With the COVID battle still rumbling across the country, we extended our streak of national park visits for fall break this year on another driving tour through Utah and Colorado. We started the trip in Capitol Reef, the only remaining park of the Utah “mighty 5” that we hadn’t yet visited. It’s fair to say it isn’t for everyone, but it definitely has some unique character.

Days 1 & 2: Capitol Reef

We did a quick pass through the northern part of the park on our drive out to Utah. Our first stop was at Sunset Point on the western edge of the park, right around – you guessed it – sunset. This of course drew a relatively large crowd of on-lookers. We didn’t get to witness a fabulous sunset, but the scenery did light up in some nice red tones. We also visited the nearby “Goosenecks Overlook”, where there are some dramatic bends in the Fremont River.

The next day, we were back for some deeper exploration with some hikes through the park. Our first adventure was to hike the length of the “Great Wash”, which is a dry river bed winding through a fairly narrow canyon. It was about 4.5 miles out and back, but was an easy flat hike. We followed that up with a hike to the Hickman Natural Bridge, a sandstone arch reminiscent of those in Arches national park. Then it was time for a quick jaunt over to Moab, where we spent the next few nights probing deeper into the two local parks we had visited a couple of years ago.

Day 3: Canyonlands

Monday we went into the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Incredibly, for a Monday in the middle of October, we had to wait in line for an hour at the ranger station to get into the park. The ranger told us they were expecting this to be the busiest October on record!

Luckily, we made it in and headed for some less crowded areas of the park since we had already seen the “headliners” on our previous trip. The first order of business was a picnic lunch. We chose to hike the Aztec Butte trail, where we found an awesome shady spot in an alcove near some Puebloan granaries with fantastic views out over the canyon. We continued up the trail to a steep climb up the Aztec Butte itself. Alex declared it his favorite hike ever, primarily because it involved scrambling up several steep sections of slick rock. Alex loves bouldering, and his version of “rock climbing”, so this fit perfectly.

That left us with just enough time to attempt the Neck Spring trail, which drops a few hundred feet into the north side of the canyon and follows the canyon wall to what were supposed to be a couple of springs and an old cowboy camp. The springs have apparently dried up, but the hike was still an excellent way to get deeper into this park. We’re starting to appreciate it more and more.

Days 4 & 5: Corona Arch and Arches National Park

Once again, we directly experienced just how busy this area is during October, and apparently especially so during a COVID October. On Tuesday morning, we thought we would go to Arches. When we arrived at 9:30, the park was already full, and the rangers were turning traffic away at the entrance. The only guidance was “try again in 3 hours”.

We decided to try the Corona Arch hike. Hey, it’s 2020 – the year of COVID. What could be more fitting then a hike to the Corona Arch? Luckily, the real crowds hadn’t yet tumbled to that option. We were able to find parking and made the 1.7 mile hike up the hill, including scrambling up slickrock with cables and ladders. The arch was well worth the hike. It’s a beautiful scene, and hard to believe it isn’t part of the national parks.

It was a little after noon when we got back to the car. We went to try Arches. Again, no dice. This time, the entrance road was full of cars pulled over to wait for the park to open. Discouraged, but not giving up, we went back into town to have a picnic lunch at the park, and ran to the grocery to load up on supplies for the next day. We tried Arches one more time at about 3:00, and were finally allowed to enter!

We headed to the far end of the park to hike through the Devil’s Garden – an area we did not get to explore on our first trip here two years ago. The trail was busy, but manageable. We hiked past numerous arches, as far back as the “Double O” Arch before turning back toward the trailhead near twilight. This trail was a lot of fun, requiring scrambling up gaps between rock walls and hiking along the narrow spine of one of the ridges. The scenery was truly stunning as the sun set. On the way out of the park, we hung out near Balanced Rock to see if we could see the Milky Way.

To make sure we didn’t get shut out again on Wednesday, we woke up early and pushed the boys out of the hotel before 7:30. Bingo! We did a morning hike along “Park Avenue”, then headed over to the “Windows” section of the park, where the boys scrambled up to the Double Arch, South Window, and Turret Arch. Then we drove along the Salt Valley Road to the Tower Arch trail, a 3.5 mile out-and-back with lots of up and downs, including some grueling sections hiking up soft sand trails. As they say, it was worth the effort. (52-90)

That wrapped up the Utah portion of our trip. We headed back on the highway to Montrose, CO to set up the next portion. Tune in this weekend to read about our visits to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes.

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