Capitol Reef National Park

The name of this national park suggests a nautical theme, but Capitol Reef is far from the sea. And while it was initially far from our minds — honestly, we had never even heard of it before we set out on our adventure to visit all 59 of the national parks — it won’t be any more.

This park is a stunner! We were told it’s a favorite of Utah natives because it doesn’t draw the crowds that Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion do, and this was evident during our visit. We loved our quiet time here and would love to return!

Capitol Reef NP

Capitol Reef National Park protects the ridgeland that was formed when a fault line moved some 50 to 70 million years ago. The earth’s crust buckled to create a “monocline” that goes by the name Waterpocket Fold. The ridge is relatively narrow but it extends nearly 100 miles in length. The national park surrounding the fold protects beautiful red rock canyons, buttes, ridges, and monoliths in south-central Utah.

Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef NP
This is Waterpocket Fold – what Capitol Reef NP is all about

We spent three days in this park and found that was just the right amount of time to see everything.  Most of the park consists of multi-hued, beautiful rock formations here in the heart of Utah’s canyon country, making it inaccessible to all but the hardiest of backcountry visitors.  

Only one road goes through the park, and off this road are signs of life that used to be lived here.  Old fruit trees harken back to the time when a few hearty Mormon families tried to make a go of living here.  The settlement, aptly named Fruita, was situated next to the life-giving Freemont River which provides water in this otherwise strange desert landscape.  There were never more than ten families living in this small, isolated community, and in 1969 the last place was finally sold to the National Park Service after nearly 80 years of habitation.  An old homestead,  an old schoolhouse, and the old Fruita school are all that remains of the place now, and all have been refurbished and are on the National Register of Historic Places in addition to being part of the national park.

The Castle rock formation in Capitol Reef NP
The Castle – one of the stunning red rock formations in Capitol Reef NP
Gifford Farm Barn
The old Gifford Homestead barn, circa the early 1900s
The life-giving Fremont River in Capitol Reef NP
The life-giving Fremont River runs across the otherwise-desert park

The park offers a bit of hiking, but only unpaved roads penetrate most of this remote backcountry place. We enjoyed a pretty little hike out to the Hickman Bridge, a natural bridge that is really quite grand, then Fred hiked past it a bit more for some higher views. We also drove some 40 miles down a winding state road outside the park, then crossed into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and drove another 30 miles before re-entering the southern end of Capitol Reef where roads are non-existent. Good ol’ Toad, our Subaru [incidentally named Toad because we tow him behind Charley, our RV] easily managed another 15 miles out on a dirt and rock road — his most challenging trek yet — to the place called Strike Valley Overlook where, after a short hike across some slickrock, the Waterpocket Fold is best viewed.

U-pick apple picking in the park

Fred picking apples in Fruita, the little desert oasis opulent with apples, peaches, pears and cherries in season.

The orchards, originally established by these pioneer families, are today preserved and protected by the National Park Service.  A small staff cares for the now 3,100 trees including cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, almond, and walnut varieties.  Historic cultural irrigation practices started by the early farmers are still used, but today’s caretakers of these awesome fruit trees also prune, mow, plant, map, graft, and manage pests in these beautiful orchards with spectacular rock wall backdrops.  Visitors can pick and eat fruit right from the trees, which was a nice afternoon treat.  We also paid a nominal fee to bring some apples home with us, and I made some homemade applesauce with them that evening – yummy!

Hickman Bridge
It was an easy 2-mile out-and-back hike with a little bit of elevation
Incredible hiking terrain at Capitol Reef NP
Red rock hiking terrain in Capitol Reef
Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef NP
Fred at Strike Valley Overlook — we hiked here to see Waterpocket Fold

It’s a good thing we ventured out there, for we came across a Jeep that got stuck; he high centered himself on a rock that he was not able to get off. As darkness wasn’t far off when we rescued him, we gave him a ride back to the closest town, Boulder, so he could find a hotel and make arrangements to get towed the next day. Then we had ourselves a fine dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill; an award-winning farm-to-table organic restaurant out in the middle of nowhere Utah — truly one of the best meals we’ve enjoyed during our 16 months on the road! Thanks, Chris and Keith, for the restaurant suggestion. Who would have thought such a fabulous restaurant existed in these remote parts? Now we have two things to return for — the park and Hell’s Backbone Grill!

Here are a couple other favorite photos of our time in Capitol Reef National Park:

Long line-up of rent-a-campers on a tour
Funny to see this long line of Rent-an-RV campers on a tour as we headed into the park
Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef NP
The rugged beauty of Capitol Reef National Park
Charley's digs for the four days we were in Torrey outside Capitol Reef NP
Charley’s digs for the four days we stayed in Torrey, the small town just west of the park