Utah’s Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are wondrous destinations!

Reds, oranges and white hues sparkle from Capitol Reefs spires, domes, buttresses and castles - just across from the park's shady campground and orchards.

Visitors hike in Capitol Reef's Grand Wash, once a pioneer wagon road in the 1870s.

Couple gazes over the rim of Canyonlands at the Colorado and Green River canyons.

The sun sets in dramatic fashion over the Green River in Canyonlands Park.

A tourist and author's spouse Susan are dwarfed by North Windows Arch in Arches National Park.

Balanced Rock towers over the nearby road in Arches National Park.

We were nearing the end of a three week tour to see seven western national parks (Great Basin in Nevada, Utah’s five, Arizona’s Grand Canyon), and had already enjoyed Nevada’s Great Basin and Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.

After a pleasant week’s respite in a Park City timeshare with old friends, we resumed our tour south to Utah’s Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Our drive south took us through miles of aspens, oaks and maples offering yellow, red and orange highlights to Utah’s mountains.

For our final week to 10 days, we planned to take in four national parks, but do so on a “stay as long as we like/no set schedule” basis.  After a five hour drive south from Park City, we arrived at Capitol Reef National Park. About 65 million years ago, a huge buckle in the earth’s crust warped the 100 mile-long “Waterpocket Fold”, creating an abrupt “reef” of colorful red, yellow and white domes, cliffs, monoliths, canyons and arches, cut by the meandering Fremont River.

Though our arrival on a Saturday found the park’s single 70-site campground booked, a fine fellow at a nearby Visitor Center noted several Forest Service campgrounds just 12-18 miles up Hwy 12. We found a lovely campsite at about 8000′, only $5 with the federal senior discount!

The next day, we made Capitol Reef’s campground by 8:40 AM and had our choice of sites.  We visited the nearby Visitor Center, chatted with a young ranger then drove the scenic road to Capitol Gorge and then onto Grand Wash, hiking about three miles overall, mostly in flat canyon trails with sandstone walls rising colorfully hundreds of feet.

The campground itself is in the park’s Fruita Historic District, settled in the 1860s/70s by Mormon pioneers and planted with a variety of still-producing apple, peach and pear orchards. The historic Gifford House sells pies and nearby orchards allow one to pick your own fruit. That night, neighbors played the banjo and mandolin for a campground audience; a wonderful concert under the stars!

Capital Reef and the state’s other four national parks are part of the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning four states when, 20 million years ago, the earth’s crust changed and a huge plateau was uplifted several thousand feet above surrounding landforms. Subsequent water and wind erosion of underlying limestone and sandstone have created the stunning geography of these national parks.

The next day, 200+ miles took us to Canyonlands National Park. We found a Bureau of Land Management campground, Horsethief, just outside the park, almost as handy to Arches National Park and just $7.50/night. We spent three nights, took in the two parks and were treated to the most stunning of sunsets over the Green River Canyon.

Until 1869, the entire Green and Colorado River watershed was uncharted on U.S. maps.  John Wesley Powell, a geologist and one-armed Civil War major, set off in May, 1869, with four boats and nine novice boatsmen to explore the Green and Colorado rivers –  to chart “the great unknown” and make their fortunes.

When he reached the rivers’ canyon country in July, Powell recorded they had entered a “strange, weird, grand region” of naked rock, with “cathedral shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance”. He would finish the harrowing journey three months later with two boats and six men and a tale of exploration that would capture the nation’s imagination.

We were in the northeast “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands; overlooks such as Grand View, Buck Canyon and Green River evoked the spirit of Powell as he contemplated this alien territory just 146 years earlier. Mesa Natural Bridge, the Whale (a 500 yard hump-backed sandstone formation shaped like a huge orange whale) and the blue, red and pink colors of the vast Green River and Colorado River Canyons that converge here are one-of-a-kind.

In nearby Horse Canyon, ancient Puebloan people’s ruins can be toured, with stone homes and food storage built into a ledge far-up the canyon wall.  Pictographs left by the ancients are also found throughout many of Canyonland’s dry washes.

We spent two days hiking to about 15 of Arches National Park’s 2,000 arches (yes, 2,000!). A stop at the visitor center is worthwhile to plot your destinations in this amazing park. Treks to Turret Arch, South and North Arches, then Double Arch (at 144′ wide, 112′ tall, 3rd largest in park) had quickly made firm arch fans out of us. Later that cloudy, cool day, we climbed from the Arches campground to Tapestry Arch – and had it all to ourselves.  We continued onto Broken Arch, following three female hikers – equally impressive – logging 3.5 miles hiking over all. That night we enjoyed spectacular starry night skies above our campsite.

Our second day, we returned to hike Arches’ Devils Garden area.  Our reward was the Landscape Arch; a 1.4 mile hike to this famous arch, tall, thin and spanning over 300 feet, attracts a large crowd.  Spur trails to nearby Tunnel and Pine Tree Arch both proved evocative.

A short hike into Sand Dune Arch carried us through towering sandstone fins and slot canyons. By 2 PM we had covered about 3.2 miles, and retired to a late lunch at The Spoke Restaurant in Moab (just three miles from Arches Park), where chicken wings, pulled pork sandwich, beer (me) and Pinot noir (my spouse) sated our appetite and thirst!  Moab is a very busy town, humming with restaurants, motels, bike shops and canyon tours!

After a week in the three Utah parks, we departed for the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Read next week’s blog and newspaper article for details on this spectacular destination, as well as Pipe Spring National Monument, an accidental Mono Lake sunset, and a final night camping on the edge of Yosemite – where we dream of future travel explorations!

How to get there: Quickest and most scenic way from Stockton area – go north on I-5 to Sacramento, then take Hwy. 50 east through California and Nevada, then consult maps of your GPS for spectacular Utah highways to the three parks.  Capitol Reef is about 795 miles and 12.5 hours from Stockton.

For more info: For Utah travel insights, go to visitutah.com. For Capitol Reef, nps.gov/care, (445) 425-3791; Canyonlands, nps.gov/cany, (435) 719-2313; Arches, nps.gov/arch, (435) 719-2299. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777. Happy travels in the west!

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog.


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