Utah's Mighty 5: Capitol Reef National Park in Winter

One day with a camera at Capitol Reef National Park in winter makes you want to come back again.

Utah's Mighty 5: Capitol Reef National Park in Winter

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, USA, is one of the Mighty 5 national parks in that state. A bit less well known than its big siblings, it is well worth a visit. Earlier this year in January I was in Salt Lake City, UT on a business trip, and had a long weekend to enjoy some of the magnificent red rock that this state has to offer. I decided to start with Capitol Reef for a day, and then move to Moab, UT, for Arches and Canyonlands.

Winter is my favorite time of year to visit US national parks, as it offers a break from crowds and heat that is typical of the high season. Plus red rock and remote mountain ranges with peaks covered in snow offer an interesting contrast on photos.

I left Salt Lake City in the late afternoon, and after having driven south on I-15, and then south east on US-50 and SR-24 arrived in a small town of Loa, UT in the evening to spend the night at the Snuggle Inn. One thing you'll notice around Capitol Reef National Park is that it does not offer lodging comparable to, say, Moab or Springfield. Fine if all you need is a bed & shower—I was planning to wake up early in the morning to make it for the sunrise the next day.

Panorama Point

Having been to Capitol Reef before, I knew where I wanted to be for the sunrise—the Panorama Point (see the park's maps). Easily accessible by car, with a parking place just off SR-24 and just a few steps up to get onto a small slick rock plateau, it offers a 360 view on the park, and is a great spot for both sunrise & sunset photography.

That morning was fairly cold, with temperature below freezing point and some gusts of wind. The views made me forget all that. The panorama towards Henry Mountains range in the east, with light clouds in the morning sky lighted up by the sun that just below the horizon, created a magnificent scene.

Sunrise at Panorama Point

Some time later, when the sun was already over the horizon, I turned to the west and captured a lone Utah Juniper tree against the backdrop of the blue sky.

A lone Utah Juniper

Quite satisfied with my sunrise photos I drove further down SR-24 to Fruita and the Visitor Center.

Around the Visitor Center

The visitor center was still closed, so I crossed SR-24 with some interesting views of Fremont Cottonwood trees.

Fremont Cottonwood trees

Walking towards a small creek, Sulphur Creek, I noticed that the light was still quite interesting and tried a few captures of the creek in the foreground and red rock in the background.

Sulphur Creek


As usual for photographers, the rest of the daytime was dedicated to other activities. I decided to hike up the Fremont River Trail from Fruita. I sort of expected this to be a flat long hike, but it turned out to go up some after the initial 10 minutes or so. The light was already too harsh for good photos, but I liked this panorama from the trail along the river.

On the Fremont River Trail

On the way back a huge Fremont Cottonwood tree over the path was quite interesting agains the blue sky.

Fremont Cottonwood Tree

Back on SR-24

As I felt like having a leisurely weekend, I decided to find a spot to eat a proper lunch. I drove back to Torrey, UT, found a place that was not closed for winter (Red Cliff Restaurant), and then headed back to the National Park just stopping by at the gas station at the intersection with SR-12 for coffee.

I find Capitol Reef National Park to have one of the most picturesque welcome signs of all the parks I have visited. If you take a medium telephoto lens from the end of the pull-off, the welcome sign creates a nice foreground for Henry Mountains.

Capitol Reef National Park Welcome Sign

Capitol Reef and Henry Mountains

On the way to Goblin Valley State Park

One more hiking trail I had planned for the day at the Capitol Reef was Hickman Bridge Trail. I stopped at the trail head, but just took a photo of the Fremont River and decided to head east to the Goblin Valley State Park for a few sunset photos. I know I would be back at the Capitol Reef National Park the next time I am in Utah!

Fremont River at Hickman Bridge Trail Head

Saved for the Next Time

One thing that Capitol Reef offers is a vast space accessible only with a 4x4 vehicle. One day I will be back there to discover the Cathedral Valley with a local guide.

And of course you should do the Scenic Drive. I did that before, when I had visited the park in Spring—I'm planning to write another post about this due to the unique colors of the orchard trees at that time of year.

Links and Resources

For any USA National Park, the official National Park Service website website is a must. Here are a few links and resources I used to plan my short visit to the Capitol Reef National Park: