Capitol Reef National Park’s iconic Hickman Bridge (a sandstone arch) framed by the Milky Way.

Image: Zolt Levay

The sky contrasts electric blue against the red rock walls all around us. My kids splash and run ahead as we near the last drop. I shuffle my way through the creek to the edge. After a pause, I plug my nose and jump into the bubbling water below.

Hiking the über-picturesque Sulphur Creek Trail is just one of the many things to do in Capitol Reef National Park and its charming gateway town, Torrey. There, in place of the traffic jams and oppressive summer heat typical of southern Utah’s other national parks and gateway towns, you’ll find dozens of serene hiking trails, ample dining options, and one of the lower 48’s best views of the night sky.

Hoofing It

Hike the Sulphur Creek Trail via shuttle: leave one car at the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center (10 miles east of Torrey along State Highway 24); drive a second vehicle 5 miles east to the Chimney Rock trailhead. The trail, which begins across the road from Chimney Rock, runs south along  a dry river bed for the first mile. When you reach the water, head left. The remainder of the route stretches 4 miles through the active creek. You’ll know you’re close to the end when you come to a five-foot waterfall cascading into a large pool of water with a single tree clinging to the edge. The water there is usually deep enough to swim in, but please check the depth before leaping. About a mile beyond is the Visitor Center. 

If you’re looking for something a bit more heart-pumping with fantastic views and access to the higher reaches of Capitol Reef’s defining Waterpocket Fold, check out the Golden Throne Trail. To get there, follow the park’s Scenic Byway from the Visitor Center for 9.5 miles to Capitol Gorge Road. The trailhead is located about 2 miles from the pavement at the end of this winding, stunningly scenic dirt roadway. The out-and-back trail meanders in and out of side canyons, always climbing, for 2 miles. At the top, enjoy sweeping views of the Golden Throne, Boulder Mountain, and the snowcapped Henry Mountains.

If your crew includes small children or older adults, the park’s most popular hike, Hickman Bridge (Joe Hickman helped establish this park in 1937) offers easy access to an impressive 133-foot rock arch. The well-marked trailhead is 2 miles east of the Visitor Center along Highway 24. Cross the bridge over the Fremont River and walk for a mile along its banks and into a small canyon to the arch. Be sure to pack a lunch, as there are plenty of places under the bridge to enjoy a picnic before turning back.

For many more options, visit nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/brochures.htm, or check out Capitol Reef National Park or Beyond Capitol Reef, both by Lynne and Rick Stinchfield.

On the Dark Side

In 2015 Capitol Reef National Park became one of the world’s 65 Dark Sky Parks, which, as sanctioned by the International Dark-Sky Association, is an area “possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.” Protecting the night sky is also vital to human and animal health. According to the IDA, nighttime exposure to artificial light inhibits the human body’s ability to produce melatonin, which, in turn, increases risk for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer, and more.

But it wasn’t her health that spurred Torrey resident Mary Bedingfieldsmith to get her town designated as the state’s first International Dark Sky Community in 2018; it was a light on the Town Hall. “It’s two blocks from our house and yet the light it emitted was so bright that, when we stood in its illumination path, it would cast shadows behind our bodies,” she says. In a partnership with the Torrey-based Entrada Institute (entradainstitute.org), Bedingfieldsmith raised money to replace the town’s high-pressure sodium streetlights with dark-sky-friendly, downward-directed LED lights and got the Torrey Town Council to implement an outdoor lighting ordinance. But what Bedingfieldsmith and others hope Torrey’s night-sky designation will ultimately accomplish is inviting people to turn their heads up and look into the cosmos. “In Torrey,” says part-time local resident Mark Bailey, “the skies are so clear, you can see the next galaxy over, Andromeda—which is more than 2 million light-years away—with the naked eye.”

Margaritas served up at Café Diablo.

Stay and Eat

The 71-site Fruita Campground (open March 1 to October 31, recreation.gov) is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef, located in the park’s charming and shady Fruita Historic District. Two free, primitive campgrounds—Cathedral Valley (36 miles from the Visitor Center) and Cedar Mesa (23 miles south of Highway 24 on Notom-Bullfrog Road)—are located in more remote sections of the park.

If you’re looking for solitude that’s a little less rugged, head just outside of Torrey to sleepy Teasdale, where you’ll find the Pine Shadows Cabins (pineshadowcabins.net). The accommodations there are basic but economical (starting at $109/night), clean, and include kitchens. The Cougar Ridge Lodge (cougarridgelodge.com, casitas starting at $390/night) offers the highest-end lodging in Torrey. Luxury-level two-bedroom casitas sleep up to seven people.

Get your caffeine fix at the Castle Rock Coffee & Candy (junction of Highways 12 and 24, Torrey). Grab banana bread, a chicken salad sandwich, groceries, and other provisions at the Chuck Wagon General Store, Bakery & Deli (12 W Main St, Torrey). Slurp a post-hike Oreo cookie shake (you earned it!) at Slacker’s Burger Joint (165 E Main St, Torrey). For dinner, sample the Utah trout, ribs, or house-made smoked turkey molé at the casual but still upscale Rim Rock Restaurant (2523 Hwy 24 E, Torrey). For tasty margaritas and super-creative Southwestern-inspired dishes like lamb shank tempranillo and rattlesnake cakes, make dinner reservations at Café Diablo (599 W Main St).  

Image: Sage Bennett

Torrey/Capitol Reef Events Calendar

Ongoing, Saturdays, 4–6 p.m.
Wayne County Farmers Market
At the corner of Center and Main streets in Torrey
facebook.com/waynecountyfarmersmarket

June 21–23
Torrey Chamber Music Festival
torreychambermusic.com

June 28–30
The Litas Black Top Ramble
A women’s motorcycle rally
thelitas.co

July 4–6
Torrey Apple Days
A hometown July 4th celebration
torreyutah.gov

July 26–27
Bicknell International
Film Festival
thebiff.org

September 27–28
Heritage Starfest
Celebrating the night sky over Capitol Reef and Torrey
entradainstitute.org

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