reached our camp, rays of light beamed out from above and below a cloud that was covering the setting sun and lit up the ranchlands far out in the desert.
We drove from our camp at Sunglow, over Boulder Mountain on highway 12, and into Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument the following day. We set up a boondock camp in a pretty slick rock valley along The Burr Trail, a backcountry route connecting Capitol Reef to Grand Staircase. From there we re-entered Capitol Reef with the truck and explored the unpaved portion of the Burr Trail through the national park.
We did this to avoid attempting to haul the trailer up the infamous “switchbacks”, a section of the Burr Trail within Capitol Reef National Park that climbs through a series of hairpin turns at a 12% grade up the sheer cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold. Although the Burr Trail could be driven in almost any reasonably high-clearance vehicle, it would have been dangerous to try to haul a twenty eight foot-long fifth wheel trailer up the switchbacks. After driving the switchbacks with just the truck, we’re glad we didn’t try it.
The views across Capitol Reef from the Burr Trail are spectacular and at the top of the switchbacks is Lower Muley Twist Canyon. The canyon bottom is a wide, sandy wash and easy to walk. But, it’s enclosed by twisted red and white sandstone cliffs towering above. There were few people in this more remote part of the park and we enjoyed an afternoon wandering through the canyon on a cool, sunny October day. This was a perfect way to complete our first visit to Capitol Reef National Park and we added this special place to our “return to” list.
In late afternoon we drove back to our camp in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument along the Burr Trail. There was no one else around for miles. It was dead silent. We settled in for our first night in the Grand Staircase under a night sky full of stars and a thumbnail moon hanging over the white cliffs behind our camp, lighting them up in the starlight.