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Into the WILLderness - A Guide to the Most Underrated National Park in Utah

The Pendleton Barn, as seen from the Scenic Drive.

Now some of you may not even have heard of this lesser known park situated amongst giants like Arches, Canyonlands, Zion and Bryce Canyon, that usually overshadow this hidden gem. But let me assure you, neighboring Captiol Reef National Park, is not to be missed.

You may also be asking yourself, "Why's it called Capitol Reef? Is this park under water?" And the answer is, at one time, yes. But currently, it is not. This national park actually sits on what's called the Whitepocket Fold. And according to the Capitol Reef National Park website, it gets its namesake ... "capitol for the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes, and reef for the rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like an ocean reef."

Getting there is a pretty easy trek for Coloradans traveling from the city of Denver, as it requires just two turns! All you need to do is take I-70 West for 354 miles, turn south on UT-24 West for 72 miles and you've arrived (a very reasonable 6 and 1/2 hour drive).

A Utah juniper stands triumphantly in front of the Egyptian Temple along the Scenic Drive.

Best FREE Campsite

There are a multitude of options in terms of free campsites just outside the park's boundaries. And if you're coming in from the east (like we were) there are about five or so pull-offs where you can camp just off the main road. We chose this location because of it's proximity to the Fremont River and because it's the first free campsite you come across when coming in from this direction. There are about 20 - 30 campsites to choose from at this particular campground, ranging anywhere from large group sites to smaller tent sites. The best sites are definitely the ones that hug the river. Unfortunately, we got there around 5 pm on a Friday night and the vast majority of the ones along the river were already taken. So we drove a tad further up the road and found an incredibly secluded spot all to ourselves.

We decided to perch our tent behind some trees on a sandy little beach near the river so we could listen to the peaceful sounds of flowing water as we drifted off to sleep. The next available campsite is just a short drive down the main road. And the three to follow are all located off Notom Bullfrog Road. Just make sure you have the coordinates saved in your phone before you get to the turn off, because you pretty much lose service after Hanksville. And the dirt roads can be pretty hard to see, especially when arriving at night.

The view from our campsite looking down the Fremont River at sunset.

Best Hiking Trail

So technically this is two trails in one, but if you connect the two, you really do get the best of both worlds. Starting from the Northeast Trailhead that branches off from the main road (UT-24 W), the Grand Wash is a very easy trail that provides ample shade throughout sandstone carved canyons and magnificent narrows that remind you of just how small you are. This 4.4 out-and-back can be completed by hikers of all skill levels, as we saw our fair share of older couples cruising through this trail with relative ease.

My girlfriend, Kristin, walking through the Narrows of the Grand Wash Trail.

At roughly 2.2 miles you reach the beginning of the Cassidy Arch trail. Upon reaching this intersection we found out that you can actually reach this trailhead by driving down a dirt road from the south side of the park. However, I would highly recommend adding the Grand Wash to your trek, as this was truly the coolest part of our entire hike. The beginning of the Cassidy Arch trail is a grueling/steep trek up multiple switchbacks to reach the top of the mesa, with very little shade to boot. This part of the hike was also the busiest part because of its ease of access from the dirt road down below. We probably saw three to four times as many people on the way up to Cassidy Arch as we did on the entirety of our hike through the Grand Wash. The arch was an incredible sight to see, but there were a plethora of climbers repelling down the canyon walls when we arrived, which made it quite difficult to capture its beauty without getting a climber in your shot. I would suggest doing this hike early in the day to avoid the crowds and the heat.

Pro Tip - If you wanna cool off after your strenuous 7.5 mile hike, there's a little beach directly across the road from the Grand Wash trailhead where you can take a dip in the river and cleanse yourself from your challenging day in the desert.

Best Spot for Sunset

Now a lot of people will tell you that Sunset Point is the obvious choice for sunset, but having enjoyed a sunset from our campsite the night prior, I knew that the evening display of color would be coming from the West as opposed to the East, where Sunset Point overlooks (this is likely due to the fires out West that created a somewhat hazy, but still magnificent sunset).

We were somewhat worried as we hurriedly put together our breakfast tacos (yes, breakfast for dinner) and then scampered on over to Goosenecks Overlook to enjoy our evening meal as we watched the sun light up the night sky. It came as a relief that the vast majority of individuals racing up to the parking lot were headed to Sunset Point and NOT Goosenecks Overlook. We were treated to a fiery sky, lacking the crowds that were all gathered less than a mile away at the opposing overlook.

The sky catches fire over Goosenecks Overlook at sunset.

Best Spot for Sunrise

So this spot isn't actually located in the park, as it's just a short 20 minute drive towards Hanksville. But it is definitely a very unique spot to watch this butte get lit up with color at dawn. It was previously located on federally protected lands, but has since been opened up to OHV use, which is why you'll see lots of tire tracks along your jaunt to where the butte meets the desert floor. If you do decide to make this into a hike, make sure to wear your hiking boots, as the ground here can be very unstable and there's actually quite a few small mud piles that you will need to climb up and over to reach the butte. Don't take this trek lightly either, as we clocked it as close to 2 miles round trip.

But this is the perfect stop on your way out of town to complete a magnificent trip in the Southwest. And next time you're on your way to Utah for some outdoor adventures, don't forget about Capitol Reef and all the fun it has to offer!

Early morning light illuminating the cracked mud of Factory Butte Recreation Area.

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