Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

On June 1st, after spending the entire Winter and Spring in California, we started our journey east. We were looking forward to seeing family and friends after a seemingly interminable time away, but, first, we had an entire country to cross.

First up, a night on government owned land right on the California/Nevada border. The landscape on either side of this divide can best be described as soul-sucking, but the border itself is teeming with activity – mostly cars and trucks limping out of California on fumes before gassing up in Nevada, or folks heading the other way topping off one last time. With their pocketful of realized savings, they can then hit one of the terrible casinos nearby.

No, seriously…

Tucked behind all this commotion we found a large, nondescript patch of desert maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and open to free camping. We set up for the night and enjoyed the serenity/unease that comes with parking in a beautiful, barren desert hopefully occupied only by you.

Given the lack of other campers in the area (which surprised us), we decided to stay closer to the entrance, which, as an added bonus, offered these lovely views:

The next day we racked up a bunch of miles as we drove across portions of three states – Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. As we drove, the landscape changed from flat desert to brown/gray rock formations, to the rich layered reds that characterize Southern Utah.

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St. George & Cedar City, Utah

I had booked a week at the Southern Utah RV Resort in St. George, expecting to use it as a base to explore Snow Canyon and Sand Hollow State Parks in Utah, and Valley of Fire State Park back in Nevada. Unfortunately, however, we showed up right in time for one of this Summer’s many western heat waves, which meant we spent the majority of the week holed up in the RV trying not to bake.

There’s a reason this campground is half empty.

Luckily, our next stop made up for our disappointing stay in St. George. Cedar City is just 60 miles northeast, but its much higher elevation (5800 vs 2700 feet) resulted in temperatures in the upper 70’s and low 80’s. Much better!

The owners of our small, family run campground, Cedar Canyon Retreat, put together a nice guide for local sightseeing and hiking options, and we hit as many of their suggestions as we could.

Some were just small interesting local sights, like a natural ice cave, a forest of bristlecone pines up on a mountain, and a manmade waterfall along a creek.

Other suggestions were for the bigger parks and trails in the area. First up, was a return to one of our absolute favorite national parks.

The Quiet Side of Zion

Unless you’ve been hiding from the news recently, you know the national parks were positively overrun with visitors this Summer. Millions and millions of stir-crazy Americans upgraded their selfie sticks, grabbed their plastic bottles of Poland Spring, and headed for “America’s Best Ideas” – only to learn that, these days, you need tickets to get into many of “America’s Best Ideas,” and even with tickets, there aren’t enough parking spaces, shuttle busses, visitor centers, or other resources for all the guests. All of which, unsurprisingly, resulted in lots of disappointed and frustrated people.

But, as we’ve learned over the years, where there’s a will to avoid tourists, there’s a way to avoid tourists.

All of which brings me to the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park. The vast (vast) majority of Zion visitors head to the main entrance of the park which provides access to Zion Canyon.

The main entrance is on the southern edge of the park. Kolob Canyons is in the northwest section

And that makes sense, because Zion Canyon is ridiculously amazing. (Here’s my post about our visit there.)

However, the canyon is also very small, accessible only by park operated shuttle buses, and reached via the tiny town of Springdale – which backs up with traffic from sunrise to sunset every single day of the high season.

Kolob Canyons is a different section of Zion with its own entrance. It would take about an hour to drive from one entrance to the other but most tourists don’t bother. Which is pretty silly, because if they did, instead of dealing with this:

Credit: How Stuff Works

they’d be dealing with this:

Now, admittedly, Zion Canyon is incredible and should not be missed, and Kolob Canyons has a much more limited selection of trails and vistas, but it’s certainly worth a visit and if you’re trying to get a break from the people, and the lines, and the pandemonium, it’s a good option.

From Cedar City to the Kolob Canyons entrance is only about 20 minutes, so it was an easy trip for us. Once there, we drove the 10 mile scenic road:

and did the short hike out to the viewpoint at the end of the road.

All the scenery with none of the crowds. Perfect.

Cascade Falls Trail

Next up, we headed further into the Dixie National Forest to walk the Cascade Falls Trail, a short, but scenic path that offers dramatic views of the red rocks, hoodoos, and pine forests that characterize this region.

The trail’s namesake waterfall was barely a trickle, but the hike was still fun. If you happen to be here in late Spring, the waterfall is probably pretty impressive, and no matter when you visit, it’s almost guaranteed to not be crowded.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Cedar Breaks National Monument is yet another lightly visited park in Southern Utah.

