Fortress of Solitude, 5280, August 2018

CapreefWEBUtah’s Capitol Reef National Park serves up stupendous red-rock scenery—without the frustrating summertime crowds you’ll encounter at other nearby parks.

Maybe it’s my rumbling stomach, but as I gaze across the sandstone domes surrounding the lofty Cassidy Arch Trail in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, I’m reminded of candy. The blond rock formations look like 400-foot-tall nuggets of caramel—or maybe gumdrops, given their rounded tops. Infatuated with the view, or just the notion of sugar, I stop hiking and simply stand in the middle of the cliffside path so I can cast my eyes across the sea of amber knobs and gullies.

This sudden halt would never work in most national parks, where popular trails see so much traffic that stopping mid-current is akin to stalling in I-25’s passing lane. More than 4.4 million people visited Rocky Mountain National Park last year, and 4.5 million visited Zion, about a four-hour drive from where I now stand. Should you pause to catch your breath while attempting that national park’s iconic hike to Angels Landing, you’d obstruct a parade of other hikers unless you stepped off the trail.

By comparison, Capitol Reef receives about one million annual visitors. Yet it’s just as scenic as the region’s more popular parks: The buffed cliffs are every bit as stunning as Zion’s fantastically sculpted canyon or the Needles section of Canyonlands.

So where is everybody? The silence of the surrounding desert makes the crunch of my granola bar—an absolute necessity after my Willy Wonka–style daydream—sound like a landslide; I pause briefly between bites to savor the emptiness. There’s no distant chatter or road noise, no bird- song, no breeze rustling the sparse clumps of blackbrush and juniper.

“Let’s have a quiet contest,” proposes Simone, my seven-year-old daughter. The winner will be the last person to make an audible sound. As my ears strain against the vacuum, I feel uneasy, as if I’ve stepped into a sensory-deprivation chamber.

Then, after a few minutes, I relax and let the silence suck away the tension.

“Incredible,” I murmur, relishing a newfound sense of lightness.

“You lost,” Simone says. Yet with spectacular scenery and relative solitude as consolation prizes, I feel like I’ve won.

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