Don’t let the name fool you; Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park is not a water park. It’s the site of a nearly 100-mile long uplift in the ground—called a waterpocket fold—that has eroded over the last 50 million years creating a spectacular ridge of cliffs in south-central Utah. Visitors come to the park to marvel at the bluffs along its 8-mile Scenic Drive, hike secluded desert trails, and get a glimpse of what life was like for the settlers who made a home along the Fremont River a hundred years ago. In the past, the other Utah national parks often overshadowed Capitol Reef; now, it has a reputation of its own as a world-class outdoor destination with over one million people visiting each year.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the oasis-like valley surrounding what is now Capitol Reef National Park’s visitor center was a remote community of settlers trying to start a new life. Those fewer than ten families who lived in the area for the better part of a century must have thought their little town of Fruita was heaven on earth. Their orchards prospered, and they grew sorghum, vegetables, and alfalfa. Capitol Reef became a National Monument in 1937, but visitors didn’t start arriving until the road to Fruita was paved in 1952. By the late 1960s, the last family had moved away, and in 1971, Richard Nixon made it a national park.
Where it is
Capitol Reef is in the southern third of Utah, about 30 miles south of Interstate-70 as the crow flies, and centered east-west in the state. State Route 24 dips below I-70 and makes a loop through the park between the small towns of Torrey (10 miles from the visitor center to the west) and Hanksville (37 miles from the visitor center to the east) before heading back north to rejoin I-70. It’s a long and narrow park running north and south; most of the popular activities are centered around the Fruita area where SR-24 intersects the park, but the harder-to-reach sections of the park are worth the effort to seek out.
The closest other “Big Five” national parks are Bryce Canyon (120 miles to the southwest), and Arches (145 miles to the east). The drive between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, mostly on State Route 12, is a must-see National Scenic Byway, but it can be treacherous in winter months between Torrey and Boulder, Utah to the south due to snow in the mountains. Salt Lake City is 224 miles to the northwest, Las Vegas is 334 miles to the southwest, and Denver is 437 miles to the east.
When to go
The park is open every day of the year. Spring and Fall are the busiest times because of the mild temperatures during the day. These are our two favorite seasons to visit the park, but there is a trade-off for having temps in the 50s to 70s during the day: it can be frigid at night. A 20-25-degree difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows is common. The park closes the Gifford Homestead in the winter (generally November 1 through March 14), but otherwise, you can do most everything else in the park that’s available during the rest of the year.
See some history, buy a pie
The Gifford Homestead, at the center of the 200-acre Fruita Rural Historical District just south of the park’s visitor center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and worth a quick visit. The renovated farmhouse is an example of how the settlers lived in the area in the early twentieth century. The Gifford family was the last to live in the park; they left for good in 1969. Park at the small lot by the farmhouse and walk south along the park road to get a photo of the barn with the red cliffs in the background. If you’re lucky, the horses in the pasture will position themselves next to the barn to give your picture the perfect pastoral touch.
Next to the farmhouse is a Natural History Association-managed gift shop. Generally, we don’t spend a lot of time in gift shops when there are so many amazing sights to see outdoors, but this one is different: they sell homemade fruit pies. While we love the drives and hikes in the park, buying pies at the gift shop ranks right at the top of our list of favorite things to do in Capitol Reef. Note: hike first, then eat pie.
The park maintains nineteen of the orchards that the Mormon settlers established in the park. Each year, visitors are allowed to pick fruit from the nearly 3,100 fruit trees. Cherries are the first crop ready for harvest; they can be picked in June. July is apricot month. Pears are ready in August and apples in September. We picked apples in two different orchards on our first visit; the deer were eating the ones that fell on the ground (and the ones Karen rolled in their direction). Check with the visitor center for information about which orchards are open for picking and be prepared to pay a small donation for any fruit you take with you.