Really lightly visited… Here’s what we saw as we walked up to the main overlook:

For a split second I even wondered to myself: “Is this place gonna be worth the trip?”

To which, upon reaching the railing and looking over the side, I responded: “Yes, dumbass. It is.”

Formed by limestone uplifted over millions of years, colored by oxidized iron and manganese, and eroded by rain, ice, and wind, this vibrant landscape, similar to Bryce National Park, is exceptionally dramatic. We hiked the 4 mile Spectra/Ramparts trail which slips in and out of the forest as it follows the rim of the amphitheater. There’s a lot of elevation change, so be prepared for a lengthy slog coming back, but the views and solitude were worth the effort.

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Capitol Reef National Park

After a week in Cedar City, we packed up and drove further east to Torrey, Utah, home of Capitol Reef National Park.

Utah has five national parks, all of which are hugely popular, but Capitol Reef offers comparatively lower visitation numbers, cooler temperatures, and a neat little town nearby, all of which made it super appealing to us this Summer.

Unfortunately, the “cooler temperatures” part of the equation didn’t quite work out for us. Once again, we managed to find ourselves in the midst of a record breaking heat wave. However, we counted ourselves as lucky – if we were seeing temperatures in the mid 90’s in Torrey, we knew places like St. George were seeing temperatures in the high triple digits. Eventually, clouds brought relief from the heat, but they also brought rainstorms, and much of CRNP is a no-go for hiking when it’s raining because???

We visited this unpaved road on a hot but dry day. There are big warning signs at the entrance to not enter it when rain is in the forecast.

That’s right! Flash floods. Just one more way America’s Best Idea will send your ass home in a body bag if you’re not paying attention.

All of which meant, we did a lot of scenic drives.

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If you’re wondering why several of these pictures look cockeyed – like the rock formations are collapsing backwards, it’s because they are. This area is known as the “Waterpocket Fold.” It’s basically a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust caused by a combination of geography and climate changes over hundreds of millions of years.

The short version is that 280 million years ago, 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock, composed of limestone, sandstone and shale, collected here. 50-70 million years ago, tectonic activity along a fault beneath all that rock caused one side to lift 7,000 feet above the other side. And since then, erosion – from wind, rain, and freeze/thaw cycles, has worn away the rock, creating the canyons, cliffs, and interesting formations we see today.

Capitol Reef was the third national park we’ve visited in Utah and I really can’t say one was better than the others. They are all spectacular. I really wish we’d been able to hike more, but I’m glad we visited when it wasn’t overly crowded. My guess is this park will be overrun like all the others in a couple years, so if you’re thinking about visiting, I wouldn’t wait too long.

Torrey: Nom, Nom, Nom.

Luckily, crappy weather doesn’t ruin plans to eat delicious food, because, let me tell you, we had plans!

Back when we were in California, we met up with Brenda and Wally from Our 38 Foot Life (they spend half the year in a 38 foot motorhome and half on a 38 foot boat). We’d been following each other’s blogs forever, but had never crossed paths. Finally, on a pitstop in Riverside, we met up for lunch and had a great conversation. A few weeks later, they headed to Capitol Reef which she wrote about here. Included in that post was a tip about what’s become one of the most unique restaurants we’ve visited: Curry Pizza. Turns out, though, it wasn’t just Brenda who was impressed:

Curry Pizza is a combination Indian/Pizza place. You can order regular Indian dishes and regular pizza, but if you’re living life right, you’ll order one of their specialty pizzas – a pie made with a traditional curry sauce in place of the tomato sauce. It may sound weird, but it totally works and makes for some standout pizza.

Half honey curry and half tikka

Another terrific spot we ran across was the Capitol Burger truck which turns out big flavors despite its small size.

Finally, inside Capitol Reef NP, in a fertile, verdant region once populated by Mormon settlers, orchards planted 140 years ago still produce all kinds of fruit. Apple, cherry, peach, apricot, plum, and almond trees still grow in perfect rows, and park guests are invited to pick ripe fruit to enjoy on premises. Additionally, the historic Gifford House is known for its homemade, individual sized fruit pies. Crucially, their seasonal offerings include strawberry/rhubarb, which, as everyone knows, is the best kind of fruit pie. (Don’t argue with me. And yes, this is a hill on which I am willing to die.) The staff only bakes a limited number each day and they sell out quickly, but if you complete your mission, you’re in for a serious treat!

