Thursday, June 2, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - the Rim Overlook

The wide range of trails available to visitors in Capitol Reef National Park includes one of my favorites, the Rim Overlook. While not especially difficult or steep, it does climb steadily over the course of 2.25 miles to reach a viewpoint that towers 1000 feet above the valley floor.

The panorama at the Overlook is nothing short of amazing, with vistas extending out to Boulder Mountain and Thousand Lake Mountain to the west, Miner's Mountain and the Fremont River canyon to the south, and a large section of the Reef with the Henry Mountains looming above the horizon. This lofty perch with an expansive view is definitely worth the effort, and the walk there and back offers a thoroughly enjoyable encounter with the wondrously sculpted landscape.

The first 1/4 mile of the hike was covered in a post detailing the Hickman Bridge Trail. After the junction, the path continues to climb at a moderate grade to the north. It becomes obvious after spending time here that the monocline of the Reef is tilted at a pretty impressive angle, and hiking east to west generally means climbing as the formations lift higher and higher. It is this dramatic angulation that sets the stage for the sheer escarpment of the Rim Overlook.

Not long after the trail splits, a small rock sign points to a distinctive feature found on the opposite side of the canyon - Pectol's Pyramid. Named for Ephraim Pectol, an early supporter of park preservation, the sandstone pinnacle has a decidedly triangular shape from this vantage point, although when from viewed from other angles it appears similar to other Navajo domes in the area.

Continuing in a westerly direction, the trail is routed so that it stays primarily on the slickrock bench as it angles upwards. The Park Service attempts minimize disruption to the fragmented pockets of soil that do exist, most of which are populated with fragile networks of cryptobiotic crusts. This living organism is composed primarily of cyanobacteria and anchors what little topsoil exists in this arid land, preventing wind and water from simply sweeping it away.

Another aspect of the landscape worth mentioning is the ubiquitous black boulders found throughout the region. Reminders of fire and ice, they speak to a time when volcanoes spewed gouts of magma that repeatedly covered the existing environment. Later periods of glaciation scoured the once fiery layer from the surface, smoothing, rounding, and finally depositing the basaltic rock far from the point of origin.

Like a prisoner anticipating imminent release from captivity, this smooth pebble from an ancient stream bed was encapsulated by a lava flow and trapped for millenia. Once nature completes the inevitable process of eroding away the surrounding rock, this stone will be free to resume the journey it began so many millions of years ago.

Along the way the trail encounters a glimpse of Hickman Bridge as seen from above. Although the perspective is not as good as if you had taken the designated trail to view it up close, it is likely to offer more opportunities for solitude as fewer people make the trip to the Overlook.

Following the contours of the land, the trail winds in and out of small side canyons. As it swings into these scenic drainages, the view becomes more intimate with soaring walls of of buff and tan colored sandstone framing the vault of blue sky.

Hiking here is truly a pleasurable experience, especially in spring or fall. While other seasons offer opportunities to explore the area, extreme summer and winter temperatures require more planning and preparation for even casual hikes like this one. In warmer months shade is at a premium, and clouds of gnats can be a major distraction. Winter frequently means snow and ice, although significant accumulations are rare here. Shorter days also lead to less time for enjoying the scenery once you arrive at your destination.

Regardless of when you visit, immersing yourself in the superlative scenery is the biggest attraction.

As I walked along the benches, I began to notice what I thought at first was an especially vivid yellow lichen clinging to the rock.

As the unusual patches began to appear at regular intervals, it finally dawned on me what I was observing was a man-made affectation. Apparently well intentioned Park Service employees thought to blaze the trail with a more substantiative marker than simple rock cairns, and used yellow paint to show the way. Personally I prefer cairns, or better yet let people actually use a map and intuitive reasoning to follow the obvious path.

Steady progress eventually leads to the Overlook, marked with a weathered wooden sign.

Reaching this point, the hiker can make a decision to continue on another 2 miles to the Navajo Knobs. I have not made this journey myself, but other accounts indicate that views are even better from the vantage point of the Knobs, being located slightly higher and farther west than the Rim Overlook. Someday I'll make the trip and add that to my travels.

Approaching the edge, the earth drops away suddenly and completely to reveal the valley below. Looking around, the dramatic upwarp of the monocline is visible in every direction.

Creeping as close to the precipice as I dare unveils the sheer face of the rock below me - 800 feet to the talus slope at the base of the cliff. This is not the place for those with vertigo or a fear of heights.

Some places invite reflection, and the Rim Overlook certainly falls into that category. Although getting here was not particularly difficult, the effort was enough to make it worthwhile to just sit awhile and take in the encompassing view. Once you have surveyed the outward horizon, you can look eastward towards Longleaf Flat, an unusual (for Capitol Reef) hanging valley, one of the few relatively level places found in this region of upheaval.

After spending much of the afternoon in a combination of thoughtful contemplation and exploring along the rim, it's time to head back down. The visit here was very satisfying in every way, and I still have the awesome beauty of the Reef before me as I head east to the trailhead. The way I see it I've gotten an amazing return on my investment for the day.


  1. Thanks for the detailed review of this trail. I'm going in two weeks and this trail looks like a must do.

  2. It's well worth going on to navajo knobs, which is another two or three miles up the trail.