Capitol Reef: Utah’s Sleeper-Hit National Park
This is how we somewhat intentionally, sort of accidentally arrived in Utah’s newest, least visited national park: Capitol Reef.
It all started in Bryce Canyon
As soon as we arrived in Bryce Canyon NP, we swooped straight in to the ranger station. It was barely daylight, and the smell of fresh coffee punctuated the air. Alan struck up a conversation with the pony-tailed guy with the mountain-man beard behind the counter. After the ranger drew “the perfect route” for us to hike all over our map, Alan mentioned that we had “a full day tomorrow before catching our 7 PM flight in Salt Lake. What should we do?” He meant in Bryce- the park we were currently standing in.
The conversation went something like this:
“Have you been to Capitol Reef, yet?”
“No. We were thinking about trying to get there…”
“If you weren’t planning on going, you should seriously consider canceling whatever plans you had and going straight there instead. It’s the best park in Utah, hands down…. and I’m from here.”
Woah. OK. Hold up. That’s a serious endorsement! We had heard about this Capitol Reef character. It was so close to Bryce, and it seemed to be somewhat on the way back to Salt Lake.
I usually try to squeeze too much in to a trip, so I thought it best to limit our five day visit to two national parks. But here was this guy, convincing us that we couldn’t come all this way and miss Capitol Reef. What’s more, he made a strong argument for being able to see Bryce Canyon’s highlights in one full day (instead of two) on the route he laid out for us. Then we could make our way to Capitol Reef and see a whole new park, and.… get this……
AND we would drive through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Dixie National Forest (a few times, apparently, because Dixie connects all the parks in the area via huge, non-contiguous swathes of land).
Another point for minimalistic vacation planning and maintaining a flexible schedule.
Capitol Reef is famous for its unique geological structure, the waterpocket fold, a wrinkle in the earth. We didn’t have time to check it out (it’s in the southern end of the park), but next time…. next time.
Nomadic hunter-gatherers migrated through the area long ago, leaving petroglyphs as archaic evidence of their presence.
The Freemont culture became a permanent fixture around 500 AD. Much, much later, the Mormons arrived and established the Fruita Rural Historic District in the 1800s, planting fruit orchards, like the apples that are still there today. An historic school house also remains.
They also left their own “we were here” rock carvings high on the rock cliffs.
Driving and Hiking
Short on time, we took the main highway 24 through the center of the park to see the Fruita Historic District, petroglyphs, and Capitol Dome.
Although Capitol Reef is 100 miles long, it’s very narrow, so this takes no time at all- an hour max.
From there, we backtracked and then took the scenic drive south, per the ranger’s recommendation.
We drove down both Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash, which are essentially canyon trails with gravel-dirt roads. Cars are allowed until a certain point, then you have to park and hike. We did a little mini-hike.
The canyon walls are tall, the gorges narrow at points.
The best thing about all of this was that there was hardly a soul around. It was like we had the place to ourselves.
Utah, A Treasure Trove of National Parks
At the end of the day, I don’t think we could have made better choices about how to spend our five days in Utah.
Zion NP seemed to offer the most diversity in terms of trails. One day will find you wading through a white water river at the bottom of a slot canyon, and the next, you’re scaling a canyon ridge with a birds-eye-view of the park. You could probably spend the most time in Zion. Our favorite part of the park was the least popular area on top of the ridge. Zion was the most crowded of the parks, although not too packed in early November.
Bryce Canyon surprised me. I didn’t think I would love it as much as I did. as I knew it would be more barren and desert-like (the valleys of Zion are more lush, verdant. I like lush). Here, we enjoyed our favorite hike of the entire trip, one of the best in the world, according to National Geographic.
Capitol Reef was the total sleeper; the underdog that won our hearts at the very end. We got the perfect sample of the park, just a little taste, and left wanting to come back for more. It was so remote that it felt like our private place. We’d like to go back and explore the Waterpocket Fold in the south and Cathedral Valley in the north.