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Capitol Reef is a smaller, often overlooked, National Park. Located in the state of Utah it’s only about a 2.5 hour drive away from Moab, where Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are located; and another 2 hours from Bryce National Park. A good in between point if you want to take a road trip visiting them all!
Capitol Reef was a surprise, and even though it’s lesser known, it was no less impressive than the others. In fact after visiting it, it made me realize that all the National Parks are worth a visit, at least once in your life!
Capitol Reef gets its name from a big, whiteish, dome shaped formation that resembles the US capitol building. And the “reef” part comes from the Waterpocket Fold-a huge long rocky formation, resembling a reef, that cuts through the north/south length of the park.
Where to stay if you’re visiting
The only place to stay inside the park is the campground. Otherwise your options are in the nearby towns of Torrey and Hanksville.
Hanksville is to the East of the park, and very small, but there are a couple places to eat and stay at, including the neat Hollow Mountain gas station that we stopped at on our drive from Moab to Capitol Reef.
Torrey is another small town but a bit larger with more of a variety of options. When I was there I stayed at an Airbnb in Torrey, but there are also some really nice hotel options too, along with a couple good burger joints along the main road!
So what are some things to do in the park?
View Petroglyphs from the Fremont People
The first settlers to the area that we know of came many hundreds of years ago and were a primitive society of hunter gatherers living in pit houses and alcoves throughout Capitol Reef. The Hopi people call them the Hitsatsinom, or “people of long ago”, and the Paiute Tribe named them the Wee Noonts, “people who lived the old ways”. Modernly they are known as the Freemont people or culture, as they settled near the Fremont river.
Archaeologists found different items made by them, such as arrow heads and atlatls, beads, moccasins, baskets, pottery, and even figurines. The petroglyphs you can find in several places throughout the park were also said to be drawn by these people. It’s really neat to see them up close, on the red rock walls of the canyon.
The easiest accessible place to see the petroglyphs, complete with a boardwalk and ramp, is a pull off on route 24. You can also see some on the Capitol Gorge Trail.
Visit historic sites of the early Mormon settlers
Mormon settlers had been making their way through this area of Utah since the late 1800’s, and eventually some settled here in Fruita, which was first known as Junction, at the intersection or “junction” of the Fremont river and Sulphur Creek. At most only ten families lived here, but it was enough to have a small schoolhouse and farming community. There are a few buildings of theirs left that you can visit:
Schoolhouse – Located off Route 24, on the east side past the visitor’s center. You can’t go inside, but you can peak through the windows of the school house which functioned from 1896-1941. Check out the big rock behind it too with many of the student’s names carved in.
The school’s first teacher was a young girl named Nettie, and she was only 12 years old!
Gifford House – Located just south of the visitor’s center on Scenic Drive. Part museum, part store, part…yummy pie shop! This home was built back in 1908, and the Gifford family lived there till 1969, when the last resident of Fruita, Dewey Gifford, sold the house to the National Park Service.
The Blacksmith Shop & Barn are 2 other historic buildings from the settlers you can check out, also located on Scenic Drive.
Elijah Behunin’s Cabin – located at the far eastern end of the park on route 24. Elijah Cutler Behunin built the little sandstone cabin in 1882 and only lived there a couple years with his family because the area would get flooded and ruin their crops.
Stop for some apple pie and a picnic!
Utah is the second driest state in the country(first being Nevada), and as you drive around the state you can see how true that is. Unless you’re by a river there’s not much greenery. The Fremont River passes through Capitol Reef however, and as you enter the park you’ll be greeted by this little verdant oasis; with picnic tables, big shade trees, and even apple orchards!
And yes, you can actually go and pick some apples in the orchards when they’re in season! They’re free if you eat them on site, or you can pay to go home with some. The early Mormon settlers here brought seeds of many different fruit trees and cultivated them. Today the park service maintains the orchards as part of the historic site.
At the Gifford house you can purchase homemade apple pies and other deserts. Let me tell you, they were delicious, and made a great lunch!
Take a Scenic Drive
There are 2 paved roads through the park that are T shaped with each other. One is Route 24 which passes east to west, and then Scenic Drive which starts at the visitor’s center about halfway through Route 24, and goes north to south.
Route 24 has many pull offs, including the schoolhouse and petroglyphs I mentioned above. Also Panorama Point is an overlook at the western end that you won’t want to miss either-I’ll let the name speak for itself!
Scenic Drive follows the Waterpocket Fold cliff formation several miles south and ends at a parking lot with restrooms. There are 2 dirt roads at this point. One, Capitol Gorge Road, is driveable by most vehicles, we had a small rental car for instance and were fine. The other is Pleasant Creek Road, but you need a good 4WD or off roading vehicle to go on it.
The Waterpocket Fold is a huge cliff formation about 100 miles long that appears to be formed from the ground upheaving at a fault line. The “waterpockets” are holes and depressions found throughout it, in the ground and the sides of the cliffs. You’ll see them if you go on a few hikes!
Capitol Gorge Road. We were a bit nervous to go on the dirt road with our little car, but in the end we’re so glad we did! Capitol Gorge Road was quite narrow, you are surrounded by huge cliffs; it’s like being in a city with sky scrapers! This is the road that the original settlers took to get to Caineville, before route 24 was built and paved. It was a very rocky and long trip for them back then.
There are a bunch of trails in the park that could keep you busy for several days! I won’t list them all here, but you can go on the National Park’s website to see a complete list and download a pdf.
Capitol Gorge and Tanks Trail is a really hike that I recommend and that’s in the easy category (only 2 miles Round Trip). It starts at the end of Capitol Gorge Road, and takes you on a walk through the narrow canyon filled with a bunch of “waterpockets”. The way is flat and easy for 0.8 miles, until the very end where you’ll climb a bit, 0.2 miles, to the “Tanks”- circular depressions in the ground where collect rain water.
Keep a look out for some more petroglyphs on the canyon walls, and also the “Pioneer Registry” where a bunch of names of early settlers can be found with dates showing as early as the late 1800’s.
Another easy trail that’s great for watching the sunset at the end of the day is Sunset Point Trail. It’s at the western end of Route 24 and just 0.8 miles round trip.
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