Capitol Reef National Park, located in south-central Utah, is one of 5 Utah national parks known by locals as the MIGHTY FIVE. Out of the five, it is without a doubt the least visited park. Yet, even though it manages to lie below the radar of many travelers passing by, it is just as impressive as the other four and definitely worth a visit! (But pssst, don’t tell anyone so this hidden gem can stay as peaceful as it currently is…)
This was our first trip to Capitol Reef, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect besides the almost guaranteed “FULL” sign at the Capitol Reef’s only campground.
What we DID find exceeded our expectations though…
(And we managed to get a spot at the campground after all! Woohoo!)
Striking vistas, narrow canyons, colorful rock walls, uncrowded trails, unique hikes, historic settlement sites, ancient rock carvings, homemade pies, campground nestled in a desert oasis with a fun nature center for kids within walking distance? Yep, you can find all that in Capitol Reef. And more!
5 REASONS YOU SHOULD VISIT CAPITOL REEF
(with kids or without)
#1 Historic settlement in Fruita
When you arrive in Fruita, you’ll be transported back in time to the era of Mormon pioneers that settled the land along this area in the 1880s, creating a small community. They built dwellings, pastures, orchards and irrigation systems here.
#2 Petroglyph panel
So far we’ve seen a number of petroglyph sites and while this one is definitely on the more crowded side because it’s so easily accessible, this massive petroglyph panel is actually pretty impressive and worth the stop.
Made by the ancestors of the modern-day Zuni, Hopi, and Paiute tribes, the stories depicted on the rock walls are a neat piece of history to witness.
There is a convenient boardwalk (stroller and wheelchair accessible) that follows the cliff base and leads up to the main panel. This makes viewing the petroglyphs effortless, but it also prevents you from getting up close and enjoying the artistic echoes of the past in piece and solitude. Still, it’s definitely worth checking out!
#3 Fruita orchards
As mentioned above, there are several orchards here that date back more than 100 years.
These orchards comprise of a few thousand trees total including apple, pear, cherry, mulberry, plum, apricot, peach, almond and walnut, many of which are heirloom varieties. Planted for both subsistence and as a cash crop, they’re yet another vivid reminder of the pioneer community that once settled the land and called this place home.
But wait, that’s not all…
We came in the spring so it was way too early for any picking (boo) but the orchards were still a great sight to see and walk through.
You can bring fruit home with you as well for a small fee – there are self-pay stations available.
I read somewhere that the trees are managed via original (and organic) means, but they’re not. The park’s website says, “although the historic gravity-feed irrigation works are still used, the park employs a modern Integrated Pest Management Program, which utilizes mechanical, biological and chemical means to keep the orchards healthy.” Organic or not, it’s free, and I hear it’s DELICIOUS as well!
#4 Fruita campground
The only developed campground in the Capitol Reef National Park is Fruita Campground which is in high demand.
It had a tendency to fill quickly for much of the year while the campground was on a first-come first-serve basis (which was the case in 2017 when we visited), but the park has since moved to a reservation system. As of early 2018, campsites can be reserved ahead of time from March through October.
Fruita campground isn’t for anyone looking for isolation and some serious privacy. Wait. No. Just privacy. You won’t find it here. The sites are pretty much on top of one another and there is virtually no separation between them. It was the first thing I noticed when we arrived and I immediately second-guessed our choice because I don’t enjoy being this close to other campers.
However, we grabbed one of the last remaining spots and stayed nonetheless, and it actually turned out to be a really, REALLY great experience!
- fantastic views all around
- camping in a green grassy valley in the midst of a barren terrain
- scattered cottonwood trees provide at least some shade in many sites
- clean bathrooms with running water and flushing toilets (NO showers)
- camping next to a gentle stream of the Fremont River which is accessible (and a TON of fun for kids!)
- lots of wildlife around (deer and wild turkeys are plentiful)
- several child-friendly hikes within walking distance (some flat, some with elevation gain)
- (granted the moon phase cooperates which wasn’t our case) – amazingly dark skies
The campground is also within walking distance from:
- GIFFORD HOUSE, one of the original buildings which is now a museum/shop that besides souvenirs and firewood also happens to sell homemade bread and fruit pies (yum!). If you want to get any fresh-baked goodies, head here first thing in the morning and run fast!
- VISITOR CENTER (do keep in mind that this is an exposed hike for the most part though not too long – slightly over 1 mile one way – flat path).
- RIPPLE ROCK NATURE CENTER – while not a huge place, kids will have fun exploring the nature exhibits and playing simple pioneer games. An added bonus is that they can turn in their completed Junior Ranger booklets here and get their JUNIOR RANGER BADGES which is a nice alternative to the always busy visitor center that also happens to be short on parking.
Despite of the campground being full every single day of our stay, there never seemed to have been too much noise, or any noise, really. Strangely, the lack of privacy wasn’t even an issue. It was really peaceful. Plus, we got a spot right by the river and our kids had a blast!
