Chimney Rock is located in Capitol Reef National Park. Photo by Jake Byk.

Finding Comfort in Utah’s Red Rocks

Jake Byk is the marketing coordinator for the Climbing Wall Association and an outdoor adventurer who lives in Colorado.

There’s something profound about returning to the same place and seeing it unchanged. This isn’t a luxury afforded without cost — but the payout grows when you have changed. It’s grounding, metaphorical, powerful.

During times of struggle, I unconsciously find myself driving west. In March 2020, I made it to the border of Utah before even thinking about where I was headed. I watched the sunset over the distant red rocks of Arches National Park and decided to stop near the border of Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Park. I pitched my tent on public lands along the Fremont River.

Gathered around a campfire like nomads during a plague, I swapped stories with strangers who were also lost during the early days of 2020. We didn’t know about masks, social distancing, the half a million Americans who would die in the next year. I didn’t know all of the terror, the trauma this year would bring before I’d find a semblance of stable soil to stand on. But I was grounded, I was stable. The bank of the river where I slept was strong, hardened from centuries of pounding rain and flash floods. I too, can be strong despite the torrential storm coming.

I soon arrived in Capitol Reef National Park and looked up at Chimney Rock, a towering sandstone formation at the center of the park. I ran to the top of it and watched a storm approach over the Henry Mountains to the south. I got cell service for the first time in days and was informed Utah was also shutting down and I should get back to Denver. Both literally and metaphorically, the storm was on the horizon.

The Henry Mountains in southern Utah are a mecca for backcountry enthusiasts. Photo by Jake Byk.

In January 2021, I drove from the border of Arizona to Denver after a three day backpacking trip in a slot canyon. “Can we make a detour?” My friend obliged and we traveled toward Capitol Reef (for what ended up being a three hour detour). Bless friends who embrace the path less taken.

Chimney Rock was of course still there. I pulled over on the highway and thought of all the uncertainty, the fear, doubt, anger, confusion, that would come for me and for the world a year ago. How much have I changed?

Yet with centuries of erosion, Chimney Rock still stands. And so I stood on the side of the road, quietly overwhelmed with emotion. How cool is it, Chimney Rock, that somehow, we’re both still here?

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So many of our country’s parks and public lands written about in these love notes would not exist but for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Capitol Reef National Park mentioned above was supported with funds from LWCF. This important conservation program was permanently funded when Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act last year. You can learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund here.

Would you like to write about public lands that you cherish? Please email Mary Jo Brooks at brooksm@nwf.org for guidelines. You’ll get this cool sticker as a thank you.

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National Wildlife Federation — Our Public Lands

National Wildlife Federation — Our Public Lands

The National Wildlife Federation public lands program advocates for our public lands and waters, wildlife and the right of every American to enjoy them.