There weren’t many families living in Fruita, yet the few that settled the area had lots of children, and they all needed to learn their “three-Rs.” In 1896, Elijah Cutler Behunin donated the land where the one-room Fruita Schoolhouse still stands. The structure is closed to visitors, but you can peek through the windows to get a glimpse of what it was like in the early twentieth century when a dozen or more restless kids spent their winter days—during the rest of the year they were working the farms. Just east of the visitor center on SR-24 is a small pullout on the north side of the road where you can park while checking out the schoolhouse.
Continue east on SR-24 a quarter of a mile, and you’ll find another pullout where you can park and walk a short distance to see excellent examples of ancient rock art. The petroglyphs at the end of the boardwalk were carved into the rock by Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in the area from about 600 to 1300 A.D. The park has many other petroglyphs, although the park service often is reticent to disclose their locations in order to prevent vandalism. That said, whenever you are hiking in southern Utah, keep your eyes peeled; there’s always the possibility of stumbling across an ancient petroglyph.
Drives in the park
The Scenic Drive south of the visitor center is one of the most beautiful drives in the national park system. We like to drive it in the afternoon when the angle of the sun is lower; that’s when the colors of the cliffs seem to be at their best. While admission to the rest of the park is free, they charge a $15 fee per car to drive the scenic road, well worth it in our opinion. Follow this link for a complete guide to the points of interest along the Scenic Drive.
If you’re looking for “stark landscapes and solitude,” consider a drive through the Cathedral District of the park north of State Route 24. A couple of miles east of the park’s eastern boundary on SR-24 is the turnoff onto Hartnet Road. Follow this road north, and it will eventually re-enter the park as it veers to the northwest. You’ll want to be driving a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle for this route; shortly after leaving SR-24, you’ll have to ford the Fremont River.
Twenty-eight miles from SR-24, you’ll reach the Cathedral Valley Campground where you can turn north to make a loop back to SR-24 on Cathedral Road. If you decide to drive the Cathedral Road, be sure to take the short side trip to see the Temples of the Sun and Moon; a sign by the road marks the turn-off to these unique monoliths. Stop by the information desk at the visitor center before traveling into the backcountry. They’ll give you an up-to-date report on road conditions and provide you with a map of the area.
A couple more off-the-beaten-path options are the Notom-Bullfrog Road and The Burr Trail. You can combine these roads into an all-day driving loop that the park refers to as the Loop-the-Fold Tour. When the roads are dry, they’re passable in most passenger vehicles; when wet, forget about it even if you have four-wheel-drive. The rangers at the visitor center can advise you as to the loop’s condition; stop there first before attempting the drive.
The one thing we’ve learned from writing about our travels is that people don’t just want information, they want recommendations. Regarding hiking trails, this is particularly true. The dilemma is that everyone is different; a hike we enjoy might bore you to bits and vice versa. Therefore, we’ll give you both: descriptions of some of the trails we’ve enjoyed, and general information about the other trails in the park.
Also, our number one piece of hiking advice is to go to the visitor center and talk with a ranger at the information desk before making your final decision. There are several reasons why it’s important to do this, even when you already have your heart set on a particular trail:
- Rangers have the experience to match your skill and physical condition to a hike that you’ll enjoy and are capable of doing safely. We usually tell the ranger up front the length and difficulty level of a trail we’re looking for and how much time we have. This information helps them to come up with a recommendation more quickly.
- No one knows the park and its trails better than the rangers who live and work there. They might have suggestions of trails you’re not familiar with that you should consider.
- Most importantly, they know the current conditions in the park and the on the trails you’re considering. The most popular trail in the park might be a waste of your time to attempt if the bridge is washed out and you can’t get to its amazing destination. Also, they can suggest an alternative which could turn out to be better than your original idea.
Some of our favorite hikes
- Gooseneck Overlook – From the parking lot to the overlook is about a 500-foot walk, although there is a little bit of uphill to the path. The dramatic views from the overlook are of the canyon formed as Sulphur Creek meanders through the park, 800 feet below.
- Sunset Point – This trailhead is at the same parking lot as the Goosenecks Overlook, and a .4-mile walk takes you to the place to capture a sunset photo in the park. Facing east, with your back to the sun, the cliffs in front of you will change colors before your eyes while the snow-capped tops of the Henry Mountains in the background provide a stunning contrast.
