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Adventurer’s Guide To Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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Established in 1971

Capitol Reef may be Utah’s most underrated National Park. It encompasses over 240,000 acres, covering some of the most striking geological features in the state, which anyone who has visited Utah will tell you is nothing to shrug at. In fact, the park is so unique that its defining feature, a 100-mile long uplift in the earth’s crust, has its own geological name – The Waterpocket Fold. In short, Capitol Reef is a one-of-a-kind fortress of sandstone towers filled with historical and archaeological treasures.

But Capitol Reef’s isolation from major cities makes it more of a chore to get to, and its long, narrow shape makes it hard to explore in its entirety. There are nooks and crannies of the park which are (comparatively) rarely set foot in. It’s not the kind of place you’d recommend to someone who wants to see it all in an afternoon and be back to a comfy hotel room by sundown. But if you’re willing to go the distance, Capitol Reef will reward you right off the bat with strange, mysterious, and awe-inspiring sights and experiences you can’t get anywhere else.

If that last sentence describes you, then you’re in luck. We’ve compiled a comprehensive guide on Capitol Reef National Park to showcase everything about the park, some of the big reasons to go, and a list of things to do while you’re there. This is Capitol Reef National Park, in a nutshell.

Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah,

History, Summarized

Capitol Reef was first “discovered” in the modern day by Almon H. Thompson, a member of the second expedition to explore the Colorado River led by Major J.W. Powell. Thompson made a vast overland detour away from the Colorado to find the mouth of the Dirty Devil River, which led him through the Waterpocket Fold. After Thompson’s return, the area would not be successfully settled for some time due to it’s ruggedness.

However, long before white explorers entered the Capitol Reef area, it was populated by the Fremont native peoples. Little is understood about the way they lived, though they left behind a great deal. We know that they existed in the area around the year 1000 CE, and disappeared mysteriously in the 1200s. They practiced agriculture, built houses and granaries from stone, and produced fascinating artworks which they etched into the brilliantly-colored rocks of Capitol Reef. Remnants of their rich, colorful culture can be found all over the southwest in abandoned dwellings, pot fragments, and petroglyphs, and Capitol Reef is no exception.

By the 1870s and ‘80s, a few towns in and around the Reef had been settled by newly-arrived Mormon pioneers. Torrey, Fruita (not Colorado, the other one), and Caineville were founded to support a semi-militaristic push by the LDS church to drive the modern-day native inhabitants of the area away. Later, the uranium mining industry would boom (and then bust) in the surrounding area, bringing more people to the Capitol Reef for a brief period.

Attempts to legally protect the land began in 1937, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt named it a National Monument. The name “Capitol Reef” was taken from early settlers, who compared the prominent white domes of the park to the US Capitol building. The park was “upgraded” to National Park status in 1971, permanently preserving the stunning landscape for low-impact recreational use.

Geology, In Layman’s Terms

Panoramic view of the Waterpocket Fold in Capital Reef National Park, Utah.

Panoramic view of the Waterpocket Fold in Capital Reef National Park, Utah.

As mentioned above, all of the dramatic landscapes in Capitol Reef exist because of a singular geological formation: the Waterpocket Fold. But what exactly is it? To put it briefly, the Waterpocket Fold is a roughly 100 mile-long uplift, or wrinkle, in the earth’s crust. This creates a massive “step up” moving from east to west, exposing a cross section of different types of sandstone in layers. This type of formation, called a monocline, can be observed in several other places around the world. But the Waterpocket Fold stands out for both its size and the continuousness of its shape. Viewed from space, the park looks like an burnt red wave crashing on a beach, made entirely of stone.

Driving through the park east to west is like flipping through a history book covering hundreds of millions of years. You’ll see each of the uniquely-colored layers of sandstone roll by, and you may even notice that each layer tends to create different rock formations.

Amazing views from the Cathedral Valley Overlook in Capital Reef National Park, Utah.

Amazing views from the Cathedral Valley Overlook in Capital Reef National Park, Utah.

One of the most prominent of these are the park’s namesake massive white domes, found on the western side of the Fold. These domes, made of Navajo Sandstone, were once huge sand dunes that slowly fossilized into solid rock. There are also prominent domes of a more yellow-orange color, including the Golden Throne, are made up of Carmel Sandstone. Further north in Cathedral Valley, spiky, gothic pinnacles of Entrada Sandstone rise conspicuously over the flat valley floor. You may also notice large cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, sloping, rocky hills called the Moenkopi Formation, and many, many others.

