• Michael O'Keeffe

Escaping the Smoke in Zion + Capitol Reef, UT

In early September, my girlfriend Chyna and I took a trip down to the Sierra in California for a week of backpacking and camping. Upon arrival in June Lake, CA, the wildfire smoke that was already plaguing the state and most of the West for that matter was getting worse. It wasn't even 20 minutes after getting out of the car, pumping up the paddleboards that I received a call saying Inyo National Forest is closing due to worsening fire conditions. Our campsite for the next few nights and our backpacking permits were canceled and refunded and by 5pm that day we'd have no where to go. We hurried to secure an Airbnb in June Lake, which was not ideal, until we could figure out what to do next. We decided to still paddle as the smoke was not too bad at the time and we had a few hours until the closure. The waters of June Lake are just stunning, crystal clear against the white granite.

After some dinner and beer on the patio at the new brewery Distant Brewing in Mammoth Lakes, we decided on our backup plan. We'd head east to Utah to explore Zion and Capitol Reef, two places we had to cancel trips for back in April during the height of the COVID lockdowns. A cold front had moved through the Rocky Mountain region scouring out the smoke. After six hours of driving across the desolate Nevada desert battling insane 60MPH crosswinds (I lost a year off my life that day) we made it to Utah.

The first hike of the trip was a morning hike to a spot in the lesser known Kolob Terrace region of the park. It was a beautiful trek through ponderosa forest and then off trail across open slickrock to a view of the park's deepest wilderness. My photos this morning did not turn out great. Never the less, it was a great morning to get out on a hike spending quality time with Chyna. The second hike I did solo up to an area in the park's underrated eastern canyons. It was another route that was exclusively off trail that provided big views of Zion's most dramatic peaks. There are photos from this hike below.


A panoramic view of Zion Canyon from a ridgetop in Zion National Park in Utah.
Looking into Zion Canyon from a remote ridgetop in Zion's east side.
Sunset over red slickrock canyons in Zion National Park in Utah.
Sunset in the stunning slickrock canyons of Zion's east side.
A dry streambed over slickrock in Zion National Park in Utah.
A dry streambed over slickrock in Zion National Park.
Red slickrock canyons at sunset in Zion National Park in Utah.
A close-up of the dramatic slickrock canyons in Zion's east side.
Sunset over the canyons of Zion National Park in Utah.
Looking through endless slickrock to Zion's Main Canyon.

The next day we drove north up to Capitol Reef National Park. The park is located smack in the middle of Utah in the San Rafael Swell, a broad region of uplifted sandstone leading to miles of ridges, canyons, slots, and peaks. The name Capitol Reef comes form the early settlers to the area that found the park's signature white sandstone domes to be similar to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Of Utah's five national parks, Capitol Reef sees the least amount of traffic. We nabbed a permit for a short but sweet overnight up to a central spot in the park's backcountry with big views of the wilderness. Photos from our overnight backpack are below.


A hiker backpacking in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Backpacking under white slickrock domes.
Close up of the rugged terrain in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
A close-up of the magical desert wilderness.
A sunset view looking towards Fruita in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Strange rocks atop a white dome looking towards Fruita.
A panoramic of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Looking towards the signature white domes that give Capitol Reef its name.
White sandstone domes in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
A close-up of the white sandstone domes just after sunset.
A hiker enjoys the view at sunset in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Chyna enjoys the last light of the day from the view at camp.
A hiker stands under the Milky Way in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Chyna under the Milky Way.
Camping under the stars in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Capitol Reef National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Preserve.
First light in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
First light over the wonderful flora of Capitol Reef.
Sunrise over a gnarled juniper in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Sun breaks over a gnarled juniper.
Sandstone canyon close up in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
A close-up of a nearby canyon conveys the scale of this place.
A canyon at sunrise in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Looking into a remote canyon from camp.
A close up of a canyon at sunrise in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
A close-up from the same spot.
Geology in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Capitol Reef is located along the Waterpocket Fold is an 80 mile long ridge uplifted out of the desert.
A wild canyon in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
The wild canyon below our camp.
Flora in the desert of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
There is no place on Earth quite like the Colorado Plateau.
A close up of the fins, ridges, and domes of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
A close up of the fins, ridges, and domes of Capitol Reef National Park.

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