In a move partially influenced by a thirst for additional fodder for this blog, I just started a temporary gig as a seasonal interpretive volunteer at Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah. Often overshadowed by nearby national park behemoths like Grand Canyon or Zion, Capitol Reef is nonetheless a fantastic place (to work in or to visit) with endless opportunities for hiking, climbing, or canyoneering. There will obviously be many more trip reports to come from Capitol Reef and the surrounding area (e.g., Canyonlands NP, San Rafael Swell, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM), but I will start small: a 1/5-mile round-trip jaunt just off Highway 24 at the Fremont culture petroglyphs site. Featuring a pair of wide, flat, and well-maintained boardwalks, the Petroglyphs Trail is one of only two wheelchair-accessible walks in the park.
Petroglyphs, or prehistoric images engraved into rock, are found in a number of spots in Capitol Reef, though these etchings are easily the most accessible to visitors. They belong to the ancient ancestors of the Hopi, Paiute, and Pueblo Indians, known to archaeologists as the Fremont Culture (certainly a misnomer considering the name comes from 19th century explorer John C. Fremont). Most petroglyphs in the park are dated to between 700-1200 CE, sometime before the Fremont Indians vacated the region due to resource exhaustion, tribal competition, and a persistent drought.
Heading east from the Visitor Center, follow Highway 24 east for one mile—past orchards and the Fruita schoolhouse—to the Petroglyphs parking area on the left. From here, two short, wooden boardwalks skirt the base of the Wingate sandstone cliffs, the natural canvas for the Fremont artists.
The shortest path (roughly 100 feet) boasts views of the best-preserved etchings—including a collection of carefully-inscribed, two-legged figures that perhaps resemble humans, as well as three drawings of bighorn sheep (unfortunately, additional images have been destroyed on account of natural rock falls). A pair of wayside exhibits and an audio recording introduce visitors to the Fremont Culture.
Returning to the parking lot, a second, longer boardwalk spits off to the east, following the red-orange sandstone cliffs for about 150 yards. Petroglyphs along this route are sparser and harder to find, though a pair of faded engravings resembling necklaces can be found near the end of the trail.
Besides the ancient drawings, the other attractions are the Wingate sandstone cliffs themselves, towering close to 500 feet high. Situated just before the canyon narrows around the Fremont River, views from the Petroglyph Trail offer a sneak peek of what the park has to offer. The trail ends at a large protruding rock; double back the way you came to return to your vehicle.