• Ankit Jain

Trip Report: Virgin River Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef

A Road Trip Adventure Through Arizona and Utah



 

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endless hoodoos and other inexplicable rock structures stretching for miles at Bryce Canyon National Park, bathed in the yellow light of sunrise

Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


 

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Trip Info:


Trip Type: Dispersed Camping/Road Trip (Solo)

Season: May 2021 (Spring)

Trip Highlights:

Duration: 3 days / 2 nights

Driving Distance: 1,400 miles (total, California to Colorado)

Trip Route: https://goo.gl/maps/9bqASG5jXyJaVgiBA


The road through Southern Utah carves through craggy red rock mountainside

On the road through Southern Utah - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Overview:


In mid-May of 2021, I embarked on a journey from the Bay Area in California to Boulder, Colorado, for the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator program. Like any outdoors enthusiast with a travel bug and a good vehicle, I decided to make the most of it by making it a camping road trip instead of flying direct. I drove through California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah; finally reaching Colorado on the third day. For sleeping arrangements, I opted for dispersed camping in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest areas for both nights. I spent most of my time driving through amazing scenery on this trip, especially appreciating the sections where I was driving through back roads and single-lane highways away from the busy interstate system.


On the first day, I drove all the way from the Bay to Arizona without stopping much, reaching the Virgin River Gorge area right around sunset. Within a half hour of exploring on BLM dirt roads, I found a dispersed campsite that I really liked. It had majestic views of the surrounding canyons and buttes peppered with Joshua trees all around.


a tiny adorable bonus Bryce photo

On the second day, I drove out in the morning and headed for Utah. The drive was scenic, curving through National Forest areas, and there was still snow to be found at some of the higher elevation regions. I eventually arrived at a National Forest area right outside Bryce Canyon National Park. I found a spot to have a quick lunch before exploring the area for a couple of hours. For my second campsite in the trip, I ended up coming back to my lunch spot as it was nicely spaced, flat, and had amazing views of the canyon right before me.


On the third day, I woke up before sunrise and drove to the highest point in Bryce Canyon for an epic sunrise view. I hiked around the area for a couple of hours, before eventually returning to my car to make my way towards Capitol Reef National Park. Once at Capitol Reef, I did a few small hikes/walks to explore the rock layers and canyons, and drove around on a few dirt roads to explore even more canyons. Around late afternoon, I started my drive to Colorado, eventually reaching my destination, Boulder, around 10 pm.


a tent set up at a dispersed campsite in Dixie National Forest in Utah, looking over red forested desert that stretches for miles

Campsite in Dixie National Forest, UT - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


Trip Planning:


Permits:


For National Parks, I had previously purchased the ”American the Beautiful” National Parks pass which permitted me entry into Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. The pass, which is valid for a year, is well worth the $80 if you plan to travel to at least 3 parks over that span. As the entry fee for most National Parks can be as high as $35 each, the pass ends up paying for itself after only a few visits. Definitely a Pathloom-recommended investment!


Camping:


For both nights of camping, I opted for dispersed sites. Dispersed camping is on a first-come, first-serve basis, hence not requiring any reservations - nor any fees to pay. Both the Virgin River Gorge BLM and Dixie National Forest areas where I camped had plenty of options. There were quite a few occupied campsites, but the further I drove in, the fewer people I saw.


tall Joshua trees stand vigil over Virgin River Gorge in northern Arizona

Virgin River Gorge, AZ - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


Itinerary:


Day 1: Bay Area, CA to Virgin River Gorge, AZ


I drove out in the morning from the Bay Area. I passed through Bakersfield and Las Vegas, eventually reaching the Virgin River Gorge area in Arizona. I got into the area right before sunset and drove on BLM roads for a few more miles until stumbling upon an open campsite nestled among Joshua trees, where I set up camp for the evening. The views from the site were spectacular, especially the sunset reflecting golden hues off the canyons. Once I settled in, I set up my tent and started collecting some downed logs and branches for a campfire. After enjoying a fire and some stargazing, I checked into my tent for a good night of rest.