Eastbound Again…

And with that, we packed up Barney and headed east, and then north (because we didn’t feel like driving over the Rockies), and then east again. We stopped for one night at James Robb State Park near Grand Junction, Colorado – a gorgeous state park we’ve stayed at before, followed by a night up in Rawlins, Wyoming, followed by single night stays in Sidney, Nebraska, and Elm Creek, Nebraska. The stop in Sidney was notable because we stayed on the grounds of Cabela’s corporate headquarters. Cabela’s is known for being friendly to RVers, and their HQ, located right off I-80, offers a full service campground which was quite welcome after many, many miles on the road. Thanks, Cabela’s!

Finally, after 4 days of nonstop driving, we arrived in Ashland, Nebraska, where we would begin a three week tour of four surprisingly (at least, to us) awesome Midwest cities.

More on all that soon.


Where we stayed:

I didn’t write individual campground reviews for most of these because I am way behind and everything now runs together, so these are the Campendium links for the campgrounds we stayed at.

Ivanpah West Dry Lake, Nipton, California

Southern Utah RV Resort, St. George, Utah

Cedar Canyon Retreat, Cedar City, Utah

Wonderland RV Park, Torrey, Utah

James Robb State Park, Fruita, Colorado

Western Hills Campground, Rawlins, Wyoming

Cabela’s, Sidney, Nebraska

4 Seasons Campground, Elm Creek, Nebraska

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  1. I am always amazed at how incredibly blue the sky is in the pictures from the Utah area! Beautiful pics! I’m hungry now. Thank you. ?? Glad you stayed safe in the heat and avoided the overly crowded areas!

    • The blue skies out there are one of my favorite things about Utah. It really is striking – especially against the brilliant red rock formations and rich green vegetation. Love it!

  2. I am so glad that you were able to visit Capitol Reef, even if the weather didn’t completely cooperate. It’s my favorite of Utah’s Mighty 5, though my ranking could be based entirely on pie availability. And also cinnamon rolls. The curry pizza sounds great and I look forward to indulging during a future visit… a new and different sort of pie.

    Mostly I am just impressed that you managed to find some lesser known (but still gorgeous) areas during an EXTREMELY busy summer in the national parks. It turns out there is plenty of great scenery for everyone to enjoy, we don’t all need to visit the exact same lookouts and viewpoints.

    • I was very disappointed that they didn’t have any cinnamon rolls when we went, but I think that may be because we came in the afternoon. I think they may just be a morning offering. Personally, I’m more of a pie person anyway, but it would have been cool to try them since they are so famous.

      We were pleasantly surprised with what we found in Southern Utah this year. There were certainly people there – the visitor center parking lot at CRNP was always busy, but we had no problem finding parking in Fruita, and you can see what things looked like along the other trails we visited. I think people just go to the places they’ve heard of – Angels Landing and Delicate Arch, etc. But, there are still plenty of gems to be found. You just gotta dig around a bit to find them.

  3. Smiling — we loved Curry Pizza and the pies in the Park were an everyday event a few years ago. We stayed in Lyman, at a surprisingly affordable dog friendly airbnb that slept 14 for just the 3 of us!

  4. We’ve also visited both sides of Zion and agree that the Canyon can be very much over used, but it is so worth a visit, and the hikes are popular because they are fantastic. So much fun visiting these sights thru your experiences, dang we missed Curry Pizza!

    • Agreed. Our visit to Zion Canyon was one of the highlights of our time on the road, but I’m glad we went when we did and can now explore these lesser known spots. I guess my advice to anyone wanting to go there now would be to go in the offseason if they can. Even traditional “shoulder season” has gotten crazy.

    • Yeah, I think everyone who has ever been to Zion thought it was amazing… The problem nowadays is we all get on Instagram and yap about it. Dammit!! 🙂

  5. Love love your writing. Thank you for taking the time and energy to do this. I always look forward to the emails about a new blog! ???. I safe them for our own RV travels. We’ve visited these same western gems but you always bring out the best of the best….like you, we’ll be back and see more and see it differently! Thanks again. Please write us if you come to Florida this winter ?

    • Thank you so much, Lou and Mary. I’m glad to have folks along for the ride who enjoy reading this stuff. I’m also really happy to hear these posts are useful to you. I have gotten almost all of our itineraries from other folks’ blogs, so it’s great to know I may be saving someone else some time. Thank you again for your kind words. I really appreciate it!

  6. May have just missed you on our path, having recently moved through Ogalalla NE via US 26 to I-80, on the way to Kansas City Missouri. Added Capitol Reef to the spreadsheet for a stop someday.

