As part of Utah's “Mighty 5” national parks, Capitol Reef often gets overlooked. And that’s a shame because this national park holds many wonderful surprises. With spectacular scenic drives, hiking that rivals that of Zion National Park, remote rugged areas for 4x4 exploring, not to mention historical landmarks, this park should be on your list while visiting Utah.
Established as a national park on December 18, 1971, most people zip through Capitol Reef National Park in barely one day. But to appreciate all it has to offer, make this a three-day trip, at least. Especially if you love to leave the crowds of the more popular Utah National Parks behind.
SR-24 is the main road that runs east-west through the park and is 16 miles of absolute beauty. In the east, it twists and turns as it follows the Fremont River, past stunning cliffs of white Navajo sandstone and massive domes. Approaching Fruita, the road opens up as a valley filled with historic buildings and orchards reveals itself. Continue west to drive past red sandstone mountains and dramatic rock formations. Visitors can tour this road without paying a park entrance fee if by some chance you just happen to pass through.
Fruita Historic District
Step back in time to frontier pioneer days at the preserved Fruita settlement from the 1880s. Located just off Highway 24, here you’ll find historic buildings such as the Mormon homestead, which now holds a small gift shop and bakery, famous for their pies. The Capitol Reef Visitor Center, several hikes, and scenic drives are also in this district.
Considered to be the park’s defining attraction, this gargantuan landmark is nearly 100 miles of jutting crust in the Earth. A classic monocline, it was formed 50 to 70 million years ago during the Laramide Oregeny, a massive era of natural mountain building in North America. Then the Colorado Plateau began forming, eroding the monocline to form “water pockets.” The most scenic part is the temple-like Entrada sandstone monoliths that have resulted.
Panorama Point is located just off Highway 24, is part of the “no fee” zone running through the park, and offers a quick and easy sightseeing stop for an amazing view of Capitol Reef Park. It is the ideal place to admire the rocky edge of the Waterpocket Fold. Mummy Cliff is large with colorful rock layers, located in front of the turn for Panorama Point. Then past that lies Gooseneck Overlook for incredible views of the three curves of Sulphur Creek Canyon.
Temple of the Sun and Moon
Located in the Cathedral Valley, it was named after the visual similarity to the temples of Egypt and several cathedrals with designs reminiscent of Gothic architectural elements. Consisting of two gigantic rock formations, and can be viewed from Upper Cathedral Valley Trail. The only caveat is that an AWD vehicle should be used to get here, as it is in a rugged, off-the-beaten-path area.
Hiking Trails in Capitol Reef National Park
There are 15 hiking trails where the trailheads are located along Highway 24 and the scenic drive. They offer the average hiker a wide variety of trails, from easy strolls to more strenuous hikes involving steep climbs over uneven terrain. Traverse narrow gorges and climb towering cliffs rewarding bird’s eye views of the surrounding area.
For a short-distance hike with awe-inspiring canyon views, Hickman Bridge Trail is where you should go. It’s a moderate, out-and-back hike of just 1.8 miles, with an elevation gain of 442 feet. It is accessible year round, but best used from March through November. On this hike, see the Capitol Dome and Pectols Pyramid monoliths, with the satisfying culmination of Hickman Bridge, a beautiful natural arch of considerable scope. Catch this trail during springtime and revel in the blooming wildflowers along with spectacular views.
The moderate hike to Cohab Canyon is popular and allows you to partake in a tour of the Waterpocket Fold’s northern section as the trail connects to the Frying Pan Trail, which also connects to the 3-mile Grand Wash Cassidy Arch Trail (named after Butch Cassidy). The Capitol Gorge Trail is perfect for a hot, sunny day, as it is a flat, riverbed trail with plenty of shade. It consists of a leisurely, 1-mile out and back stroll past tall canyon walls that look as if they’ve been punched full of holes, and “the Tanks,” a short but steep spur up to water pockets.
Backcountry hikers are afforded their own wonderful options with more remote areas full of twisting gorges, slot canyons, and spectacular viewpoints. Such hikes include Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyons, Halls Creek, the Cathedral Valley, and near Fruita, making for endless opportunities to fully experience the landscape.
Known for its unique rock formations that resemble Gothic cathedrals, bask in remarkable views in complete solitude. Note that this is in a remote area, and accessing may be a bit of a challenge, but there are a couple of ways: Hartnet Road is a dirt road that may get a bit dicey in inclement weather. The alternative is to take SR-72, then exit to FR206 (Elkorn Road) shortly after Fremont, then FRO22 (Polk Creek Road) where you will cross Fishlake National Forest to reach the Cathedral Valley. A good AWD vehicle is highly recommended for this area, and is well worth it for the true adventurer.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!
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