Rainbow sherbet in the sky over Bryce Canyon as the sun begins to creep over the horizon. Yellow to orange to red to purple, with maybe a tiny bit of blue thrown in for good measure

Sunrise over Bryce Canyon, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Day 2: Virgin River Gorge, AZ to Bryce Canyon, UT


I woke up the next morning surrounded by Joshua trees in every direction. Seeing the area for the first time during the daytime reminded me of some areas I’ve been to in Death Valley National Park - the rocky desert feel with trees, mountains, and canyons creating an extraterrestrial-like setting. I had a quick breakfast, packed up my tent, and embarked on the drive to Bryce. Along the way, I stopped at some places in Dixie National Forest - the mountain and forest views were quite relaxing. I eventually made it to the Bryce Canyon area, and drove to Tom’s Best Spring Road (part of Dixie) in search of my next campsite.


After driving for less than a mile down dirt roads, I ended up at a fairly large campsite area which was right at the edge of a canyon. I had some lunch there and decided to continue exploring to try to find a campsite further away from the main road - perhaps with even better views than what I already had at this site. I managed to stumble across a couple of even more epic sites, but they were already occupied by other campers. After driving around for an hour without finding anything overly promising, I decided to turn back and head to the campsite where I had lunch. Once I made it back to the original campsite, to my delight it was still available, so I started setting up camp.


It was still fairly early in the afternoon, so once I had camp all set up, I took a stroll around the area. The canyon was stunning, I don’t think I’d ever camped next to a setting such as this before. After spending a few hours exploring, I headed back to camp to take a small nap before heading back out to collect some downed branches and logs for an evening campfire. I relaxed into the evening, ate some dinner, and eventually called it a night around 9pm.



weird rock structures and striated canyons at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

Capitol Reef National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Day 3: Bryce Canyon, UT to Boulder, CO via Capitol Reef National Park


On the third day, I woke up a few hours before sunrise, packed up camp in the dark, and made my way back to Highway 12 towards Bryce Canyon National Park. I wanted to catch the sunrise from the highest point in the park. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I wasn’t the only one on such a mission that day - others had similar intentions and there were a few cars pacing me as I made my way up the canyon. Once in the National Park, I drove to the end of the road at Rainbow Point overlook - sitting at 9,115 ft. As the sun came up over the mountains in the distance, the entire canyon valley started to show color and almost made me feel like I had somehow been transported to Mars. I took my time basking in the sunrise before driving back down the canyon, stopping at various viewpoints along the way to enjoy more of what the park had to offer. I took a stroll along Bryce Point overlook, which offered what might have been the best views in the entire park. I spent a bit more time taking in some more sights, then eventually made my way out of Bryce Canyon and headed towards Capitol Reef.


After stopping for some gas, I made it into Capitol Reef National Park, and it was quite the dramatic entrance, to say the least - the views were simply breathtaking! After taking a few minutes to get my bearings on the map, I decided to go off-roading to Pleasant Creek, a much-needed respite from the crowds I had already encountered on the paved areas of the park. Pleasant Creek was amazing and offered quite a remote feeling - I only saw one other car throughout this entire excursion. I took plenty of time to explore the area - dipping my feet into the creek itself was especially rejuvenating! Eventually, I made it back on the pavement and embarked on another off-road trail for Capitol Gorge. Unlike Pleasant Creek, this ‘road’ was packed with two-way traffic of Sprinters and SUVs. After taking in some vistas and exploring more viewpoints in the park on foot, I said goodbye to Capitol Reef and embarked on the final stretch of my trip to my hotel room in Boulder, CO. I stopped in Vail for a quick break as dusk was setting in to catch a beautiful mountain sunset, and finally reached Boulder around 10 pm. Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my 2 months in Colorado!



Pleasant Creek babbling pleasantly in Capitol Reef National Park

Pleasant Creek: Capitol Reef National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


Gear:


When car camping, I typically bring a lot of gear that I don’t end up using, but it gives me a peace of mind to have redundancies for safety while I’m in the backcountry. Hence, the list below covers all the primary gear that I use in my car camping trips.


Hiking:


Shelter:


Sleep System:


Camp Kitchen:


Food & Hydration:


Clothing:


Tools, Electronics and Miscellaneous:


Hygiene:


Safety/First Aid:


Honestly, Utah might be the most beautiful place on the planet. The view from 9000 feet up in Bryce Canyon showcases bizarre red rock structures on the cliff in the foreground, with thousands of acres of forest stretching as far as the eye can see down below

Utah the Beautiful: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue


 

Get exclusive stories, trail reports, National Park alternatives, recipes, and more delivered directly to your inbox from our growing team of experienced thru-hikers, former National Park employees, and fellow adventure lovers.



 

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