    Just reached our two year mark on the road traveling fulltime. We started in August of 2019 and so far the longest we have spent stopped was two months in Gulf Shores Alabama. These 2,000 plus trips are getting old. We usually plan a spring, summer and fall trip then on to the sinter spot. We have started to reconsider our travel style and might move closer to no less than a weekly stay rather than the three or four nights we stop between destinations. The monthly stops are getting harder and harder to find, especially as so many parks are becoming what I call homeless camps, with people living in rigs that don’t even have license plates on them.

    Karen wants a place to nest and call home. I could careless but both must be happy for this lifestyle to work. So we have a winter trip planned to Florida, then a shorter trip up the east coast as far as Washington DC in the spring. Then on to summer/fall in just two states, southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Maybe check out buying a condo with no maintenance but keep on the road for much of the year. Personally, after I get a chance to spend a month in Washington DC and a month in the four corners area I’ve for the the most part completed my must see list. So travels from a home base for a few months and then to a winter spot will work if it comes to that.

    • Yep, I totally understand how you’re feeling. Two years is a long time to keep moving so quickly and consistently, and it can be tough to find appealing places to set up for lengthy stays. The fact is, most people don’t do this fulltime thing forever. Slowing down for longer stays will make things much less stressful but better yet, having a home base and continuing to travel on a part time schedule would offer the best of all worlds. I just think it’s a much more sustainable way of living and offers a solution to so many of the things we all have to deal with while traveling fulltime (finding medical care on the road, maintaining ties with a community, etc). Additionally, traveling for the sake of traveling loses its luster after a while and can start to feel pointless, so yeah, I think your plans make a lot of sense.

  7. Ahhh, Utah and Nevada. I’ve driven I-15 back and forth to SoCal so many times I think I have it memorized. Funny, but I grew up in Central Utah, but had never been to the big 5 NP in southern Utah until we started full timing. Valley of Fire and southern Utah were our first destinations. I loved it! We didn’t quite make it to Cedar Breaks and Capitol Reef, but certainly will go back some day. I feel your pain on being stuck inside because it’s so hot outside. That’s how our summer has evolved also. Safe travels! 🙂

    • I think this summer has been tough in a lot of places – wildfire smoke, heat, humidity, crazy storms… not ideal for living in an RV. I’m glad it’s getting to be Fall and things should, hopefully, settle down a bit. Valley of Fire has been on our list forever, but has somehow always eluded us. It’s a tough spot given the climate there, but we’ll make it some day! Safe travels to you guys too!

  8. Oh, you made my morning with this scenic tour of uncrowded spots in Utah! Living on the west coast, we spent many happy years (pre full timing) hiking and exploring in the national parks. But our experiences in the past 10 years too often felt like being in Disneyworld, minus the excellent crowd control. And there is NO WAY I want to be in the tidal wave of insanity caused by pandemic pandemonium.

    But wow!! You have given me hope. I’m so glad that despite the crazy heat waves and the crowds in so many places, you found so much beauty and peace. Your photos, as always, are gorgeous. And curry pizza? Yes, please!

    • I am endlessly jealous of you guys for having been smart enough to take advantage of these places before everyone else showed up, and to have experienced full time RV travel before it became so popular. I hope things improve a bit once the pandemic ends and people can spread out again, but I have a feeling these ticketing systems will become standard, at least at some of the bigger parks. It sucks, but it would probably improve the experience for the people who are able to score tickets. In the meantime, though, there are still gems to be found. Apps like Alltrails are super helpful, as are the blogs of some of our highly experienced traveling buddies!!

  9. Your timing for this post is perfect as next week, I start a loop of southern CO and Utah, to hit up the national parks (which I have not seen any of yet, believe it or not!). The one line that totally resonated with me in your post was this: “we spent the majority of the week holed up in the RV trying not to bake” because that so accurately describes a lot of my August and, uh, my Labor Day weekend, right now. And next weekend, where I was going to be dry camping and saw the temps are supposed to be high nineties near Salida, so I jumped to an RV park where I can at least use the AC to try and beat the heat.

    • Hey Annie,

      Yep, it’s been a tough summer weather wise. Now that I think of it, I don’t know of anyone who’s really been able to stay in a comfortable temperature range. At least now that we’re beyond Labor Day, campground crowding should ease up a bit and temperatures should improve.

      I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and see your photos of UT/CO. I have no doubt you’ll love it all. It’s just gorgeous.

  10. Such beautiful photos of some of our favortie areas. CRNP is my favorite Utah park. There is SO much to do with all types of hikes and spectacular drives. The park is huge. We’ve been there at least five times for weeks at a time and I still have things on my list. So glad you got to the pies at the Gifford House. Such a great treat. Safe travels.

