Capitol Reef National Park

How does one compare a national park on the Pacific Coast with a national park in the Great Plains? A park full of total shade created by Giant Sequoias with a park full of sunshine interspersed with Joshua Trees? It’s an impossible exercise to rank the national parks of the United States of America in any objective way! It’s highly subjective, tied in with personal experience (which is why Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park will always be near the top of my list — because they’re wrapped up in all kinds of meaningful memories of time alone, time with friends, time with family). Even so, I find myself regularly thinking about the National Parks in these terms. Especially in summers like this one, where I’m making a point to visit so many within a relatively short time period.

This inclination to rate and rank the U.S. National Parks is further complicated by the fact that I’ve realistically only experienced perhaps one percent of each park (with the CVNP and RMNP being notable exceptions). They’re just so massive, with so many different trails. And they’re so spread out across the country that I usually only get the chance to do a trail or two, with some driving to connect the dots.

Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park, however, provide an interesting exception to the exquisite diversity of the National Park system. They’re only 2.5 hours apart from each other, by car, and they both feature a lot of the same colors, canyons, and climates. After our hike of (heat) exhaustion in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, my brother and I decided to drive out to Capitol Reef with the goal of doing a smaller, slower hike with more time and space for contemplation and creativity.

Considering Capitol Reef’s location in the middle of an unpopulated area in central Utah, the Visitors Center and the parking lots around it were surprisingly full. People speaking French and German in the gift shop, families eating picnic lunches, a tour bus pulling up shortly after we arrived. Still, we were able to find a three-mile out-and-back hike through Cohab Canyon that didn’t feel too overcrowded. I took along (and made a point to drink) four liters of water, so I could reduce my risk of heat exhaustion. And indeed, the hiking itself was very manageable.

We hiked until we found something that Jay might be interested in painting. And once we figured out our spot, we settled in for the next three hours. Jay painted using oil paints (which I gather is a more nuanced, time-intensive medium), and I did some journaling and reading while sitting in the shade of a big rock.

It was a lovely afternoon in Capitol Reef National Park. But in all honesty, I’m going to go ahead and rank Capitol Reef National Park below Canyonlands National Park. It’s significantly smaller, in a less accessible location — yet somehow more populated with tourists (on the day we visited, at any rate) — and the scenery between the two parks is so similar that the other, more logistical, factors rule the day.

I’m still glad we got the opportunity to visit Capitol Reef — adding another sticker to my journal and another medallion to my hiking stick. But I’m not sure that I’ll ever go back again. Except for when I get a glimpse of the pictures that I took or the piece that Jay painted in Cohab Canyon.

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