Flora, Fauna, and Desert Ecology

Wildflowers in Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Wildflowers in Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Capitol Reef is, of course, a desert. While there you can probably expect to see a pretty good selection of desert-typical plants and animals. Snakes and lizards, ringtails, birds of prey, cacti, piñon pines, juniper trees, and yucca plants are all common here.

But due to the park’s high elevation, there are also a number of plant and animal species you may not expect, but could easily run into as well. Large mammals – including desert bighorn sheep and mountain lions are not uncommon. Smaller mammals more typical of mountain habitats such as beavers and foxes can also be found in the Reef. And there is also a surprising diversity of tree species, from large, leafy black cottonwoods to ponderosa pines, and even bristlecone pines, notably the longest-living organisms on earth. There is also no shortage of different wildflowers and birds in the park.

This incredibly hardy ecosystem would probably not be possible without a single unassuming-looking component holding it all together – that is, cryptobiotic soil. These strange-looking soil crusts are actually made up of hundreds of living things, and serve a number of ecological functions. They grow into coarse, black carpets that trap rainwater, collect nutrients, and allow seeds to germinate in shallow sand. They’re also extremely fragile. Stepping in cryptobiotic soil kills all of the microorganisms in the crust, and after a disturbance it can take decades to return to its previous state. While in the desert it’s important to stick to trails or bare rock surfaces, as removing the ecological foundation of the soil crust can cause untold damage on every other living thing on the landscape.

Main Attractions

The main scenic drive on Highway 24 is a great way to see the Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The main scenic drive on Highway 24 is a great way to see the Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Most people visit Capitol Reef to see the incredible monoliths and geological oddities of the Waterpocket Fold. You would have trouble seeing every noteworthy formation in just one trip, but quite a few of them can be viewed from the main scenic drive over Highway 24. As you pass through the rapidly-changing landscape of Capitol Reef, keep your eyes peeled for Capitol Dome, The Castle, and Twin Rocks. If you’ve got time for a short hike on your drive, make your way out to Chimney Rock. Venturing south from Fruita, you’ll see the Golden Throne (which you can hike all the way around) and Pectols Pyramid, two of the most imposing domes in the Reef.

Further north, in Cathedral Valley, the main draws are the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. These spires of Entrada Sandstone watch over the wide, open valley. They are the quiet, stoic grandeur of the desert personified in stone.

Behunin Cabin in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah was the home for to a family of fifteen.

Behunin Cabin in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah was the home for to a family of fifteen.

Capitol Reef is also ripe with interesting historical sites, both from the modern era and ancient times. The long-abandoned ghost town of Fruita is full of interesting buildings and remnants from early settlers. Further east along Hwy 24 you’ll find the Behunin Cabin, a more remote site that was once home to a family of fifteen.

Prehistoric petroglyphs are a major draw in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Prehistoric petroglyphs are a major draw in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

 Another major draw are the prehistoric panels of petroglyphs throughout the park. For easiest access, you can spot a large, pristine panel just east of the visitor center off Hwy 24. There is a boardwalk out to the panel from the highway complete with affixed binoculars for viewing the small details of the figures at a distance.

Hiking and Backpacking

There are more than enough incredible things to see right off the road in Capitol Reef. But if you have the time and the gusto to put a little work in, you’ll find some of the best stuff takes a little work to get to.

Near Fruita, there are a lot of outstanding hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous. Most of them are fairly short, though in some cases the elevation gain can be intense. A few standouts are (listed from least difficult to most difficult): Capitol Gorge, Grand Wash, Hickman Bridge, Cassidy Arch, and the Fremont Gorge Overlook. These trails will lead you through otherworldly slot canyons, to historical inscriptions, natural arches and bridges, and panoramic views of the sprawling mesa.

The Glass Mountain and Temple of the Sun at sunrise.

The Glass Mountain and Temple of the Sun at sunrise.

In the Cathedral District, be sure to get a view of the Temples of the Sun and Moon from above on the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlooks trail. For some longer distance, go for the Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock trail. And in the Waterpocket District, check out the Strike Valley Overlook and Surprise Canyon.

