Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
Turn south from Highway 24 at the visitor center to experience some of the reef’s best scenery and to learn more about its geology. An illustrated pamphlet, available on the drive or in the visitor center, has keyed references to numbered stops along the 25-mile (round-trip) drive.
Descriptions identify rock layers and explain how they were formed. A quick tour requires about 1.5 hours, but several hiking trails may tempt you to extend your stay. The scenic drive is paved, although side roads have gravel surfaces.
As you come to town, you’ll first pass orchards and several of Fruita’s buildings. A blacksmith shop (0.7 mile from the visitor center on the right) displays tools, harnesses, farm machinery, and Fruita’s first tractor. The tractor didn’t arrive until 1940—long after the rest of the country had modernized. In a recording, a rancher tells about living and working in Fruita.
The Historic Gifford Homestead, one mile south on the Scenic Drive, is typical of rural Utah farmhouses of the early 1900s. Cultural demonstrations and handmade items are available. A picnic area is just beyond; with fruit trees and grass, this is a pretty spot for lunch. A short trail crosses orchards and the Fremont River to the Fruita Schoolhouse.
The Scenic Drive leaves the Fremont River valley and climbs up a desert slope, with the rock walls of the Waterpocket Fold rising to the east. Turn east into Grand Wash, a dry channel etched through the sandstone. A dirt road follows the twisting gulch one mile, with sheer rock walls rising along the sandy stream bed. At the road’s end, an easy hiking trail follows the wash 2.5 miles to its mouth along Highway 24.
Past Slickrock Divide, the rock lining the reef deepens into a ruby red and forms itself into odd columns and spires that resemble statuary. Called the Egyptian Temple, this is one of the most striking and colorful areas along the road.
Believe it or not, the narrow, twisting Capitol Gorge was the route of the main state highway through south-central Utah for 80 years! Mormon pioneers laboriously cleared a path so wagons could go through, a task they repeated every time flash floods rolled in a new set of boulders. Cars bounced their way down the canyon until 1962, when Highway 24 opened, but few traces of the old road remain today.
Walking is easy along the gravel riverbed, but don’t enter if storms threaten. An easy one-mile saunter down the gorge will take day hikers past petroglyphs and a “register” rock where pioneers carved their names. For other Capitol Gorge hikes, see the following sections.
Pleasant Creek Road
Turn right 8.3 miles from the visitor center, where the Scenic Drive curves east toward Capitol Gorge onto Pleasant Creek Road, which continues south below the face of the reef. After three miles, the sometimes rough dirt road passes Sleeping Rainbow/Floral Ranch (closed to the public) and ends at Pleasant Creek. A rugged four-wheel-drive road continues on the other side but is much too rough for cars.
Floral Ranch dates back to Capitol Reef’s early years of settlement. In 1939 it became the Sleeping Rainbow Guest Ranch, from the translation of the Native American name for Waterpocket Fold. Now the ranch belongs to the park, but the former owners still live here. Pleasant Creek’s perennial waters begin high on Boulder Mountain to the west and cut a scenic canyon completely through Capitol Reef. Hikers can head downstream through the three-mile-long canyon and then return the way they went in, or they can continue another three miles cross-country to Notom Road.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition