Boasting the famed slot canyons of Zion National Park, the towering geologic formations in Arches National Park, and prolific, expansive desert in between, Utah has asserted itself as one of the country’s greatest playgrounds. From the hikers to the river runners to the climbers to the rambling road-trip family, this expansive state is choice. But amid the hype about the roadside wonders and the vying to Instagram a picture from underneath the Delicate Arch, one of Utah’s greatest treasures often goes overlooked: Capitol Reef National Park.
Definitively primordial, Capitol Reef is awash in eye-popping geologic formations—colorful, proud, and steeped in primitive human history. The quality of the petroglyphs rival almost any other historical site in the west. More compelling than the human history is the rich story told by the stacked layers of sediment themselves, baked in the sun, eternally tortured by erosion, and perpetually offering a peek into what the earth may have looked like millions of years before life showed up—when all that existed was earth and sky.
The region surrounding the park (and, to some degree, the park itself) is relatively underdeveloped (though Fruita Campground is one of the best in Utah) and situated over 150 miles from the nearest city, deterring many fair-weather Utah park visitors. That’s not to say that the developed campsites aren’t hard to secure during the high season, but rather that you’re not going to have to battle for a parking spot in a trailhead parking lot.
Still, as is typical of vacationers focused on adventure, visitors to Capitol Reef National Park have busy itineraries. Moab and Zion are both nearby, and chances are that Capitol is a stop over. And while those parks are also musts to visit, Capitol Reef offers a deep range of activities, terrain, and experiences that can only be enjoyed on a multi-day trip. So rally your favorite adventure pal, download some maps, and start planning your visit today.
The name “Capitol Reef” riffs off of both the common term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” and the Navajo Sandstone that characterize its landscape and bears a resemblance to our nation’s capitol building.
On a much more interesting note, geology buffs flock to Capitol Reef to bear witness to the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold. Lore depicts the devil dragging his pitchfork towards Las Vegas and leaving behind the rippled, jagged landscape. But more technically speaking, this behemoth buckle, also known as a monolith, spans from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. Violent erosion bombarding the exposed rocks for millions of years has left behind the deep canyons and the small huecos that perforate the canyon walls, giving the Waterpocket its name. This formation has also lovingly earned the name, “swiss cheese rocks,” and if you truly want to understand the phenomenon, the Burro Wash Hike and the Frying Pan Trail are best at elucidating.
Truly, though, simply rambling down the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is enough to completely overwhelm the senses. Stacked white Navajo Sandstone, red Wingate, shale and pale rose-colored Entrada Sandstone. The entire park was once submerged as the edge of an ancient shallow sea—standing atop a formation mirrors the sensation of looking at an iceberg—only a fraction of the varied and violent history is exposed.
From archaic hunters to pioneering miners, humans have left their subtle yet distinct mark on the park. Tracing back as early as 7,000 B.C.E, the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, moved through the area following big game herds. Later, these people gave way for their contemporaries—the Fremont—who are suspected to have left the pictographs and petroglyphs around the park.
Along Highway 24 just east of the visitor center, the sheer cliff band is adorned with these drawings, many of which cover a number of rock panels. Historians have been impressed and fairly baffled by the diversity of the images and the detail. Many of the anthropomorphic drawings are complete with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing, and even facial expressions. The good news: It’s hard to miss. Clear signs denote the drawings, placards break down interesting historical tidbits, and you’ll likely share the experience with a number of other visitors.
Several old structures and buildings remain from the homesteading days in the early 1900s, the most popular being the Gifford Homestead. Now a gift shop (that sells incredible pies—truly, you must try one), it still retains much of its old-world charm and is well worth a visit.
By far the best way to experience the park is on foot.
Aside: bikepackers come to Capitol Reef National Park to enjoy backcountry biking, but many of the trails are restricted to hikers only, and we highly suggest that you spend at least a day or two hiking before exploring on horseback or by bike.
There are a number of excellent trails to choose from, all leading to varied and spectacular views. If you only have a quick day, Chimney Rock Trail is a good bet. With a short 3.4-mile round-trip distance and a fabulous monolith to reward you at the terminus, it packs and excellent punch. Expect steep climbing and big rewards.
For an itinerary that allows more than just a quick loop, the Rim Overlook + Navajo Knobs Trail is one of the most popular in the park, and for good reason. It’s a long day hike—clocking in at 9.2 miles—but constantly rewards intrepid climbers with great views of the Fremont River, Pectol’s Pyramid, and fun scrambling to jaw-dropping, 360-degree views at the Navajo Knobs.
There is an outing for visitors of all abilities and itineraries. We've put together a short list of additional adventures below, but be sure to stop in at the visitor center to speak with a ranger to create the best plan for your visit.
Settled by Mormon pioneers in the mid-19th century, the neighboring town to Capitol Reef National Park and a number of other sites in the area are named “Fruita,” after the astonishingly prolific fruit tree variety found in the area. Apple, pear, peach, cherry, you name it, and early settlers planted it along the rich Fremont River. Most are still growing in the area today, giving rise to one of the most popular foodie stops in the area—the pie shop at the campground’s visitor center.
Because lodging is relatively scarce in the neighboring towns, the Fruita Campground is very popular in the high season. All sites are first-come, first-served, and spaces can fill up by noon or sooner many days. Hopeful campers can be seen cruising for a site as early as 8 a.m. as people are packing up. It’s a good idea to look for an open spot between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., especially mid-week.
If you find yourself out of luck at the campground, backcountry permits can be acquired as well as a nice spot on BLM land nearby. This land is about 7 miles away on the park’s western border. If needed, a park ranger can assist with directions.
Capitol Reef is in a high desert environment that encompasses extremes. The park receives a meager average of 8 inches of rain annually, and the late summer storms can be powerful to witness. In the height of summer, high temperatures can easily reach into the 90s and should be a consideration for those spending a long amount of time outside. The scarcity of water in this area means careful planning is essential. Winter, on the other hand, can bring low temperatures that are well below freezing, and that is before any wind chill consideration. Traveling to this park in the off season is appealing to avoid crowds, but anyone making the trek should be prepared for frigid temperatures and snow. Spring and fall are, perhaps predictably, incredible times of the year to visit. March through May sees average highs in the 60s and 70s with chilly nights, while high temperatures begin dropping to the 80s by September and can be quite comfortable through November.
If we had any advice, it would be to leave your pooch at home. Pets are restricted to within 50 feet of the center lines of paved and dirt roads that are open to public vehicle travel. They are also allowed on several trails near campgrounds but are restricted from travel along most hiking trails you’ll probably want to see while you’re there.
Capitol Reef National Park is squarely perched within a dry, hot, desert landscape. Truly, leaving your dog in the car while exploring the trails you want to see is unrealistic and can be dangerous. Carefully consider all of your options before bringing your furry friend along.