I left the campground early in the morning to spend the day Jeeping through the Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park. The 60-mile round trip on dirt roads requires a high-clearance vehicle. While it may not be the most comfortable ride, my Jeep Wrangler would have no trouble handling the terrain. However, the day before the park ranger warned me about the potential challenges if it rains, the bentonite clay roads become sticky and gooey and can trap even the best of vehicles, resulting in a hefty charge for extraction and towing.
Even though it was a summer in a National Park, I would spend the overwhelming majority of the day without seeing another soul. The vast scale of the monoliths of the valley and the enjoyment of being someplace so foreign felt refreshing. Even the heat did nothing to stem my enjoyment.
As I exited the highway and bounced down an unmaintained dirt road, a flowing reminder appeared to highlight that this was not a place for your Prius. The Hartford River was low enough in the summertime, but it was apparent that you need a vehicle designed for fording across rough terrain. My Jeep handled it like a champ.
Leaving Planet Earth
While the vast scale of Capitol Reef is almost impossible to describe and photographs fail to capture the scale and beauty, I still wasn’t prepared for the oddity of the Bentonite Hills. For the past few days, I’d been wandering Utah and Nevada, visiting some of the stunning landscapes, but this place was something unique.
The Bentonite Hills begin as a boring, nondescript shade of brown. Almost without warning, my Jeep transformed into an interstellar rover. I was now driving on another planet. Grey and red bands began dominating the landscape.
I realized that my day might be even longer than I expected as I stopped the Jeep over and over to take pictures, trying to capture the beauty and colors trapped in a barren, picturesque scene.
The strange landscape quickly gave way to a long flat stretch of maintained dirt roads. While fording the river had required a more robust vehicle, the road that I was now traveling on was no more challenging than the thousands of miles of dirt roads crisscrossing any agricultural area. Other than the sheer cliff and mountains far in the distance, the drive was a simple drive in the country.
Slipping Into The Past
Fortunately, I’m never really bored. It’s probably a holdover from the few times that I said that I was bored as a child. Apparently, parents can always find extra chores and tasks, along with the admonition that you should never be bored as long as you have your mind.
Of course, nowadays I can never be bored when looking for something to photograph. I was not disappointed as the old, rusted-out truck came into view.
The early morning light and partially overcast sky cast a wonderfully diffused light. I spend quite a bit of time walking around the truck, marveling at how mother nature always reclaims the castaways of man. The metal was rusting away, and the planks of wood were sun bleached and cracking. Any softer materials had long since rotted away.
As the heat of the day began to seep into the desert sand, I waved goodbye to the past and headed back down the long dusty road. Driving alone in these desolate locations give you time to think. Living in an urban or suburban world, driving is a chore as you deal with all the other people on the roads. Here the rhythm of the gravel under your tires softens your mood, and the enjoyment of driving in such a magnificent place spreads through your being.
The towering cliff wall of Capitol Reef began growing as I moved back toward the national park boundaries. Two of the most popular destinations started growing taller and taller.
A Religious Experience
Photographs fail to capture how these massive monoliths dominate their surroundings. Isolated in this hot, harsh environment and each sitting alone, it is easy to understand their names. They appear like someone built them as a tribute to the gods in days long gone by. As you approach, you almost expect to see a congregation of worshipers, or at least ancient priests, worshiping their deity.
The hours melted away as I wandered around and around the gigantic sandstone structures, clicking photo after photo.
No matter how many times that the shutter snapped open, another perfect angle or spot appeared. I took pictures up close and far away, patiently working to capture as much of the grandeur as I could.
Once again, I counted my blessings of being alone in nature. Not only did I have the peaceful moments that come from being nature, no one stepped into my shot. The only time a vehicle got in the photo was when I put it there.
Of course, this one guy did occasionally end up in the frame.
Only a short distance from the Temple of the Sun and Moon, Glass Mountain lumps oddly out of the ground. While mountain may be a monstrous exaggeration, it is fascinating. The selenite crystals are unusually large and rarely found in such size and quantity.
Had my journey been complete, I would have left a very happy camper. I’d taken tons of photos. The vast desert, the monoliths, and the cliff walls filled me up, but I still had places to see. So, I headed deeper into Cathedral Valley…
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