Monday, June 22, 2009

God’s country

On my way out of town Friday, Steve sent me a text that said “have a good time in God’s country this weekend.”

The “God’s Country” he referred to is, of course, Wayne County, Utah. There’s a chance you’d take issue with me labeling it as God’s country, but chances are good you wouldn’t if you’re among the small portion of the populace that has ever been there.

I’ve been visiting Wayne County for as long as I can remember. My dad grew up there, and two of his brothers still raise cattle there (now as gentleman rather than full-time ranchers).

We stayed at my uncle’s house, which is at the edge of the foothills below Thousand Lake Mountain and has a Piñon-Juniper woodland out the back door and expansive views of the Fremont River valley out the front. It’s a cool place—literally. Because much of Wayne County sits around 7,000 feet or more, while Moab and most of Utah’s red rock country is scorching hot, Wayne County is still quite pleasant.

Yet hardly anyone seems to visit. Unlike the sometimes Disneyesque feel of Arches or Zions, Capitol Reef National Park and the adjoining Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are uncrowded. When we arrived at the Capitol Reef visitor’s center on Saturday, many of the 15 or so parking spaces in the lot were full, but that was likely just because it was raining.

While at the visitor’s center, I indulged my inner nerd by purchasing a poster that provides a timeline and labels for the rock layers at all of the national parks in Utah. At some point I’ll know my navajo from my wingate from my kayenta and will be able to thoroughly bore anyone who hikes or bikes with me with unsolicited geology lectures.

From the visitor’s center, we drove south on a dirt road, into the rarely-visited heart of the park, and stopped at the trailhead to Surprise Canyon, a gorgeous slot canyon that winds its way into the waterpocket fold. We encountered exactly one other hiker.

Sadly, in our rush to get out of town following the gauntlet on Friday, the camera was among the things left behind. This was a real bummer, because there were all kinds of plants and flowers I wanted to take pictures of for Alex to identify. Not to mention all the rock formations. (Incidentally, the visitor’s center in Capitol Reef has an awesome catalogue of native plants—you just thumb through it like you would LP’s in a record store back when those existed, but instead of album art, you look at plant samples encased in plastic with the names, both proper and common, on the card.)

After the hike, we backtracked a little to the Burr Trail, followed it up and over “the reef” and into Grand Staircase-Escalante. If you’re wondering how Capitol Reef got its name, many of the early explorers were seamen who were accustomed to describing any barrier or obstacle as a reef, including the waterpocket fold. Since some of the white sandstone formations bear some resemblance to the Capitol dome, it was given the name Capitol Reef.

Someday I’m going to ride the loop we drove from Torrey to the Burr Trail to Boulder and back to Torrey on a bike. It is some of the most amazing country anywhere and ranges from red rock canyons to alpine forests, summiting at 9,600 feet before dropping back into the Fremont River valley.

I have to admit that my motivation for making this trip wasn’t all sightseeing and family time. I also wanted to check out the course for the Capitol Reef Classic stage race coming up next month. All I can say is I can’t imagine a better course. The time trial is in Loa near the airport, likely because it’s the only flat stretch in the entire county.

In the road race, tactics are going to be critical—the big climb going up to Fish Lake comes early enough that it won’t be decisive. If you make a break on the climb, you better have enough of a motor to solo for 40 miles. It will be my first real test as a Cat. 4, and the anticipation/anxiety is already killing me four weeks out.

If you’re looking for an awesome race in an amazing location for July, you should consider this one. Unless you’re a strong Cat. 4 that climbs well, in which case I recommend skipping the race and sitting on the couch and eating as many bowls of Reese’s Puffs as you can.


  1. Very good stuff in Wayne County.

    I'm game for a road ride from Torey to Boulder, or perhaps extend a bit to Escalante.

    Here's a fantastic ride I've been wanting to do (a roadie friend does it almost every year with a small group): Drive down to Kingston / Circleville and ride through Koosharem (in the top 10 of Utah town names) then past Fish Lake and past Loa and stop at Torrey for the night (stay in a hotel), next day eat breakfast in town then ride up south over Boulder Mountain then down to Boulder Town (lunch) then continue to Escalante (hotel #2), next day ride up thru Tropic, past Bryce NP, down Red Canyon into Panguitch for lunch, then north back to Kingston.

  2. I've told you before: I like that area a lot.

    I rode from Loa to Lake Powell once -- over the Boulder Mountain, Burr Trail to Lake Powell. Great ride.

    What would be really cool is to ride MTBs from SLC, on the dirt, all the way to Wayne County. It's possible.

    SLC to Spanish Fork Canyon, hop on Skyline, ride the Skyline to Salina canyon, from Salina Canyon to Fishlake, and from Fishlake to Loa. I guess you could keep going to Lake Powell. Might take a 2-3 days though.

    One of these days. . .

  3. Hey important question: going camping with the kiddies this weekend, trying to decide North or South. Question about Cap Reef is, how were the gnats?

  4. KK & Jared, lots of options for epics down that way. If you get serious about any of them, I'd love to come along.

    Watcher, no problems with gnats at all. We had rain intermittently throughout the weekend, which could have kept them down, but for the several hours of clear weather when we hiked surprise canyon, we had no problems.