- Grand Wash – Grand Wash is a 2.2-mile (one way), generally flat, scenic walk through a deep canyon. You can access the trail from either State Route 24 or from Grand Wash Road, which is a side-trip off the Scenic Drive.
- Cassidy Arch – If you want more of a workout and some incredible views, take a detour off the Grand Wash, and climb the Cassidy Arch Trail 3.6 miles to Cassidy Arch. Those not afraid of heights can walk across the top of the arch and peer down into the valley some 600+ feet below.
- Hickman Bridge – From the parking area for the petroglyph panel along SR-24, follow the Hickman Bridge Trail east for about a mile (plus 400 feet elevation gain) to view the 133-foot natural bridge.
For more information about trails in the three main district of the park, follow the links below:
Animals in the park
At one time, bighorn sheep lived in the area that’s now Capitol Reef National Park but disappeared, presumably due to overhunting and disease. In the 1990s, the park reintroduced 40 bighorns from Canyonlands National Park. Today they can be seen in the high, rocky areas of the park south and east of the visitor center. Mountain lions also live in the park and prey on the sheep. Clinging to the steep, stony cliffs is a way for the sheep to keep safe from predators.
Mule deer are common in the Fruita area of the park. They browse for food in the valley and love to hang around the park’s orchards; late summer and fall is an excellent time for them to scavenge for fallen fruit.
Visitors rarely see rattlesnakes in the park, but when they do, it’s likely to be a species called the Midget Faded Rattlesnake. They might be small—usually less than two feet in length—but they are one of the most venomous snakes in North America. Gopher snakes are common in the park. They hiss and shake their tails like rattlers, have similar markings, yet are not venomous. Adult gopher snakes are large: often five to six feet long, which is an easy way to tell them apart from the midget rattlers. However, when in doubt, treat all snakes as potentially dangerous. Check with the visitor center before hiking in the park to get a more detailed description of the wildlife you might encounter in the park.
The only developed campsites in the park are in the Fruita Campgrounds. According to the park’s website: The Fruita Campground is… adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards, this developed campground has 64 RV/tent sites and 7 walk-in tent sites. Each site has a picnic table and firepit (walk-in sites have a grill instead of a firepit), but no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups. There is a RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. Restrooms feature running water and flush toilets, but no showers. Accessible sites are located adjacent to restrooms.
The nightly fee is $20.00 ($10.00 for Golden Age/Senior Pass or Golden Access/Access Pass holders). Check-out time is 11:00 am. The Fruita Campground is open year-round. Campsites are reservable from March 1 – October 31. Visit www.recreation.gov to make a reservation. Reservations are accepted 6 months ahead of time. From November 1 – February 28, all campsites are first come, first served.
Primitive, no-fee campsites are also available at a couple of locations within the park: Cathedral Valley Campground and Cedar Mesa Campground. For a list of all the camping options in the park, follow this link.
Where to stay (and eat)
From the visitor center, Capitol Reef Resort is the closest place to stay. It’s a few miles west of the park entrance on State Route 24. We’ve stayed there every time we’ve visited the park and have no complaints. Many of the rooms have views to the north of the beautiful red cliffs; late in the day, as the sun sinks, the cliffs glow. Torrey has a half dozen other hotels/motels to choose from.
If you’re looking for a place for dinner, try the Broken Spur Inn. We’ve eaten dinner there and can report that both the food and service were excellent. Their menu is typical American fare: I had a steak and mashed potatoes. The steak was fantastic, the mash potatoes looked good, but I turned my head to look at the view out of the window, and when I turned back, they were gone. I asked Karen if she saw where they went, and she replied, “Wha mapapatos?”
In addition to having traditional motel-style rooms, the Broken Spur Inn has Conestoga Wagons—yes, wagons—in an adjacent parking lot that they’ve converted into sleeping quarters. The manager of the Inn showed us photos of their interiors and told us they are very popular in the summer. The wagons don’t have bathrooms, but there are restroom facilities next to the parking lot for guests to use. Basically, it’s a step up from camping; we may have to try one out on our next visit.