Ever been to the middle of Nowhere? We have …and are loving it. After hiking at the Arches and Canyonlands, then playing pickleball in Moab, we come this early June Saturday to Capitol Reef National Park after 24 years away.
In 1993, Hannah and I traveled the American Mountain West with our three kids, Will (9), Robyn (11), and Molly (13) in our GMC Vandura; atop our van were five bikes and a Sears cargo carrier with tents, sleeping bags, and pads. That one score and four years ago, we camped at Capitol Reef, picked plums from the tree at our campsite, and hiked a forgettable mountain trail of stone, guided by cairns (i.e. stacked rocks to direct hikers).
By my calculation, Capitol Reef is the least visited of Utah’s five national parks: Zion is the rock star with its Angel Landing death-defying climb (71,000 visitors came over this past Memorial Day Weekend);
#2 and #3, no matter the order, are the every populaire Arches and Bryce Canyon;
Number 4 is Canyonlands, for it does get the spill over from nearby Arches, just 25 miles away).
The black sheep is the out-of-the-way Capitol Reef National Park, some 160 miles to the west of Moab, and 125 miles northeast of Bryce Canyon in the little town of Nowhere, Utah (i.e. Torrey).
The signature family hike at Capitol Reef is the Hickman Natural Bridge. Arriving by 930A this first Saturday in June, we get the last of the 20 spots in the parking lot. Never fear if you happen to sleep in; cars and RVs soon are parking on the main road, which is also common practice at busy venues in the Arches and Canyonlands, too.
The difference between a natural bridge and a natural arch is how they are created. Arches are wind-blown creations while bridges are formed from flowing water. With not a cloud in the sky, I lather up with my Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen that my dermatologist says he uses, place my wide brimmed hiking hat from Georgia, and complete the ensemble with my Mr. Cool sunglasses.
The rocky sandstone trail takes us along the roadside stream, but then we soon turn inland toward the mountains. The one-mile trail to the Hickman Natural Bridge is well-marked and busy this morning, with many of us trying to beat the noonday sun.
Unfortunately, the natural bridge is tucked within the mountain so that there is no dramatic vista beyond to give the bridge depth and perspective. Check out what I mean in the picture to the left. The rock formations behind it make it difficult for the bridge to standout. It’s not a difficult hike and we are back at the trailhead within the hour.
Turning at the Visitor Center, we take the Scenic Drive to the trailhead of Cassidy Arch; now 1030A, with 100F predicted. For two tenths of a mile, we walk the Grand Wash. Wash (i.e. dry riverbed) walking is like plodding along on a fire road in the forest. No personality, just directness and tedium ; the wash trifecta of rockiness, sandiness, and stoniness make it difficult to catch a hiking rhythm.
But…very soon, we turn to the mountains and the lung-heaving switchbacks of the 1.5 mile Cassidy Arch Trail (named for Butch Cassidy who hid out in caves in the area). The first part of the Cassidy Arch Trail is a tough rock climb, with some stone scrambling thrown in where we need both hands on the boulders to climb the mountainside.
The trail is popular but certainly not crazy busy as was the trail to the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park days ago. Twenty-somethings and retirees are the ones we meet along the way. The sandstone rocky trail requires us to pay attention to where we step. Later we meet a ranger who hikes the trail by day being “boots on the ground” to be sure hikers are not in heat distress under such demanding conditions.
Just after halfway through our mile and a half assent, we see the Cassidy Arch in the distance. At this point, we have done most of the 1000’ elevation gain of the hike, so there is less stress on my left knee and our breathing. Thanks to Tylenol before we began hiking, regular stretching in our motel room, my compression sleeve, and serious icing afterward, I think little of my left knee.
Within a half mile of the arch, we cross the sloping rock plateau where we are directed by the cairns that I remember from 24 years ago. They are a godsend and direct us so we have just a bit of rock scrambling to get to the top of the ridge.
At the top, we spot college grads rappelling down from the top of the arch, and meet up with Janis, who turns out to be a fellow Wildcat (University of New Hampshire). She offers, I’ll take your picture on top of the arch. It’s not scary. And right she is. It’s a 25’ wide stretch above the Cassidy Arch, and turns out to be our favorite photo of the trip.
Descending 1000’ to the trailhead is tougher on the knees than going up, but we use a lot less energy on a cloudless day in central Utah. We are so loving the out of the way-ed-ness of Capitol Reef and its potential as a hike for our grandsons, Owen and Max. We look for them to add to the adventurous family legacy of their Mom as well as their Auntie Robyn and their Unkie (Will) here in Nowhere, Utah.