Insider's Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park.
Capitol Reef National Park. Wolfgang Staudt
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Named for the regal white sandstone domes that resemble the U.S. Capitol building, Capitol Reef National park features serpentine canyons, graceful arches, towering monoliths, and soaring, colorfully striated cliffs that reveal 200 million years of geologic history. It’s obvious why ancient people called this region of south-central Utah “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

The park is best known for its geologic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, a fascinating 100-mile-long scar in the Earth so big it can be seen from space. It formed when two continental plates collided into each other between 50 and 70 million years ago, uplifting rock layers on the west side of the fold more than 7,000 feet. Erosion in the last 20 million years has given the park its modern appearance.

The park has an interesting modern history as well. In the 1920s, a few locals recognized the area's natural beauty and thought that preservation was in the nation's long-term interest. They organized booster clubs, raised funds so that photographers near and far would come and promote it, and even guided visitors through the area themselves. One of the boosters, Ephraim Pectol, was elected to the legislature and talked President Franklin D. Roosevelt into creating the 37,711-acre Capitol Reef National Monument in 1937. Lyndon B. Johnson added an additional 200,000 acres in 1968. In 1971, Richard Nixon elevated it to a National Park encompassing 241,904 acres.

Previous visitors both ancient and not-so-ancient have left their mark, from the Fremont people who etched petroglyphs and left behind multiple grinding holes nearly 1,000 years ago, to early Mormon settlers that established the small town of Fruita. They  planted apple, peach, and apricot orchards, built a one-room schoolhouse and carved their names in sandstone at Pioneer Register.

Classic Adventures

Enjoying the shade at Capitol Reef.
Enjoying the shade at Capitol Reef. Colin J. McMechan

Capitol Reef is a real hikers’ park, with fifteen day hiking trails located along Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive. They range from easy, kid-friendly strolls to 10-mile adventures. And of course, a lifetime of backpacking options.

Cassidy Arch is a moderate, 3.5-mile must-do trail that climbs 670 feet to an overlook above the Arch, offering awe-inspiring views of Grand Wash, Cassidy Canyon, the 7,900-foot Miners Mountain, and the 11,300-foot Boulder Mountain. Feeling brave? Walk out onto the arch itself for a great picture. The arch is named after the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy, who used the area as a hideout. If more mileage is wanted, link the Grand Wash, Frying Pan, and Cohab Canyon trails (and a short stint along the road) for a pleasant 10.5-mile loop.

The Rim Overlook Trail may provide the best views in the park. It offers up sweeping, 360-degree panoramas of the park's defining Waterpocket Fold, the green Fruita orchards, visitor's center, schoolhouse, and the campground 1,500 feet below. The trail parallels the Fremont river for the beginning, with good bighorn sheep viewing possibilities, and climbs to the Rim Overlook after 2.3 miles. Turn here if time is short, if not, continue for another 2.4 miles to Navajo Knobs, an other-worldly collection of white sandstone spires. This entire section of trail has expansive vistas and on a clear day, visibility can be 100 miles. If hiking the entire trail, it's 9.2 miles round-trip with 2,400 feet of elevation gain. Also accessible from this trailhead is the Hickman Bridge Trail, the most popular hike in the park, a nice 2-mile walk to a picturesque, 133-foot natural bridge, passing by good panels of petroglyphs.  

Secrets of the Park

An aerial look at the Waterpocket Fold.
An aerial look at the Waterpocket Fold. Bobak Ha'Eri

Rock climbers have about 42 routes in the park, mostly splitter, one-pitch hand cracks and a bunch of good boulder problems. Check out the 4-star Capitol Gorgeous, a 5.10 wide-hand crack in a pristine left-facing dihedral.

Cyclists have to stick to the main road, but do have some options. The moderate scenic drive can be up to 28 miles long, if willing to do some dirt-road spurs. The Cathedral Valley Loop is 58 miles of steep, strenuous riding over dirt, sand, clay, slickrock and even fording the Fremont River.

There is plenty of technical canyoneering in the in park. Cassidy Arch Canyon is an excellent place to start, beginning with the wonderful hike of the same name. Immediately, the route demands attention with a 140-foot rappel through Cassidy Arch. Six more rappels take you through two more arches and to places few people get to see. Many locals consider Pandora's Box one of the best technical routes in the park. It's a big day, requiring a long approach, seven rappels up to 150 feet tall, deep wading through tight slots, and an even longer hike out. Plan about 10-14 hours car to car.

Immerse Yourself

There are many arches in Capitol Reef National Park.
There are many arches in Capitol Reef National Park. Jeff Moser

Utah is famous for its slot canyons, with several hundred thousand people flocking to nearby Zion every year. However, the spectacular Halls Creek Narrows trail in the Capitol Reef's far southeast corner is the state's best-kept secret. This remote, strenuous trek rewards the intrepid traveler with utter solitude, breathtaking landscapes, camping spots in shaded, voluminous amphitheaters, and serious adventure. The real treat however, is the Narrows themselves, three miles of tight, vaulted slot canyon looming up to 800 feet above, dramatically streaked with bright orange and black desert varnish, arguably the best in the park. The route is 23 miles round trip, if starting at the Halls Creek Overlook. Taking the unmarked Airport route involves scrambling down (and climbing back up at the end of the trip) a boulder-strewn Class 3 ravine losing 700 feet of elevation in just a half mile, but cuts the hike down to 15 miles. Bring good route finding skills and expect to do some wading.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Hats and sunglasses are a must. It's easy exert oneself without sweating in this arid environment, leading to serious dehydration, drink plenty of water.

  • Photographers should bring a polarizing filter for deeper blue skies, more striking reds, and better contrast on the varnished canyon walls.

  • If visiting in July, visit the orchards of Fruita. Visitors can pick fruit right off the tree. Eat as much there for free, or take some home for just $1 a pound.

  • There are several options for camping, but no lodging. The developed Fruita Campground has RV and tent sites, a dump station, potable water and bathrooms, but no showers for $20 a night. There are two backcountry sites: Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa. Both feature picnic tables, fire grates, and pit toilets, but no water. Both are free. Any camping outside of a campground requires a free backcountry permit.

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