If you’re looking to go for more than a day, there are some unreal backpacking routes through Capitol Reef. Spring Canyon can be done a number of ways with distances varying from just 2.9 miles to 33.2 miles. Upper Muley Twist Canyon is a short-but-sweet route that leads to some amazing rock formations, including Saddle Arch. And for the experienced thrill seeker, Halls Creek Narrows is a challenging two to three-day trek through the most remote corner of the park. You may have to ford standing water through winding slot canyons, but you’ll definitely be satisfied with this adventure.


Camping is an obvious choice when visiting any National Park. Who wouldn’t want to wake up in the middle of Capitol Reef? You’ll have a few options for overnighting in the park, though a few of them take some extra time and effort to get to.

The main place to pitch a tent in Capitol Reef is Fruita Campground. It’s a developed camping area with 71 sites located on the banks of the Fremont River, in a prime location for getting to some of the best destinations in the park. The nightly fee at Fruita Campground is $20, and sites can be reserved from March through October.

There are also two primitive (undeveloped) campgrounds in the park. They are free to use, though more remote, and may be more difficult to get to, requiring high clearance and 4WD. Cathedral Valley Campground, located in the Cathedral District has six sites, and Cedar Mesa Campground, located on top of the mesa further south, has five. The solitude of these secluded sites is a selling point all of its own for those willing to drive a little further off the beaten path.

While camping in the park, be sure to do some stargazing. Capitol Reef is an International Dark Sky Park, with minimal atmospheric light pollution, giving you an interstellar view of the Milky Way.

Canyoneering and Climbing

A climber rappels down a rock face in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

A climber rappels down a rock face in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

If you feel like kicking it up a notch to take on something more sporty, you could try canyoneering. The southwest is full of beautiful slot canyons to hike, stem, and scramble through. Some require technical skills and gear to rappel long dryfalls, some require swimming through standing water, and others are essentially just more hands-on hikes.

Capitol Reef is home to lots of both technical and non-technical canyons that can be done in a day. But be warned that if you’re new to the sport, canyoneering is not to be taken lightly. People have lost limbs and died while canyoneering in Utah. Before you go, plan as much as you can, starting here. Understand the risks of flash flooding, and come prepared. Exploring the canyons of the Waterpocket Fold should not be done lightly, but will doubtlessly be a journey you’ll always remember.

There are also lots of great opportunities for rock climbing in Capitol Reef. Whether your flavor is big wall climbing or bouldering, there are good options throughout the park. A free permit is required for any climbing you plan on doing in the park. Make sure you follow Leave No Trace ethics while climbing. Sandstone can be easily damaged if climbed when recently wet, and approaches to climbs should be followed closely as cryptobiotic soil covers most areas surrounding major climbs.

Bike Touring/Bikepacking

While there aren’t singletrack trails through Capitol Reef, the many dirt spur roads through the park offer some intriguing options for bike tours. These vary in length and difficulty somewhat, but expect to do some hill climbing. There are a few definite standouts here – the Cathedral Valley Loop, a 57.6 mile route through the barren northern district of the park; and the “North to South” route, for lack of a better name. This scarcely-done tour takes on the full length of the park from top to bottom, totaling 124 miles. Using the primitive campsites to overnight, you can traverse the entire Waterpocket Fold in a few days. It’s a big undertaking, but epic voyages usually are.

Backcountry Horseback Riding

For the real wild west experience, you can ride a horse through the park. Make sure to read up on rules for staging and keeping travel low-impact, as stock use tends to require more space and can disturb local ecosystems more easily than foot travel. There are fantastic rides across the park, including a trek across Cathedral Valley and the upper portion of Halls Creek (the narrows are off-limits to stock). You can even overnight with your pack animals, though you will have to coordinate your intended route with the park and get a permit before heading up the trail.

Nearby Cities

Capitol Reef is, as mentioned above, very remote. The nearest major city is Salt Lake City, a three to four hour drive north. The next largest nearby town is Moab, about two hours east of the Reef. If your trip to Capitol Reef is part of a larger desert road trip, you’ll likely be heading to, or coming from Moab at some point. Your best bet for finding groceries or gassing up near Capitol Reef is probably Torrey, west of the park, or Hanksville, to the east. The southern district of the park is most easily accessed via Bullfrog, a small town and marina on Lake Powell. Most places nearby will have basic supplies available, and a few options for lodging if you’re in need of a shower and a bed.

The Whole Desert in Cross-Section

Capitol Reef will give you an appreciation for all the charms of the desert. Looming desert towers, colossal distances, ancient artworks, and adventure around every corner are the daily fare here. So consider this your call to action. The Waterpocket Fold is waiting for you.


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