Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Wonderfully scenic and filled with dramatic and seemingly endless red rock, Utah boasts five national parks within its borders. Least well-known among these is long-and-narrow Capitol Reef National Park found just about smack in the middle of the state.
As is the case with many places in Utah, nineteenth-century Mormon pioneers settled here for a while and then moved on. In their wake, they left behind many remnants. As you drive the short piece of Route 24 that traverses this desert park you will see evidence of the Mormons in the wonderfully preserved one-room schoolhouse and apple and peach orchards that once marked the small Fruita settlement.
There is a lot to see and photograph. Right along this same stretch of Route 24 are some great petroglyphs and pictographs. Best to photograph the ancient rock art with a polarizing filter in order to preserve contrast and minimize glare off the rock. The art was left for us by the Fremont people who lived in the area about a thousand years ago. Also along this route are the towering Navajo Dome, Pectol’s Pyramid, two distinctive rocks dubbed the Molars (aka Twin Rocks), and a great many other redrock forms that merit your attention.
Starting just below Pectol’s Pyramid is the trailhead for the pleasant one-mile walk to Hickman Bridge, a strikingly formed stone arch best photographed in the warm light of sunrise. Heading south from the visitor center is the Scenic Drive leading to the Grand Wash and its easy hike. Continue driving a bit farther into the narrow Capitol Gorge itself. The short unpaved section of road between the high stone walls of the gorge should be easily passable with a standard passenger car.
Stunning Waterpocket Fold is Capitol Reef’s hallmark geologic feature. This sprawling wrinkle in the Earth’s crust lends itself easily to many compositions, especially panos.
With a high clearance vehicle, other vistas will open up for you. Perhaps the best of these is the unpaved and somewhat rough road looping through Cathedral Valley. Make sure to check at the centrally located visitor center for the latest road conditions before embarking on this drive.
The large, striking monoliths known as the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, located near the east end of this road, are easy to spot as they rise sharply several hundred feet from the otherwise flat valley floor. These can be photographed well in both sunrise and sunset since, as a pair, they face in both directions.
Another worthwhile but less well-known sunset spot is the Strike Valley Overlook. To get there, exit the park to the west. At Torrey, drive south on Route 12. At Boulder, turn east on the Burr Trail. Continue through Long Canyon, once again crossing the Capitol Reef boundary back into the park to the short spur road leading to Strike Valley. After a quick walk of less than a half mile, you will come upon the wonderful high view of Strike Valley, a fine late afternoon and evening location.
Another option is to reach this spot via Notom-Bullfrog Road, which eventually connects to Burr Trail. Driving this track requires four-wheel drive, high clearance and a bit of skill. It is a full-day adventure that is sure to prove a memorable highlight of your visit to Capitol Reef.
When it comes to lodging options, the tiny town of Torrey, Utah, at the west entrance to the park offers a good selection of motels. Further south on Route 12 is the upscale Boulder Mountain Inn with its excellent restaurant.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was a national park artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.