Our next waypoint at Capitol Reef brought us back into civilization. Many people go to National Parks to escape “civilization “ and find “wilderness” but as we would learn, these parks in the lower 48 seemed to bring about the opposite, offering a sterilized museum like version of a natural ecosystem. Look, but don’t touch. Follow these paved roads and trails. Check out our signs galore. Stay for the bureaucracy and the power trip that goes with it. And don’t forget the rules! Oh so many rules. “Only camp in designated campgrounds “ “stay on the trails” “No selfies permitted at any point.”* Who’s lands are these anyways?
Capitol Reef is odd as far as parks go, mainly due to its elongated shape. The park is many times longer than it is wide, with the width ranging from roughly 5 to 10 miles along the 100 or so miles. The park was established to protect the area called “the water pocket fold,” a section of rock that sharply uplifted many years ago, creating domes and peaks that stand high above the surrounding landscape.
We found a spot just outside the west boundary of the park in Dixie National Forest and set up camp for our stay. More of the same was the plan. Wake, hike and hang out around camp. I woke early the next morning and climbed the hill behind camp with Taiga, catching the sunrise. After Alana and ‘Din had awakened, we moseyed back into the park and went up the Navajo Knobs trail. The length (~10 mi) and elevation gain (~1500 ft) assured us that we would have the trail to ourselves and that proved to be the case for the bulk of it, passing no one until our return. Big views of much of the park and beyond thrilled us. ‘Din remained nonplused, sleeping for the duration of the walk.
Thereafter, we quickly established that the area wasn’t our type of place. We were planning to hang around for 4 days, but there didn’t seem to be much that really interested us. Lots of short trails along with too many rules, services and crowds for our liking. I did some quick research and came up with an alternative plan. We’d leave early and make our way out to Hole in the Rock and hang around Grand Staircase Escalante (GSE) instead.
Before leaving, we drove out the Notom Road, planning to hike Upper Muley Twist Canyon, but instead walking up Surprise Canyon. It was too bad we didn’t know about this area earlier! Far from the main drag, this area was devoid of people and the handrails that encompass the park’s core. A sense of wildness returned among the big and diverse landscape. We enjoyed our hike and we’re left wanting to explore more, leaving us to muse that if we were to do this style of trip again, we’d opt for spending a week out in this section of the park.
With the change in schedule, we tried to pack in all the hiking we could, planning on hiking on the days to and from our 2 night stay in GSE. The change in plans was fruitful and the section ended up being perhaps the favorite of the trip to date. We did 3 hikes, each unique in their own way and offering an unexpected diversity. Lower Calf Creek trail took us through a biome within a biome. We walked through a canyon wetland, full of ponds, reeds, fish and ducks (!), that culminated in a large waterfall. Golden Cathedral brought us down into a more remote area, across theEacalante River and into beautiful Neon Canyon. The Peek a boo and Spooky canyon loop was icing on the cake, taking us through slot canyons that forced us to travel sideways, passing ‘Din and backpacks along and leaving Taiga absolutely terrified. We camped by ourselves off of Egypt Road, enjoying a tremendous silence that was only interrupted by the occasional howl of coyotes. Yet again, we mused that the next trip we would spend at least a week in this area.
Passing others on the trail with ‘Din brought about a whole slew of reactions. Some said we were “brave,” others thought it was “awesome” and others said, “bless your heart”(aka you people are insane). It almost always seemed to provoke some kind of reaction, either within the group or some comment to us. People seem to treat you a lot better when you have a baby with you. So far we have had many positive interactions just from carrying her around.
Trail interactions also sparked a game of “guess where they are from.” The game was easier than it sounds, as there were only 2 possible answers. California and everywhere else. We so far have almost a 100% hit rate with establishing that someone is from California without any real information. The sleuthing process is fairly simple. All we do is greet those on the trail in passing as is custom. If they respond, they are from everywhere else. Dead and empty stare with no response? Ding, ding, ding! Californian!** We are unsure the reason, other than the fact California is overpopulated and people in areas like LA usually operate as if strangers don’t exist.
Continuing south, we carried on past the red spires of Bryce Canyon to our next stop at Zion N.P. We had high hopes, after hearing many describe it as utopia or the best place on earth. The ecosystem was definitely different than where we had been traveling, with large rocks and ponderosa pines, without much understory. There was also something else that was very different, off putting and overwhelming, present for the next 45 minutes as we snaked our way through the 12 miles of park road. The hordes of people. Every single pullout and road was jam packed with cars. People walked along the side of the road, some walked obliviously into the road. We found ourselves slowed to a crawl, counting California license plates amongst the oncoming traffic. I stopped keeping track after reaching 15 CA plates out of 18 in a 2 minute stretch.
We emerged from the park and pulled over, trying to process what we saw. It reminded me of another place purported to be the “best place on earth.” Disney World. Here, “Nature” was the amusement park and the rangers were glorified logistic coordinators, directing traffic and people throughout the complex. It was all the things that Ed Abbey had feared in Desert Solitaire, come to fruition. An ecosystem and its character seemingly destroyed by the abundance of cars and people. “Something, something, paved paradise.” I’m sure there is some nice scenery within the park, but that is just only one reason why we go to such places. Neither of us had any desire to return.
We camped further west, outside the park and set about trying to scheme what we could do instead. Perhaps a return to GSE? Glen Canyon? We opted to continue to our other locations as planned, with the intention of lengthening our stay at each. We left town in the morning, restocked in Saint George and stopped to visit my friend Jes in Kanab before continuing on south into Northern Arizona.
I am writing this a few hundred yards away from the rim of the Grand Canyon. From our tent, we can hear the rumbling of the river thousands of feet below. The Vermillion Cliffs stick out in the night sky to the north and the darkness of the Navajo Reservation on the other side of the river neighbors us to the south. We are in blissful solation once more, with solely the expanse of the desert and the seemingly endless starry sky as company. It seems some of the best spots remain relatively undisturbed.
*Ok, the last one I made up. Of course that is now the main purpose of such places.
**We are able to confirm later usually via trail register or license plate.
-Some very blue songbird
(I need a southwest desert ID book)