38.0877° N, 111.1355° W
NOT ALL OF UTAH'S 5 NATIONAL PARKS ARE VISITED EQUALLY - AND FOR SOME REASON CAPITOL REEF NP HAS STAYED UNDER THE RADAR. HERE IS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL PARK.
Utah is full of incredible sites to see. From the mountains in the north, to the Great Salt Lake, to the red rocks of canyon country, the Beehive State sure knows how to pack a punch. The only downside? Millions of people know this, meaning many of the top places to visit are completely overrun with tourists during the busy season. Luckily, a few spots have avoided becoming a natural Disneyland - including one of our all-time favorite national parks, Capitol Reef.
This park, located in the middle of famed Canyon Country, is drop dead gorgeous: colorful striped rock walls, massive arches, wide open desert vistas, exciting canyons and even a historic pioneer town, which, if you come in the right season, even has fresh fruit and pies. So if you are looking for a real off-the-beaten-path Utah adventure, then follow our in-depth guide on Capitol Reef National Park.
\\ Fast Facts
Year Established: 1971
Size: 378 square miles
Number of Visitors: in 2020 981,038 people visited the national park
Cost to Enter: $20 for a private vehicle, $15 for a motorcycle, $10 for a bicyclist or pedestrian (all valid for 7 days)
\\ History of Capitol Reef National Park
The area of Capitol Reef National Park has been a homeland to people for thousands of years. The Fremont Culture went from being a food foraging group to farmers of corn, beans and squash around 500 CE. Eventually, explorers, Latter-Day-Saint (Mormon) pioneers, and others arrived in the 1800s, settling in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District. They planted and nurtured orchards of apples, pears, and peaches - which you can still see (and eat) today.
In 1933 a local man named Ephraim Portman Pectol, who had recently been elected to the Utah legislature, contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked for the creation of "Wayne Wonderland National Monument '' out of the federal lands that comprised the bulk of the Capitol Reef area. FDR signed a proclamation creating Capitol Reef National Monument on August 2, 1937, though it would take until 1943, when local historian Charles Kelly began his stint as a volunteer watchdog of the park, to have anyone staffing the area. Kelly worked as a volunteer until 1950, when the NPS finally offered him a civil-service appointment as the first superintendent of the park. The first official park ranger was Grant Clark, who had transferred over from neighboring Zion National Park. The year Clark arrived (1958), fifty-six thousand visitors came to the park. The first facilities were built in the 60s, including the Fruita campground and visitor center. The park eventually received national park status in 1971.
\\ When to Visit
The busiest times to visit are between March-June (spring) and September-October (fall). This is when the weather is the nicest (not too hot and not too cold). But because of that you will have to deal with other visitors, and while the park never gets crazy busy (it isn’t Zion National Park), it can still fill up, especially in the main valley/Fruita area.
Now if you are planning to do more off-the-beaten-path activities (like canyoneering) then this doesn’t really matter. But if you are planning to do some of the more popular hikes, then the amount of people could kind of be a drag. So instead, consider visiting in the off-season.
We have adventured in the park during November, and while the nights were cold (quite cold) during the day it was really nice. If you can bring a warm sleeping bag or sleep in a van/RV then November is a great time to explore the park. Or go the opposite way and visit during the end of summer (August), where you will just have to plan around the heat of the day (early morning or late evening adventures).
\\ How to Get to the Park
What makes Capitol Reef National Park so special is the feeling that you are way off in the middle of nowhere Utah desert. In fact, you really are. This park is not easy to get to, which in our books, only adds to its appeal.
The closest airports (with driving times) are Salt Lake City (3.5 hours), Denver (6.5 hours) and Las Vegas (5 hours). Your best option is probably to fly into one of those cities and then rent a car. Or if you have a car and are looking to road trip then you are quite central in Southern Utah: Moab is 2 hours away, Lake Powell is 4 hours away and Zion National Park/St. George is 3 hours away.
\\ What to See
While at first the park might seem entirely inhospitable and unable to sustain life, in truth, Capitol Reef is a haven for numerous animals, including over 200 types of birds, 50+ mammals, 6 species of snakes (including a midget rattlesnake), and 5 various amphibians.
Some of the most common animals you will see include Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven (these guys will destroy your campsite if you aren’t careful), mule deer (especially in the Fruita area), yellow bellied marmots, and various lizards. While rattlesnakes do roam (slither) around the park, we have never seen one and we have heard from rangers that they are quite rare.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you are likely to see the landscape change from being rather bleak and dry, to lush and colorful. Capitol Reef, like many areas of Utah, comes alive in the spring. If visiting during the months of April and May, you will likely encounter various wildflowers; including, the Utah Penstemon (a vibrant red-pink flower), Indian Paintbrush (a bright orange-red flower), and Showy Milkweed (a white-purple flower) as well as many more.
Other common plants include various cacti, with the most observable being yucca, prickly pear and fishhook cactus.
Points of Interest
| Fruita: The Capitol Reef area wasn't charted by explorers until 1872, although people had lived in this region for thousands of years previously. Towards the last half of that decade, Latter Day Saints (Mormon) settlers moved into the region and set up a small town at the junction of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. While the first landholder was Nels Johnson, soon many others followed. Eventually a community sprang up and became known as Junction. Mail was even delivered to a central Fremont Cottonwood tree, known as the "Mail Tree" - which still stands in the picnic area today. In 1902 they changed the name of the town to Fruita - after the amount of orchards planted there (and which still stand today).
While it doesn’t take too long to explore what is left of Fruita, it is a fun option for people curious about the park’s history - or people who just want to pick some fruit and maybe buy a locally made pie.
| Petroglyphs: the Fremont Culture lived in the region for about a thousand years (300-1300 CE). One of the most visible aspects of their culture that remains in the park are walls of petroglyphs (images carved or pecked into stone). You can visit the walls along two boardwalks, both accessed from Highway 24.