A winter’s day traveling in Capitol Reef ignited new love for the national park

By Chris Vanocur

Imagine having one of Utah’s national parks all to yourself. Admittedly, it’s a crazy thought. Yet, this is pretty much what happened to me. As I drove around the practically deserted Capitol Reef National Park in mid-February, I kept asking myself, “Where are all the people?” Capitol Reef is one of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion). As I and others have noted before, the “5” may be in danger of becoming too mighty, drawing more and more tourists every year.

But in terms of attendance, Capitol Reef only receives about a million visitors a year. Zion, by comparison, gets four times as many. In other words, when it comes to the Mighty 5, it feels like Capitol Reef gets snubbed a bit. One is tempted to call this “mighty” omission a “slight-y” (I will now show myself out).

Seeking absolution here—I must admit I’ve overlooked Capitol Reef myself. On several Vamoose Utah assignments I’ve driven right by the Reef. Each time, I marveled at its beauty and wondered why I wasn’t stopping and writing about this park instead. The background photo on my computer is even a black and white image of the Capitol Reef area (taken from a scenic turnout as I was once again headed somewhere else). It is one of the best photos I’ve ever taken.

Capitol Reef campsite

At first glance, though, Capitol Reef may not awe you in the same way something like the Grand Canyon does. But visitors can find continual delight in the array of stone colors, the rich history of the Fruita settlement and in deciphering its mysterious petroglyphs. As I drove around the park that cold, late winter morning, I found myself thinking about President Teddy Roosevelt and the naturalist John Muir. I strongly believe these two legendary park proponents would have loved what I was seeing, unspoiled vistas and a paucity of people.

One episode perfectly captured the lack of tourists and cars in the park. I happened to see a cute little deer foraging a few feet from the road. It was just beckoning to have its picture taken. So, I did something that likely would have been unthinkable in another more congested park. I simply stopped my car right in the middle of Utah Highway 24 (which runs through the park). I got out and spent several minutes snapping a few dear pics of the deer and then got back in the car. Now, I certainly don’t advocate stopping in the middle of a national park road to snap wildlife photos. But it was mildly astonishing I could make this photo pit stop and not be disturbed by any other motorists. It also made me realize that on this particular morning, I had seen more deer than people.

In fact, when I was motoring on Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive, I saw only one other car. And I was on that road for an hour! This kind of isolation allowed me to drive as leisurely as I desired. I was able to soak in all the grandeur without ever feeling rushed.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Capitol Reef’s establishment as a national park. Although I am a devout Richard Nixon hater, I will begrudgingly give him some credit for signing the 1971 act that transformed the Reef from a monument into a park. But this anniversary also makes me wonder what the future holds for this sometimes overlooked gem.

Even though Capitol Reef is one of the least visited of the Mighty 5, attendance has been rising the last few years. While locals I talked to wouldn’t mind a few more people coming through, they also don’t want hordes of tourists. It seemed to me they know they have something special on their hands and don’t want to lose its unique isolation.

All of which brings us to a (mildly) heartwarming ending. My visit to Capitol Reef National Park took place on Feb. 13, mere hours before Valentine’s Day. While it was a bit chilly, the timing was perfect. Not only did it feel like I was in my own private national park, but romance also was very much in the air and in the sandstone. As I admiringly toured the Reef, I could feel myself falling deeper and deeper in love. And for a few solitary hours, she was all mine.