Thursday, July 7, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Fremont River Gorge

I spend much of my free time exploring remote backcountry areas in an effort to find the solitude required to really appreciate natures handiwork. I seldom camp in campgrounds, but one exception I am glad to make is at Capitol Reef National Park. The reasons are simple - the campground itself is located in a beautiful grove of mature trees with magnificent walls of rock framing the horizon, and it is centrally located to many of the Parks features, including a couple of hiking trails. Those trails provide a necessary escape from the clamor of humanity, allowing one to find peace among the majestic scenery of the Waterpocket Fold.

One of those trails is the Fremont River trail, a moderately easy 2.2 mile round trip path which follows the river for a short distance before climbing nearly 500 feet for great views of the surrounding area.

The Fremont River cleaves across the Reef from west to east, and provides the conduit for Highway 24 through the Park. West of the park the river has cut a deep canyon through Miner's Mountain, and it is along this gorge that the River trail finds its way.

The River trail is found skirting the boundaries of the campground on the west side, and it can take you in another direction as well - heading north/northwest, it leads to the Blacksmith Shop and the Visitor Center, both of which are very interesting and worthwhile destinations. In this case on intersecting the trail, we head (left) south.

As rivers go, the Fremont is typically shallow and not very wide, but that can change in the spring with snowmelt or in late summer with thunderstorms that sometimes drop heavy rain. The water here supports many plants and animals in an otherwise arid environment, and in places the banks are choked with willows and reeds, obscuring the river.

The early settlers chose this place for their home primarily because of the river and the milder climate which allowed for a longer growing season. The favorable conditions here allowed the pioneers to establish orchards all along the river, many of which still exist today. The Park Service maintains these groves as a legacy to pioneer history, and visitors are allowed to pick fruit in season for a modest fee.

The trees add greatly to the aesthetic appeal of the area, especially in spring when blossoms appears in the thousands, delicately scenting the desert air with heavenly fragrance.

The path here is level, easy walking, making this an ideal late afternoon or after dinner stroll. Large Fremont Cottonwoods dot the bank, their serrated leaves rustling gently in the slightest breeze.

The trail stays alongside the river at first, heading generally westward. Lush pastures to the south play host to horses, another nod to the working life of the first families here.

Angling away from the river slightly as it heads for higher ground, the lush riparian community along the water is soon replaced by desert plants like sage and rabbitbrush.

The trail approaches the base of Miners Mountain, where it follows the contours of the muddy brown Moenkopi formation on a moderately steep grade. This section could be exceptionally slick during wet weather, so be advised to avoid it if rain is threatening.

Climbing quickly along the cliff, views emerge upstream of the Fremont River in the canyon below.

The northern horizon appears, revealing sheer Wingate cliffs looming over the valley.

Another shallow drainage enters the river canyon from the south, forcing the trail to make an abrupt turn inwards. This vantage point provides a last look at the river canyon.

Climbing more moderately now, the trail continues south to a ridge overlooking the Waterpocket Fold. At the end of the line you'll find some comfortable rocks on which to relax and take in the panorama. This is an excellent spot for late afternoon/early evening photography.

Though this hike is not difficult, it does require some effort on the climb up for the best views. Best of all, finding the trail is as simple as heading out the door of your RV or tent and walking towards the river. Once there, all you have to do next is decide whether an easy walk or a slightly more strenuous outing is desired. Either way you've made the right choice.

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