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Terrific last-minute vacations; Utah's Capital Reef: spectacular and mostly uncrowded.

Terrific last-minute vacations

A lot of us have had a hard time this year getting organized for summer vacation. But school's letting out, and the moment of truth is at hand. Does that mean getting stuck with the highest prices, being assigned the cabin down by the highway, or staying home? Read on. We offer 15 good reasons for dusting off the backpack, opera glasses, and water wings.

Except for the big holiday weekends, all the places we describe have the vacancy sign out this summer (at some, there's a cost savings since summer is the off-season). Even without our bias, these are spectacular "only in the West" destinations. Some may be close enough to visit on a long weekend. Others provide enough fodder for several weeks of contentment.

Utah's Capitol Reef:

spectacular and

mostly uncrowded

Chocolate- and vanilla-layered cliffs, smooth golden domes, and burnt umber towers--some of the most varied and colorful landforms in Utah are in one of that state's least visited national parks. Visitation is increasing, but Capitol Reef is still an easy ticket for late planners.

You can find inexpensive, last-minute lodging all summer--helped this year by a bid new motel near the west entrance. A drawback: all lodging is outside the park. Park campsites (no RV hookups) are available on a first-come basis; the shady Fruita Campground, near the river, stays pleasant even when days heat up.

A Capitol Reef visit works well as part of a southern Utah vacation. Coming from the west, a logical one-week trip might start at Zion National Park, move to Bryce, and finish at Capitol Reef (in reverse coming from the east). With a second week, you could add a swing through Canyonlands and Arches national parks farther east. Another option: do a three-day houseboat trip out of Bullfrog marina on Lake Powell's north end, then wind up the week at Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef is twice as big as Bryce, but it lacks that park's spectacular overlooks and touristy services (helicopter tours, chuckwagon rides). And whereas Zion lays out its major highlights off a valley loop drive, Capitol Reef withholds some of its best scenery for those willing to get out of the car. Capitol Reef is higher than Zion, lower than Bryce, and quieter than either--with a fourth of the visitors Zion draws, two-thirds of those Bryce gets.

By four wheels or two

Two paved roads--State 24 and Scenic Drive--give access to the highlights. A good place to start is the park's visitor center off State 24, with free brochures and updated trail and road conditions. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, tour the unpaved back roads, using new self-guiding brochures on four-wheel-drive roads. Or join jeep tours with Hondoo Rivers and Trails; call (800) 332-2696.

If your stay is brief, at least take 1 1/2 hours to make the 25-mile round trip on Scenic Drive to Capitol Gorge. Other highlights: a walk to the Goosenecks (panoramas), the Grand Wash hike (sheer canyon walls), Fremont River (picnic or swim).

Mountain biking is permitted on more than a hundred miles of park roads but not on trails; get a free map at the visitor center. Scenic Drive is a good morning ride; go early, before traffic starts.

Hiking, beating the heat

All trails begin at elevations from 5,300 to 7,000 feet--carry water, and take it slow. Off State 24, try Sunset Point Trail in late afternoon for vistas; it's an easy 1-mile jaunt (out and back) over a level trail, passing flaming red Moenkopi formation siltstone walls. Hickman Bridge Trail is a moderate 2-mile hike along a self-guiding nature trail that begins at 5,320 feet, then climbs 400 feet to the bridge (morning light shows the arch best).

Off Scenic Drive, take a strenuous but rewarding 4-mile hike to the Golden Throne and back. The trail climbs out of a gorge to the base of the throne.

To beat midday heat, consider a dip in the Fremont River swimming hole (get directions at the visitor center) or pick fruit in the Fruita orchards (see box).

Burr Trail--to pave or not to pave?

This controversial 66-mile road at the park's south end links Boulder with Lake Powell. The first 29 miles from Boulder were smoothed and widened. Some locals hope it will soon be entirely paved to make it safer and draw tourism; conservationists say it would cause environmental damage and traffic. For now, roadwork is proceeding in some sections.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Last-Minute Vacation '91; includes related article on summer vacation planner
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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