Thursday, June 16, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - The Golden Throne

Beginning with posts covering Hickman Bridge, Cassidy Arch, Chimney Rock, and several other "front country" attractions in Capitol Reef National Park, I've attempted to showcase outstanding natural features that constitute highlights for visitors with a day or more to spend exploring. Some of these like Chimney Rock and Hickman Bridge are easier to access than others, but all require a willingness and ability to tackle terrain that encompass varying degrees of difficulty.

Among the choices often recommended by Park staff for those willing to sweat a little is the Golden Throne, a large dome of Navajo sandstone capped by remnants of the Carmel formation. This overlying layer has stained the normally white/cream colored rock below with a yellowish cast, and the result is a striking monolith that has become a photographic icon. When bathed in lambent golden rays of late afternoon the tower truly does look like a massive temple or monument.

The trailhead is reached by traveling the Scenic Drive to the Capitol Gorge turnoff. As mentioned in a previous post, the Scenic Drive is one option for sightseeing when time is short as it provides at least a glimpse of the rugged topography of the Waterpocket Fold from the comfort of a vehicle.

Leaving the pavement at the turnoff, the road heads east into Capitol Gorge. Like Grand Wash road also found along the Scenic Drive, this route penetrates the Reef via a canyon carved through the monocline. This means two things: First, sheer canyon walls rise steeply above as the road winds a serpentine path through the wash bottom. Second it makes this one of those places where you don't want to be if heavy rain is threatening, as flash flooding can occur without warning.

Capitol Gorge is a very interesting place in and of itself, with a long history of use by early settlers. Before Highway 24 was completed, the canyon served as the main route through the Fold, and it contains a couple of landmarks worth visiting - the Pioneer Register and the Tanks. Visiting these sites are an option for people who want to learn more about the area without a lot of exertion, and I'll present more information about them in the future.

Getting to the Golden Throne is straightforward. The dirt road ends at a parking area, and here hikers can elect either the climb to the Throne, or the walk down canyon to the Register and Tanks. The trail to the Golden Throne is 4 miles round-trip, and immediately begins its 800 feet ascent at the start. Like most Capitol Reef hikes to lofty places, the path uses the contour of a particular formation and follows it as it rises higher and higher to the west.

The trail wends its way in and out of smaller side canyons and drainages as it climbs, frequently changing viewpoints to encompass many different scenes. At one point the hiker may be looking straight up at nearly smooth vertical walls, and then reversing direction to a promontory with sweeping vistas of domes and pinnacles beneath a soaring vault of sky. This kind of variety keeps the eye wandering and the mind entranced.

There is an oft quoted expression that it's the journey that matters more than the destination. I happen to believe that in some cases, both aspects of a trip have meaning. Walking through the splendor of amazing environments sculpted from naked rock presents so many opportunities to stop and examine some geological oddity or to revel in breathtaking landscapes. With so much to appreciate it is easy to forget that the endpoint is the reason for the outing.

Making steady progress the route climbs along the northern edge of Capitol Gorge. At intervals along the way the road appears below, getting smaller and smaller as the trail continues to the west.

As the elevation increases it becomes possible to view the mouth of the canyon, a tiny ribbon of road below, and the bulk of Miner's Mountain ahead - all signs that you're nearly there.

Sure enough, the first good views of the Golden Throne appears high on the right accompanied by a sign telling you the trail has ended.

When I first hiked this trail, I was somewhat disappointed that I could not get any nearer to the base of the Golden Throne. After thinking about however I realized that a vantage point directly below the dome would spoil the perspective, and if I really wanted to get up close and personal, some scrambling and off-route travel would be easy enough. I suppose I'll try it some other time.

From here it is plain to see how the cap of Carmel silt and mudstone has stained the rock in shades of red and yellow ochre. This distinctive coloring is only part of what makes the Golden Throne stand apart from the myriad forms found in abundance here. The graceful turret shaped dome of smooth sandstone is a reminder of natures' skill at shaping stone, and an inspiration to the imagination.

Even though it requires some effort to get here, it won't seem like too much trouble, especially if you take time to immerse yourself in the surroundings. If you are anything like me, it's all too easy to lose track of the hours when all you see around you invokes a sense of awe and wonder. Believe me, it's not a bad way to live a life.


  1. HI,
    We would like to do the Golden Throne hike and the Freemont Gorge Overlook hike in Capitol Reef NP., June 2016.
    Do we have to be concerned about mountain lions or bears on these two trails?

    1. Gene,
      Although mountain lions are part of the natural fauna in the region the chance of actually encountering one is quite small. They are primarily nocturnal creatures with a healthy fear of humans. I have spend the majority of my adult life exploring remote outdoor areas and I have yet to have the pleasure of seeing one of these magnificent creatures - although I'm pretty sure they have seen me!

      Bears are even less common in this relatively arid region. They typically prefer a habitat with more vegetation and water, something not found in abundance here. In June your more likely to be eaten alive by Cedar Gnats - good luck.