Although Capitol Reef gets far less attention than the region’s other national parks, it is a great place to visit, with excellent hiking and splendid scenery. Wonderfully sculpted rock layers in a rainbow of colors put on a fine show; you’ll find these same rocks throughout much of the Four Corners region, but their artistic variety has no equal outside Capitol Reef National Park.
About 70 million years ago, gigantic forces within the earth began to uplift, squeeze, and fold more than a dozen rock formations into the central feature of the park today—the Waterpocket Fold, so named for the many small pools of water trapped by the tilted strata. Erosion has since carved spires, graceful curves, canyons, and arches. The Waterpocket Fold extends 100 miles between Thousand Lake Mountain to the north and Lake Powell to the south. (Look for it if you ever fly south from Salt Lake City—we never really grasped its magnitude until we flew over it on the way to Mexico.)
The most spectacular cliffs and rock formations of the Waterpocket Fold form Capitol Reef, located north of Pleasant Creek and curving northwest across the Fremont River toward Thousand Lake Mountain. The reef was named by explorers who found the Waterpocket Fold a barrier to travel and likened it to a reef blocking passage on the ocean. One specific rounded sandstone hill reminded them of the Capitol dome in Washington DC.
Roads and hiking trails in the park provide access to the colorful rock layers and to the plants and wildlife that live here. You’ll also see remnants of the area’s long human history—petroglyphs and storage bins of the prehistoric Fremont people, a schoolhouse and other structures built by Mormon pioneers, and several small uranium mines from the 20th century. Legends tell of Butch Cassidy and other outlaw members of the Wild Bunch who hid out in these remote canyons in the 1890s.
Even travelers short on time will enjoy a quick look at visitors center exhibits and a drive on Highway 24 through an impressive cross section of Capitol Reef cut by the Fremont River. You can see more of the park on the Scenic Drive, a narrow paved road that heads south from the visitors center. The drive passes beneath spectacular cliffs of the reef and enters Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge Canyons; allow at least 1.5 hours for the 21-mile round-trip and any side trips.
The fair-weather Notom-Bullfrog Road (about half paved, with paved segments at both north and south ends) heads south along the other side of the reef for almost 70 miles, offering fine views of the Waterpocket Fold. Burr Trail Road (dirt inside the park) in the south actually climbs over the fold in a steep set of switchbacks, connecting Notom Road with Boulder. Only drivers with high-clearance vehicles can explore Cathedral Valley in the park’s northern district. All of these roads provide access to viewpoints and hiking trails.
Expect hot summer days (highs in the upper 80s and low 90s) and cool nights. Late-afternoon thunderstorms are common in July-August; be alert for impending storms, which can bring flash flooding. Winter brings cool days (highs in the 40s) and night temperatures in the low 20s and teens. Snow accents the colored rocks while rarely hindering traffic on the main highway. Winter travel on the back roads and trails may be halted by snow, but it soon melts when the sun comes out. Annual precipitation averages only seven inches, peaking in the late-summer thunderstorm season.
Planning Your Time
Many southern Utah travelers treat Capitol Reef as a pass-through, and indeed, it’s easy to get a feel for the park by taking a short hike off Highway 24, perhaps just the walk out to Goosenecks and Sunset Point. But a short visit here may leave you longing for more.
On a one-day visit, be sure to stop at the visitors center for the slide show (it’s less schmaltzy than many national-park slide shows and explains the geology quite nicely), hike either Grand Wash or Capitol Gorge, and spend some time exploring the park’s human history, from petroglyphs left by the Fremont people to the Fruita blacksmith shop.
It’s easy to spend 2-3 days camping at the park campground or staying in nearby Torrey and taking day hikes in the park’s core district. But if you’ve got the proper vehicle, after a couple of days you’ll want to explore the Notom-Bullfrog Road. If you’re just driving, this is easy to do in a day; if you get out of the car to explore every canyon, it can take all the time you have.
Exploring the Park
The most accessible part of Capitol Reef National Park (435/425-3791, $15 per vehicle, $3 cyclists and pedestrians) is along Highway 24, about 11 miles east of Torrey. In fact, several trails start right off the highway, which means that it’s not necessary to pay the admission fee to get a tiny taste of this park.
Capitol Reef National Park flanks Highway 24, which is a major (by southern Utah standards) east-west road, roughly paralleling and south of I-70. Highway 24 does intersect I-70 at the town of Green River, which is north and east of the park; follow the road down through Hanksville to reach Capitol Reef. This is the quickest way to get from the Moab area to Capitol Reef.
Travelers coming from the area around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument should head north on Highway 12 from the town of Boulder. (This is also the most scenic route from Zion and Bryce.) Twisty Highway 12 will take you over Boulder Mountain to Highway 24 at the town of Torrey; Capitol Reef is just 11 miles east.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.