Moab Excursion #01 Las Vegas to Capital Reef

March 02, 2018  •  1 Comment

November 2017

Moab Excursion #01 – Palo Alto to Capital Reef

In early November, 2017 we once again headed out to the American Southwest – “Red Rock Country” – this time to Moab in Utah.  We’ve been to this area several times before, going all the way back to 1972 and have always considered it one of the most scenic places in the world.  On this occasion, we decided to trek off there again because there was a music festival taking place in the town of Moab with several artists we especially like and what better place to be for a music festival.  Sightsee all day in the many state and national lands and hear good music in the evenings.

On our first day out of Palo Alto near San Francisco, we once again followed our tried and true route to the Southwest.  This route is heading south on US-101 from the Bay area, going over to I-5 through the Pacheco Pass near Gilroy, then down the Central Valley to Bakersfield.  From there we turn southeast and climb the Tehachapi’s out of the valley and up into the Mojave Desert where we head east to Barstow, CA.   Depending on what section of the Southwest we’re heading to, we either take I-40 East out of Barstow, or veer, Northeast on I-15 (which eventually goes to Salt Lake City).  This time we took I-15 and spent the night just outside of Las Vegas. 

On this section of I-15 you go by Valley of Fire State Park, then by the cut off to Zion National Park (and by extension Bryce National Park and the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Preserve).  Continuing on I-15 you can go up to I-70 East to get to the Moab cutoff or you can exit I-15 a bit early and cut through Capital Reef National Park before meeting up with I-70 and that’s what we did.

Route from Las Vegas, through Capital Reef and on to Moab
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Butch Cassidy

Anyone who has traveled through south-central Utah knows that this is Butch Cassidy country.  You can hardly throw a gold bar without hitting some sort of monument, museum, marker or tourist trap dedicated to the famous outlaw.  Unlike many other figures of the Wild West, Butch actually existed – as did his partner, the Sundance Kid.  His real name was Robert Parker.  The eldest of 13 kids, he was born in 1866 and died in 1906 after leading quite a colorful life.  His parent’s families had converted to the Mormon faith while still living in the UK and then found their way to Salt Lake City.  Butch’s parents were in their early teens when they arrived in Utah where they later met and married.

Butch left home in his early teens and landed on a dairy farm where he became friends with a cowboy and cattle rustler who called himself Mike Cassidy although his real name was John Tolliver (J. T.) McClammy.  Mike became Butch’s mentor and taught him a lot about being on the other side of the law.  Butch meandered through several jobs on other ranches and at one point did a short stint as a butcher in Rock Springs WY where he picked up the nickname “Butch”. 

But, earning an honest living was always too work much for Butch so he eventually took to a life of crime and became one of the most famous outlaws in the country.  As a famous outlaw he attracted like minded people who fell in with him and became his gang.  Well, in those days who was part of which gang was quite a fluid situation as people came and went quite often – many times just staying together for one heist or robbery and then going their separate ways.  Some of the more lasting gang names that Butch either led or participated in are Doolin Gang, Wild Bunch, Dalton Gang, Doolin-Dalton Gang, and Hole in the Wall Gang which wasn’t really a gang at all but rather a loose collection of separate gangs that all used the same hideout.

However, that life style meant that you pretty much had to keep moving and as such you touched many different places in your territory.  And, if you became notorious enough, in later times each and every one of them becomes a historic site or museum or tourist attraction of some sort, even places you never went to it seems.  Well, Butch was no different and as you drive around the South Central Utah area you will soon lose track of the all the places that someone claims has a relation to Butch or one of his gangs. 

So, it was not surprising for us to stumble on one such historic site which was the “Butch Cassidy Childhood Cabin”.  This little historic site is on UT-89 just south of the town of Circleville and other than a new looking gravel parking lot only had an old wagon and 2 buildings.  The two buildings are what is left of the original farmhouse (cabin) Butch grew up in and a sort of workshop that may or may not have been moved to the site.  These buildings have been somewhat restored (at least structurally) and now seem to have concrete foundations to keep them stable.  You can’t go into them but can look through the windows.

Butch Cassidy Boyhood Cabin
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Wagon and Shed/Workshop
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Abandoned America

After moving along through the little town of Circleville and switching from UT-89 to eastbound UT-62 we came to the type of thing in the Southwest that I just can’t resist stopping to photograph.  I speak of abandoned relics from the early days of automobile tourism of the 1940’s and 1950’s.  The most famous of this sort of thing of course is the legendary old RT-66 but you can rest assured that the old buildings along Rt-66 is just the tip of the iceberg of such structures spread haphazardly throughout the American Southwest.  These old buildings or small clusters of such just seem to materialize out of nowhere as you drive the back roads.  Not so much from the multilane interstates as most of those were torn down to make way for the road, but the small 2 lane back ways that connect what were once thriving small towns and communities to each other are good places to find them. 

Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, the desert regions of Southern California are full of them.  Although such structures were built all over the western United States what makes this area so bountiful is the lack of moisture in the air and the lack of rainfall.  The exceedingly dry climate keeps the wood from rotting as it does in the Pacific Northwest or pretty much anyplace east of the Rockies.  So in the southwest these old buildings and abandoned machinery or cars stay around a lot longer before they succumb to the elements. Also being in the middle of nowhere, vandalism – while present – is nowhere near as big a problem as it is in more urban areas.  Speaking of the old phrase “the middle of nowhere” I was wondering which is more remote; the middle of nowhere or the edge of nowhere?

As we left Circleville, in the middle of absolute nowhere, there was a cross road with an old abandoned gas station.  Nothing else.  Just this old gas station with a rusting early 60’s vintage car that looked like it was abandoned while filling up.  In fact, no matter which way you looked you could not see another structure anywhere in sight.  Just this one building and car.  So, of course I had to screech to a stop to take some shots.  In researching this later I found that the tiny cross road had been the old US-89 that for some reason had been relocated a mile or so to the west at some point.  That was probably the event that killed this gas station.  But, that’s the way things happen out here.

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Capital Reef

One of the more obscure scenic (as opposed to historic) National Parks in the country is Capital Reef.  This 378 sq. mi. park established in 1971 is 60 miles (97 km) long but for the most part just 6 miles (9.7 km) wide which is a really an odd shape for a National Park.  Originally named "Wayne Wonderland" in the 1920s by local boosters, Capitol Reef was initially designated a National Monument in 1937 by FDR.  It wasn’t until 1950 that the area officially opened to the public.  Easy road access only come along in 1962 with the construction of State Route 24 through the Fremont River Canyon. 

The park was formed around the bulk of what is called the Waterpocket Fold.  This is a nearly 100 mi (160 km) long up-thrust formation which is a rocky spine extending from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell.  Capitol Reef is the name of an especially rugged and spectacular segment of the Fold by the Fremont River. The park was named for a line of cliffs of white Navajo Sandstone with dome formations—similar to the white domes often placed on capitol buildings—that run from the Fremont River to Pleasant Creek. The local word reef refers to any rocky barrier to land travel, just as ocean reefs are barriers to sea travel.

The 65 million year old Waterpocket Fold is a warp in the earth's crust.  It is the largest exposed monocline in North America.  In this fold, newer and older layers of earth folded over each other in an S-shape.  This warp, probably caused by the same colliding continental plates that created the Rocky Mountains, has weathered and eroded over millennia to expose layers of rock and fossils. The park is filled with brilliantly colored sandstone cliffs, gleaming white domes, and contrasting layers of stone and earth.

As should be expected, native peoples lived in the area for thousands of years.  Going back to around the year 1000, the Fremont culture lived near the perennial Fremont River in the northern part of the Fold.  Unlike many other tribes at the time, they were not nomadic but rather had irrigated crops and stored their grain in stone granaries.  But, due to speculative causes – the most popular being a sustained drought – they abandoned the area in the 13th century (a couple hundred years before Columbus stumbled onto the America’s. 

Many years after the Fremont left, Paiutes moved into the area and found the remains left over from the Fremont’s.  The left over stone granaries puzzled the Paiutes who thought they were the homes of a race of tiny people. 

The area was fist ‘discovered’ by white folks when a US Army surveyor traveling with the Wesley Powell expedition crossed the Waterpocket Fold while exploring the area.  Another geologist later spent several summers studying the area. None of these expeditions explored the Waterpocket Fold to any great extent, however. It was, as now, incredibly rugged and forbidding.

Following the American Civil War, Mormon officials came along with a desire to expand their domain beyond Salt Lake City and set forth to establish missions in the remotest niches of the Intermountain West.  And they weren’t all that nice about it to the natives.  In the 1870s, Mormon settlers moved into the surrounding area and established several small towns.  Mormons then settled the Fold (Fremont River valley) in the 1880s and established Junction (later renamed Fruita), among others, where they planted orchards and farmed the land as well as doing some limestone mining.  Later, in 1904, the first claim to a uranium mine in the area was staked.

By 1920 life in Fruita had become quite good with around ten families living there at any one time.  The rich soil of the Fremont River flood plain was good for crops but it remained a very small community due to its isolation and the rugged terrain.   However, it was eventually abandoned only to have several of its buildings restored by the Park Service in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Today there are only two paved roads in the park.  One is UT-24 which crosses the park in an east-west direction basically following the Fremont River cutting across the fold.  In mid park, at the old town site of Fruita, another paved road, Scenic Drive, branches off to the south paralleling the fold.  This road ends at the entrance to Capitol Gorge where you can continue on foot eastward through a narrow canyon that cuts through the fold sideways.  There are several other unpaved roads some of which require a high clearance 4WD vehicle.

UT-24 1.3 miles west of Capital Reef Park Boundary
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UT-24 Just inside east side of park
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Chimney Rock
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Capital Gorge Trail
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Scenic Drive
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Scenic Drive
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Mummy Cliff
Mummy CliffMummy Cliff


I hope you enjoyed reading this first episode of our Moab Excursion and that you’ll come back for the rest of our journey.


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Or, this whole series at:

These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 

  (all images)

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Thanks for reading – Dan

(Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)


Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Hi Dan - Great to read your history of the area, and get a short geology and history lesson! I've been in that area a few times as I lived in northern Utah for 4 years, but I agree, it really is in some part of nowhere. There are areas that can be habitable when wet sequences occur, but the inevitable drought period comes along and makes it tough without very deep wells and modern infrastructure. But as you say, a lot of it is really too far from anywhere to make much development very worth while. Great photos....erosion builds amazing forms! Best wishes to you and Ellen.
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