The Utah landscape looked barren as I traveled on the roads leading to four well-known national parks, Arches, Zion, Bryce, and Canyonlands. The sweeping desert plains are speckled with immense rugged buttes rising from a sea of sand sprinkled with pinyon-junipers and mixed shrubs.
However, variations in Utah’s topography, geology, elevation, and precipitation combine to create seven zones within the state, resulting in a patchwork of pinyon-juniper, ponderosa, and mixed conifer forests, grasslands, mixed shrubs, and towering red rock ridges popular with mountain climbers.
Capitol Reef National Park is a remarkable place often considered not worth a stop in the rush to see its more photographed natural phenomenal siblings. I fell in love with this little secret place in Utah and had quite a few fantastic experiences that I am glad to share. I started with park rangers in the well-designed visitor center and ended the day with an apple.
1. Scenic State Highway 24
The main route into Capitol Reef National Park, State Highway 24, is a beautiful drive long before reaching the park. After entering the park, pay a small fee to continue following the route’s sidekick leading to historic sites, trailheads, and amazing views. The road ends suddenly, blocked by the impressive monocline and a favorite hiking trail leading towards the massive bulge of rock. Beware of bicyclists who love this less traveled route winding through unusual rock formations created by the earth’s gradual movements.
2. Unique Hiking Trails
15 trails varying in length from half a mile to 4.7 miles provide incredible views and canyon experiences. One pleasant easy trail that winds through the canyon following the river is the Fremont River Trail. The Capitol Gorge trail was once the main gap in the rugged monocline and was the primary travel route for Native tribes and later Mormon settlers.
Other more strenuous trails lead the robust hiker to the top of dramatic cliffs with drop-offs that gave me goosebumps but were well worth the hike with vistas of the Waterpocket Fold. Beware of altitude sickness and carry plenty of water. Trekking poles are recommended on all trails.
3. Abundant Wildlife
Over 100 species of mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians call Utah home, along with 239 species of birds and 900 species of plants. Many are found at Capitol Reef. Park Rangers at headquarters sometimes know where to find the rare bighorn sheep that blend in with the canyon walls, though binoculars are helpful. Stop along your hike and look up often. On the Grand Wash Road Trail, a dry streambed, I spotted a peregrine falcon soaring slowly overhead.
4. Petroglyphs And Pictographs
Not far from the visitor center are the first signs of humans who lived thousands of years in this miraculous canyon. The Fremont culture, ancestors of current Hopi, Zuni, and Paiute tribes, farmed the canyon floor that became rich and fertile from rain-induced streams flowing down the canyon walls.
These first Americans left behind their story via petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) dating from 300 to 1300 C.E. Hunted animals such as elk and bighorn sheep are drawn perfectly, while other images are unclear. One interesting figure is thought to be a spacesuit. These interesting drawings are debated even today by tribal leaders and historians as to their meaning. The canyon was abandoned for almost 200 years, leaving only these stone records of their lives.
5. Pick Fruit In An Orchard
The fertile soil and protection from wind create the perfect microclimate for farming and cultivated by Native tribes for thousands of years who created a unique irrigation system by forming culverts for rainwater to flow down into the valley. When the Mormon settlers arrived, the irrigation system was found intact, and they immediately saw the potential.
Soon after arriving, they planted grape, apple, apricot, peach, pear, plum, and nut trees. These historic orchards hold almost 3,100 trees in a three-square mile area that is today managed by the National Park Service — using the same historic irrigation system. Visitors can pick fruit from that day’s designated orchard which is posted at the visitor center and varies by season.
Not hesitating on a sunny September day, I filled a paper bag with perfectly ripened apples. A few locals said the cherry and peach trees are especially beautiful during the spring flowering season. Handpicked fruit is free for snacks; however, a small fee is charged per pound for fruit taken out of the park.
6. The Fruita Rural Historic District
In the center of the canyon lies Fruita, once a small community of hard-working farmers looking for a better life. In the early days, the road through the canyon was rocky and often washed out by flash floods, forcing the isolated community to become self-sufficient. They built their own schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, church, community center, and an interesting post office.
The town was donated to the National Park Service and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — including a famous cottonwood tree used as a “post office.” Mail arrived by wagon from Torrey located 11 miles to the west. Outgoing mail was placed in a bag hung on the tree and picked up by the postman every 3 weeks, adding new mail before leaving. The tree still stands in the picnic area along the Scenic Drive.
7. Gifford House Fruit Pie
Once the area was designated a national park in 1937, residents began to disband, with the last family leaving Fruita in 1969. The Gifford House is beautifully restored and used as a lovely gift shop festooned with period items from settlers. The shop sells freshly baked fruit pies, cookbooks, jellies, and souvenirs. Picnic tables await in the shady yard perfect for snack attacks, mine was a still-warm peach turnover. Don’t make my mistake and only buy one jar of peach jam. I need to get a bigger ice chest!
8. Camp In An Orchard
Unfortunately, I discovered this park by taking an unexpected detour, and already had a hotel room reserved for the night. However, I checked out lodging options in the park which are only campgrounds set in the middle of apple orchards. The sites are complete with picnic tables, fire grates, restrooms, water, and RV dump stations. This is where I picked my apples. One group site can be reserved, and backcountry camping permits are available at the visitor center.
Capitol Reef National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, and according to my Utah friends has amazing night sky views of stars, mainly because of its isolated location. A few spots recommended by the park rangers include Slickrock Divide and Danish Hill on the Scenic Drive, Panorama Point on State Highway 24 2 miles west of the visitor center, and the Fruita Campground Amphitheater parking lot. Check out this Clear Dark Sky website for the best time to see stars at Capitol Reef.
10. Artist-in-Residence (AiR)
I learned of this program while touring the visitor center. The AiR program offers professional artists the opportunity to express Capitol Reef’s inspiring landscapes. Selected artists will have the use of park housing for their 2–4 weeks residency plus $500 to assist with travel and supply expenses.
The History Of Capitol Reef National Park
Over 75 million years ago, a massive mountain-building event caused an ancient fault to open and create a one-sided fold of rock called the Waterpocket Fold. This elongated formation of horizontal layers called a monocline was lifted more than 7,000 feet and is still moving. Almost 90 miles in length, it is considered the longest exposed monocline in North America. When looking down from the ridge top, the solid rock “fold” resembles ocean waves flowing over a reef.
Another striking formation in this park is a large white round rock that seemingly glows among red boulders. Located along the highest point of the park, the rock can be seen for many miles and was used as a landmark by early settlers traveling west. Reminded of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., they named the rock Capitol Dome. Both the reef images together with the rock later inspired the name of the park.