Not every national park is a hiker’s paradise due to trail availability, distances, weather or accessibility, right?
If you don’t feel like hiking but want to experience the breathtaking scenery of Capitol Reef, you’ll have an opportunity to do so on the SCENIC DRIVE. It’s a pretty cool drive, as long as you go ALL THE WAY to the end which would be the Capitol Gorge Trail parking lot. The Scenic Drive starts at the visitor center (and goes past the Fruita campground) and provides access to a number of fun hikes.
It’s about 8 miles of paved road with a few dirt spur roads leading to the trailheads.
The unpaved roads are graded and in a fairly good shape. (As long as the weather doesn’t turn on you, you’ll be fine in a 2WD vehicle with low ground clearance as far out as Capitol Gorge.)
Capitol Gorge is an easy out-and-back 1-mile hike with only a slight elevation gain.
The hike starts off as a leisure stroll through a massive narrow canyon past the “Pioneer Register” – a large panel of petroglyphs, pioneer inscriptions, and other types of rock carvings with some etchings made well above the ground. It then widens up and opens up a bit, taking precious shade away.
Continuing on a wide streambed where vehicles used to drive through back in the day, you eventually walk up to the spur trail to the Tanks which are waterpockets, supposed to hold water even on the hottest days.
Water sounded really good that day.
The trail to the Tanks is pretty rugged and steep over the first 1/4-ish mile. It seemed like a good idea to add a bit of an adventure to an otherwise flat hike…?
Not only were we spoiled by Zion’s Emerald Pools and emerald pools we did not get, we also found the trail poorly marked no matter how hard we tried to focus on locating the rock cairns. (We found other lost travelers along this trail, btw.)
Was the hike to the Tanks worth it? Probably not. On the other hand, it WAS a pretty good work-out though! Meh, I’m pretty sure we’d do it again. We crave steep uneven terrain.
Overall, Capitol Gorge is an impressive sight to see, and we would definitely come back.
Fremont River Trail
Fremont River Trail is a 2-miler (roundtrip, though not a loop) that starts at the campground’s amphitheater.
It consists of a flat path leading you alongside the river bank before climbing up and taking you for some serious panoramic views (supposedly). It’s rated moderate for the final steep climb.
I brought my kids on the trail and we did enjoy the flat stretch, passing by orchards and a horse pasture (and a few timid snakes). It’s a fairly narrow path with some serious overgrowth, so even though you can hear the river, you mostly can’t see it, let alone find river access.
We then went through a wooden fence gate where the path veers away from the water, narrows up even more and closes on you with dense shrub vegetation on both sides. (Kinda spooky, I thought, in the dimming light of predusk. ) This is right around where the trail starts to climb.
We turned back at this point because the sun was setting, and a startled deer that leaped out of the shrub right in front of us made me realize I have no business hiking on this trail with kids at this time of the day – this is mountain lion country after all.
Cohab Canyon – easily my top hike! All of us loved this trail, actually.
The trailhead starts across the street from the Fruita campground. It’s about 1.7 miles one way, rated as moderate, out-and-back.
It’s a steep switchback-style climb initially, awarding you with splendid views of Fruita and the valley as you climb up. After a short flat stretch, you enter the canyon which is quite narrow and consists of breathtaking rock formations, hidden canyons, and abundant vegetation.
On this hike you have the option to take a spur viewpoint trail to the Fruita Overlook. That means more climbing before you reach an open plateau, about 400 additional feet up, but the dramatic views were worth every single drop of sweat…
We only saw a few other hikers here, so we definitely found the solitude we were looking for. We got slightly over halfway through before the trek to the overlook, then we started heading back. Otherwise, the trail continues through the canyon all the way to Hwy 24.
I highly recommend you give this trail a try! It’s beautiful, and kids will have a lot of fun because there is so much to explore here!
There are some slot canyons to see and walk through here as well, and you’ll be consistently passing by some of the most amazing rock formations of vibrant colors and all kinds of interesting shapes and patters.
Old Wagon Trail
We attempted to hike the 4-mile Old Wagon Loop Trail.
The trail drops sharply at the road access before rising back up continuously, and it does look like a fun hike. Kind of.
We had a really tough time locating the cairns on this trail though, no matter how hard we tried to stay focused. The thing is, the landscape on this trail is pretty much the same all around as far as you can see, so once you go off the trail, it’s really hard to regain it.
We decided to head back after about 20 or 30 minutes. It quickly became obvious that this was going to be a long and monotonous trek, and that’s without being lost consistently!
The views were nice, and the pinyon-juniper landscape gave the trail a distinctly different feel from other hikes in the park. But this trail wasn’t worth our effort, at least not this time…
Questions? Don’t hesitate to ask!
If you’re more of a visual person and have a few minutes to spare, click on the video below.
Capitol Reef? This is what you can expect:
Capitol Reef is a fairly quiet gem – at least for now!
I really hope it stays that way…