    • Hey Pam,

      I can definitely imagine how one could keep busy for weeks at Capitol Reef. It is enormous and looked to have tons and tons of trails with all different difficulty levels. I am really bummed the weather was lousy, but happy that the scenic drives gave us access to so many of the beautiful views. And, now we have reason to head back some day. Well, that and the pies!. Safe travels to you too!!

  11. And Laura does it again, complete with that cutting-edge slideshow technology. (No, seriously, that impresses the hell out of this non-blogger, and I love your photos in any format.). Thank you for the excellent tips for solitude and food. Dave is about to head off solo to southern Utah for a few weeks of camping. It will do him a world of good after our long pandemic confinement. (I can’t go; I have another EDS-related joint injury, and our hospital is full of unvaccinated COVID patients, so I can’t get surgery for it.) Your post was perfectly timed for him! Thanks always for writing this.

    • Thank you, Heather. You are way too nice to me. The slideshow is just a plug-in on my website, I would tell you how it works, but then I’d have to ask Kevin because I have no idea. He just puts this stuff on my site and I take credit. I like it that way. 🙂

      Southern Utah is beautiful and I hope Dave has a wonderful time. Even with all the crowds, there are plenty of places to get away, unplug, and find peace. I can only imagine how frustrated you are with the medical situation. It’s incredibly demoralizing – not just for healthcare workers who have to keep dealing with this crap, but for folks like you who can’t get the help you need because of the decisions of others. It’s unbelievably frustrating and aggravating. I really hope things improve soon.

  12. We have bypassed Zion twice in the last two years for one reason or another. But, we absolutely LOVED Capitol Reef! Were the elk hanging our in the orchards when you visited? We must have seen 50 of them. I know exactly where that unpaved road is. I sat of the hood of the Jeep and took a video as we were driving down it. We also really enjoyed Dixie NF. Lots of really fun dirt road trails there as well.

    Looking forward to reading about Nebraska. Safe travels.

    • Hey Laura!

      We did not see elk in the orchards, but we did see a ton of deer. Not sure where the elk were. They must have had another obligation. 🙂

      Capitol Reef really is an awesome national park and I would love to spend more time exploring it. I bet you guys got to see some really cool stuff with the Jeep too. Speaking of which, I can totally imagine how much fun you could have in Dixie. There was hardly anyone there, but we saw several people running around in UTVs. Looked like they were having a blast!

  13. Wow! I cannot imagine visiting Utah during the summer… We were once in that area late spring and it was crazy hot. So much so that we couldn’t go for walks with our dog anywhere and hurried north. If you ever end up reading Plunge, my ex now lives in Cedar City. Mark and I had the pleasure exploring that area of Northern Zion a few years ago (before Maya). The views and hikes were nice, but nowhere near as spectacular as the main area of the park. Like you, we enjoyed Capitol Reef – the underdog of southern Utah National Parks. There was no fruit picking when we were there and we certainly didn’t splurge on food in town. Next time! We do hope to return to that area this fall.

    • We knew we were gambling to some degree by visiting Southern Utah in early June, but we were hoping it wouldn’t be too bad. Sadly, we got burned (LOL), but what can you do? Sometimes those gambles really pay off, and you just don’t know until you try. We’d certainly love to visit in the fall or spring. It’s a gorgeous region with so much to see and do.

  14. I’m glad the Kolob area was open again for your visit and such an easy drive from Cedar City. Your Zion visit makes me grateful all over again that we got to see that park the way we did. Cedar Breaks was such a happy place for us, too. I wish you could’ve seen the baby marmots. I wish WE could’ve seen CARE, but that was one of the first to be pandemically postponed for us. Now we have even more good intel for when we do get there! So much pie!!!

    • So. Much. Pie. Of all kinds!!! One of my favorite food groups.

      We considered doing more hikes at Kolob Canyons, but we only had a week and were trying to get through the list of suggestions from our campground, so we only went once. I know you guys explored that area a lot more and it’s one of those places you could spend months in and never see everything. The issue is the weather. As you know better than anyone, its comfortable season is pretty short.

      I hope you eventually get back to Capitol Reef. It was spectacular!

  15. It’s been awhile since we were in that area, your post reminds me of how much we enjoyed some of those same stops. The pies are soooo good.

    • Honestly, I would go back just for the pies. I mean, the rocks are nice too, but strawberry/rhubarb? Are you kidding me? Soooo good! 🙂


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