Posted by: kerryl29 | October 11, 2021

The Desert Southwest: Capitol Reef National Park

Prior to this trip I’d visited Capitol Reef National Park once –for a few days in the late summer of 1998, as part of a two-week trip spent hiking in the south Utah national parks. (It was that trip that led me to jump start the process of getting serious about photography.) My distant memories of what the park was like were utterly obliterated by the reality that surrounded me.

Jason and I needed some time to recover from six consecutive nights of camping and, as the sunrise forecast was for clear skies, we “slept in,” and didn’t get up and out until an hour or two after the sun came up. The sky was, in fact, completely clear. A good chunk of this day would be spent, again, scouting, but we spent most of the rest of the morning–until we lost the light entirely–photographing in Capitol Wash.

Located inside of Capitol Gorge–which contains an unimproved road that runs 2.3 miles from the park’s Scenic Drive to the Capitol Gorge Trailhead–Capitol Wash is an almost always dry creek bed deep within the towering red rock canyon walls of the gorge. It is an excellent place to capture reflected canyon light, the quality of which really must be seen to be truly appreciated. (It was the kind of thing we frequently observed during our foray into Coyote Gulch, a couple of day’s earlier.) Despite the dry desert conditions, a good deal of vegetation can be found in the wash and the combination of reflected light on the rocky walls, intricate abstract patterns, boulders and isolated growth captured our attention.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In a dilemma similar to the one I encountered at White Pocket, I found myself thinking about rendering a scene in black and white to better reveal the lines, shapes, contours and textures of the elements encountered in Capitol Wash, despite the routine presence of stimulating colors.

Capitol Wash Black & White, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Ironically, in fact, it was the very presence of vibrant color that often led to the decision to render in monochrome; the color could, at times, completely overwhelm the other elements of the scene.

Capitol Wash Black & White, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

But just as often, the impact of the reflected light was simply too impressive not to be revealed in color.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

And, occasionally, I made the decision to go with color even for abstract images. In the end, the rendering decision was very much a simple matter of personal preference.

Capitol Wash Abstract, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

And sometimes I simply punted on making any decision at all and processed the image in both color and black and white.

Capitol Wash Abstract Black & White, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

We drove the length of the Capitol Gorge Road, following it all the way to the trailhead, and back, and got out frequently to investigate a compelling scene. We spent several hours in the wash; even after direct sunlight began to encroach on some spots, abrupt turns in the canyon walls left areas in open shade a bit longer and we tried to take advantage of that fact.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

While we were in the wash the breeze kicked up and made a nuisance of itself; we tried to exercise some patience and wait it out and were occasionally rewarded with brief, but adequate, lulls.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There was an evident subtlety and complexity to photographing in this area. The issue wasn’t primarily technical (though, when setting exposure, keeping a close eye on the red channel was a must); rather, it was aesthetic. Compositions seldom jumped out and presented themselves at this locale. Instead, they had to be teased out carefully, with much attention paid to small details.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In numerous instances, a seemingly modest change in position and/or perspective produced remarkably significant differences in the final product. Jason and I both spent copious time moving around, changing the position of the camera and (seemingly) endlessly fine tuning the frame. It’s a challenging process, but can be immensely rewarding when things finally come together.

Capitol Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

When the sun reached a point in the sky that it was flooding virtually the entire gorge with direct light we called it a day in the wash. The next several hours were spent scouting locations in the eastern half of the park and outside the park borders to the east.

When the light started to dramatically improve, very late in the afternoon and early in the evening, we returned to the park’s Scenic Drive and pulled our cameras back out. Reaching one of the spots we’d scouted earlier–near a location that Jason had photographed during a previous visit to Capitol Reef–required a short hike up a ridge, just off the park road. From there, an interesting view of the valley below and beyond was beheld.

Shadowland, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

With less than 90 minutes until sunset, we moved west on the Scenic Drive and found several compelling spots.

Chimney Rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The Castle, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Evening Light, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Finally, with only about 30 minutes until sunset, we moved on to Sunset Point, one of the locations we’d scouted earlier in the day, to catch the evening’s last light, first as it was absorbed by features to our north and east…

Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

…and then as the sun dripped below the horizon in the west.

Last Light, Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

We returned to our vehicle and drove to the east. The goal for the last full day of the trip was to catch first light at the moonscape of Blue Valley from Skyline View, near Factory Butte, not too far from the town of Hanksville. The plan was to camp near the rim, but first we had to find it in–you guessed it–the pitch dark. There were some false starts with this process, but with some persistence and the aid of the ever-valuable GPS, we ultimately reached our desired location. Apparently, that is, because we couldn’t see anything. But we did find some other dispersed camping denizens which implied that we were in the right place.

The tent was pitched in the dark yet again and an alarm was set for about an hour before sunrise. We didn’t want to oversleep on this morning.



  1. We had so much fun visiting there!

    • It’s historically been an overlooked park among the five in southern Utah. I sense that this is changing. It wasn’t packed when we were there, but it was definitely a higher volume than back in the late 1990s.

      • We were there a couple years ago and some parts of it got fairly crowded.

        • What time of year were you there? Weekdays or weekend?

        • We went in early May and spent a week. It was before the big tourist time hit.

        • So the same general time of year that we were there. The full day (outlined in this post) we were there was a Thursday. We also were there for a little bit of time the following day. It never seemed particularly crowded to me, but that may be a matter of context.

        • Some areas we found relatively empty but the spots around Fruita and the hike to Hickmans Bridge were the busiest.

        • I would concur with that and, to be honest, that’s the way it was back in 1998 as well. (We didn’t do the Hickman’s Bridge hike on this trip, but I did the previous time.)

        • If we ever make it back I want to do the hike up Chimney Rock.

        • Hiked that trail back in ’98 late in the afternoon; there was literally no one else on it, from beginning to end.

  2. The patterns and textures in the rocks are amazing.. I’ve not been to Capitol Reef, but it looks like it needs to be added to the never ending list.

    • Definitely add it to the list; there’s much to be seen there. One of these days I’m going to make it into the Cathedral Valley at Capitol Reef (we didn’t have the opportunity to do so on this trip)…

  3. Amazing textures and scenery.

    • Thanks, Jane!

  4. I’ve not heard of this one before; thanks for the introduction.

    • Hi Gary. Yeah, Capitol Reef is the least known/celebrated of the Utah national parks.

  5. […] began the final day of the trip where the previous day left off: in the pitch dark at Skyline View. We had made it to this location–after several […]

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