Capitol Reef National Park is a somewhat unappreciated gem in our National Park system. Filled with sandstone cliffs nearly as tall as Zion, eroded cliffs and temples, natural bridges, wide vistas and slot canyons, it offers much to appreciate for any fan of wild country. Visited by ancient Fremont Culture natives who left their mark on the landscape in mostly subtle ways, you can see their imaginative rock carvings along the main road running through the park. Settled by Mormons in the 19th century who built orchards along the river where the visitor can still pick fruit in season.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks in Utah. This is mostly a marketing gimmick as Utah has an incredible 35 million acres of protected lands – that is 2/3 of the entire state. This includes 13 national parks. There are so many beautiful places in the state, inside of national parks and on other public lands as well, that you could spend a lifetime trying to see them all. Capitol Reef has always been much less visited than the more popular Zion, Bryce and Arches national parks, but visitation has grown a lot in recent years and crossed 1 million for the first time in 2016. As with all the national parks in Utah, visitation is greatest during the summer months. Despite this increase in visitation, you will have no trouble finding places to be alone with the beautiful scenery.
Capitol Reef gets its name not because of the existence of an ancient coral reef or anything like that, but because the huge waterpocket fold that runs along the entire length of the park looks at times like such a feature. The land folds due to great geologic forces that have twisted and flipped the landscape in a manner that will be wondrous to the casual visitor and make geologists giddy.
Most visitors to Capitol Reef only visit for a few hours, and keep to the well paved areas along highway 24 and the scenic drive south to Fruita and Capitol Gorge. Along highway 24 you’ll find several worthy places to stop and visit. If you have a high clearance vehicle, then more of Capitol Reef awaits your exploration and a couple of days will be needed to do it justice. Of course, if you are a back-country hiker, you can spend many days exploring.
Hickman Bridge is a nice easy hike suitable for families that take you to a nice natural bridge. Read all about it here or click the image.
Some excellent petroglyphs carved by the Fremont culture in approximately AD 600 to 1300 are available for easy viewing just a few steps from the parking right off of highway 24. The Fremont peoples, named for the Fremont River Valley in which their sites were discovered, were contemporaries to the Anasazi who left their mark in such places farther to the south as Mesa Verde, Canyon De Chelly and Chaco Canyon, to name but a few. The images are fanciful and what they are depicting is largely unknown. Some have gone so far as to claim they represent alien visitors.
The most prominent feature along highway 24 is probably The Castle, which is an eroded formation right across the road from the visitor center. Stop here for a bathroom break, fill your water bottles and get some information on the area.
West of the visitor center is another attractive spire called Chimney Rock. This red formation can be approached via a short hiking trail. Just to the east of Chimney Rock is a short hike to Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook. This overlook shows meandering canyons carved by a small river, but is not nearly as big as you will see at Goosenecks State Park or at Horseshoe Bend, but is still worth a look.
South on the Scenic Drive is the oasis of Capitol Reef: Fruita. Founded by Mormons in the late 19th century, its orchards once earned it the nickname “The Eden of Wayne County”. The residents never exceeded 10 families, however. When purchased by the NPS, most of the old buildings were razed. A few buildings remain, including the one room school house and the Gifford House, which sells a nice array of traditional treats. The fruit trees are carefully maintained and guests are allowed to harvest ripe fruit as long as care is taken to not harm the trees in any way.
The scenic drive continues south from Fruita along the western edge of the waterpocket fold. The views are nice as the cliffs are high and dramatic. Two canyons cut into the fold and, while unpaved, can be navigated for a bit by passenger car unless recent rains make it a danger or have washed the road out. The first is Grand Wash. This road features Cassidy Arch, which is high on the cliff and can be reached via a steep hike. You can’t drive too far into the wash but the entire distance can be hiked from this point over to where the wash ends at highway 24.
The more impressive canyon to me is Capitol Gorge. This gorge can be driven for a bit further and the walls close in more impressively. As with Grand Wash, you can walk further if you wish, but you’ll need to double back to your car. Both canyons are not navigable with longer trailers or RVs.
For those with a high clearance vehicle and the willingness to go off-road a bit, there are a couple places well worth your time. Cathedral Valley is an impressive area that will take about 6 hours to see in most cases. To do the loop requires fording a river that when passable is about 18 inches deep. The area is named for the eroded formations that look reminiscent to gothic cathedrals. Read all about Cathedral Valley here or click the image.
The other road available to high clearance vehicles is the Burr Trail. This dirt road follows the waterpocket fold south. There are some nice slot canyons along the way as well as some impressive switchbacks. The road splits at one point and you can either go west toward the small town of Boulder, Utah, or much farther south to Eggnog Junction and on to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There are other unpaved roads available as well. I haven’t made this trek yet, so it is still on my to-do list.
Be a Careful Adventurer
The paved areas of Capitol Reef will be well traversed by other travelers, but if you journey to any of the unpaved areas or hike any longer trails, make sure to be prepared. Services are few and far between and you cannot rely on someone else rescuing you. Take plenty of water and food – it can get very hot here in the summer months. City travelers can be surprised by the remoteness of places like this. We drove for 6 hours in the busy season in Cathedral Valley and met 2 cars total. There are also rattlesnakes, spiders and scorpions to consider. While the risk is small, do not put your extremities into tight places or into rock seams and holes, which are plentiful here.
Lodging and Food
There are not many options near the park for lodging and food. Plan ahead and bring a sandwich with you. You’ll have to stay at one of the motels in nearby small towns – Torrey, which is to the west of the park, is your best bet. Have a full tank of gas before proceeding off-road to Cathedral Gorge or the Burr Trail.
Park Pass Needed
Visitors to Capitol Reef have to get a park pass at the visitor center to go anywhere other than driving through the park on highway 24. Go to the visitor center to acquire the pass. An annual pass is a good deal if you are visiting several parks during 12 month period as you likely are if coming to Capitol Reef. Such nearby national parks as Arches, Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon are natural inclusions in a visit to Capitol Reef.
A gallery of pictures from Capitol Reef National Park can be seen here.
To read about other National Parks, go here.
Utah is full of things to do, learn about a bunch of them here.