Capitol Reef NP and the Swell, Late Winter ’09 – By Greg G

Feb 27-28th, 2009

I’ve been itching to get out of Colorado and go somewhere I’ve never been before, the last couple weeks have given me a serious case of wanderlust and the warming weather wasn’t helping any. My wife Catherine decided to take a couple of ‘mental health’ vacation days (she teaches Jr. High, very understandable) at the end of the week, so we put together a quick plan, threw our camping gear into the wife’s recently-acquired Toyota 4Runner and hit the road heading West. Our destination was Capitol Reef National Park and the surrounding area. We took I-70 past Green River, then turned South towards Hanksville on Hwy 24 with the Henry Mountains in the distance.

From Hanksville we turned West again then just before entering Capitol Reef we turned South down Notom Road. We drove quite a ways, paralleling the National Park. Eventually we found a road headed towards Oak Creek Canyon that turned towards the park and looked like it might offer a good place to setup camp. We found our way to a secluded wash right on the border of Capitol Reef NP. We quickly setup a fire pit, the tent & bedding and started on dinner. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like cooking over an open flame. Food just tastes so much better eaten outdoors too! Catherine has a bratwurst and I had a chicken shish kabob .

We climbed into bed pretty early, but it got dark & cold fast and we were tired. The temps probably fell to the mid-20’s overnight I’d guess, water bottles in the tent froze up. We were fortunate to have a heater in the tent, a big 2 person winter sleeping bag and a couple of blankets. It was pretty decent actually! Getting off the cold ground is the key to staying warm in the winter and the roof top tent helps a ton. The only downfall to the RTT is getting up to take a leak at 3 AM, that’s not fun. TMI, huh?

During the night I heard coyotes off in the distance making their calls. The stars were amazingly bright, seemed like someone turned up the dimmer 500%. The morning came quickly and the day looked to be very promising. We made a great breakfast of sausage and biscuits and packed up camp.

The road we were exploring had seen quite a bit of water previously, creating some pretty fun obstacles to try out the 4Runner’s 4×4 system on. I was able to test the Toyota ATRAC traction control system out, it worked quite well, getting us thru a spot where a vehicle w/o ATRAC and with opened diffs probably wouldn’t have made it on the first try. The Downhill Assist was interesting too… difficult to get used to, but it works well enough. We explored the area around our campsite, then decided to head to Torrey UT for gas.

After on the way to Torrey to get fuel we drive thru Capitol Reef NP and stopped at several of the historical sites. The first one we came upon was the Behunin Cabin. In 1882 Elijah Behunin settled this area with his family along the Fremont river. Eventually his family consisted of 10 kids, living in what was probably a 8’x12′ cabin. Since the whole family couldn’t fit inside to sleep the parents stayed in the cabin with the 2 youngest kids, the girls slept in an old wagon box and the boys slept in a dugout in the rock wall.

Further down the canyon was the town of Fruita, UT. Not Fruita, CO. Fruita was settled by several Mormon families in the late 1800’s. They planted orchards and farmed the land in the fertile valley.

Down the walls of the canyon were dozens of petroglyphs from the Fremont people. Some of them are hard to see, but if you look hard you will see the figures. Along with the petroglyphs were ancient irrigation ditches, also from the Fremont culture.

We came across the Fruita school, which had been restored and was setup like it was originally built by the Mormon settlers. The school kids were only taught during the Winter months, spending Spring, Summer and Fall working in the orchards and fields.

There were also several old wagons rotting away in orchards & fields. We thought they were pretty cool. The deer in the area were quite tame, not too jumpy when a car pulled up.

We ran to Torrey, filled the tank and then drove back into the National Park. On the way back in we hiked to the Waterpocket Fold overlook and one of the deeper canyons in the area. We also marveled at the way weather & erosion has formed the land in that part of the country. Some of the sights were mind-blowing.

Our next destination was down the scenic byway that runs North-South down the park. The road was paved, but narrow with plenty of hills and curves. We took our time, stopping at places that seemed interesting. Eventually the road turned to gravel and dropped into an amazing canyon called Capitol Gorge.

At the end of the canyon was a parking area and a hiking trailhead to check out the pioneer register that was a ways down the canyon. There were a handful of signatures from as early as 1883.

After coming back out of the canyon, we found the paved road and turned North, heading towards home. On the way out we stopped at Grand Wash and took the short drive to where the road stopped. Too pooped to hike, we took a couple pics of the area and some uranium mines. Read the panel about the uranium mines… scary!! They were mixing the uranium and giving it to people to drink with water in order to cure certain ailments!

By now it was after 3 PM and we were thinking about a shower and a warm place to sleep for the night. We headed towards home, but decided that rather than take the same old pavement all the way back, we’d be more adventurous and choose a route that offered dirt roads and as much topographical changes that we could see. Consulting the map, Catherine pointed out a route that started in Cainville and came out near Goblin Valley. We’ve both hiked Little Wild Horse Canyon and explored Goblin Valley and liked the idea that we would be running parallel to the San Rafael Swell, so we turned off at Cainville Wash Road and started driving North/North-East. This was probably some of the most driving fun I had on this trip… hell, this was the most fun I’ve had driving offroad in a long time. It was the type of desert driving I think everyone wants to try. We were in sandy washes, popping in and out of a dried up riverbed, running alongside massive cliffs.

After about 5 miles of the fun sandy washes, the terrain changed… it was quickly very odd, almost outer worldly. There was no plant life, the dirt was very, very soft and the color of the dirt was a strange grey color. It felt like we were on the Moon, such a strange landscape. The terrain was rolling all over the place and we climbed thru the wash, then up and down these weird hills. We stopped at one point and walked around on the dirt. With every step I’d sink in 2-3″… our dog left tracks that looked like they belonged to a Lion. It was so weird!! I would NOT want to be out here during a downpour, I’m sure the ground would turn to a nasty, slippery mud. It would be easy to get stuck or slide off the road out here in those conditions.

We continued on, amazed at the lay of the land around us. After several miles the area started to look ‘normal’ again. The road went on forever, we kept consulting the GPS and map, then referencing the land around us. About 1/2 way thru the drive the Swell appeared on our left and we started to see familiar places, like Factory Butte.

The road opened up into another big valley and we worked our way towards the ford for the Muddy River, with the Swell on our West side.

The Muddy River wasn’t too muddy or challenging, but you could see how high up debris had been left during previous floods. Lets just say our windshield would have been buried.

Shortly after the river ford, we came across an old homestead. The rock chimney was an impressive piece of work… too bad they didn’t use rock for the rest of the home! There was also a corral that someone seems to have been using.

After many more miles of driving and amazing sights we finally started to see the Little Wild Horse canyon area. This meant pavement was less than 10 miles away.

In the end the distance from our turnoff in Cainville back to the pavement by Goblin Valley was 40 miles of amazing dirt roads. We hit pavement right at dusk and were happy to do so. I’m already excited to drive that stretch again, it’s an amazing area.

It was a great trip, fun to see something totally new and have an unknown adventure every step of the way. We were really just pointing at the map and saying, ‘lets go that way!’ I cannot wait to get back to that area, Catherine and I are talking about exploring the Burr Road and more of that area over Spring Break. We’ll see what happens. Sorry for all the pics and drawn out report, just excited to share the experience.

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