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 absolutely 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, 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. Plus homemade pies!
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.
To this day, some of the original structures stand as a silent reminder of the simpler times. You’ll be able to see the schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, Gifford Homestead, and several other buildings.
#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 an interesting 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…
There is something unique about these orchards in Fruita.
If you come during the right season, you’re more than welcome to walk through any open orchards marked for picking and eat as much fruit as you’d like – for FREE! (Ladders and hand-held fruit pickers provided.) We came in the spring, way too early for any picking (boo).
You can also bring fruit home with you as well for a small fee (honor system – 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 fresh and I hear it’s DELICIOUS!
#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. 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.
But we grabbed one of the last remaining spots and stayed nonetheless, and it actually turned out to be a 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 at many sites
- clean bathrooms with running water/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 are plentiful)
- several child-friendly hikes within walking distance (some flat, some with elevation gain)
- (granted the moon phase co-operates 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. Kids can also 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 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.
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 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 a 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.)
We don’t give up that easily though, so we ended up walking around for what seemed like an eternity until we finally found the Tanks – bone dry. Actually, one of them held a tiny puddle of water which harbored some sort of worm-like parasite nasties (the ranger had an official name for it as we later found out), but that was it. Kinda strange for a springtime.
Was the hike to the Tanks worth it? Probably not. On the other hand, it WAS a pretty good work-out!
Overall, Capitol Gorge is impressive, and we would definitely come back.
Fremont River Trail
Fremont River Trail is a 2-miler (roundtrip, out-and-back trail) 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 and narrows up even more, closing 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, btw.
Disappointingly, we turned back at this point. Not only because the sun was setting, mostly because a startled deer that leaped out of the shrub right in front of us made me realize I have no business hiking on this kind of trail with kids at this time of the day – this is mountain lion country after all.
I wouldn’t purposely drive here to take this trail, but for those staying at the campground, this is an opportunity to explore the area further.
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 pretty 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.
We just couldn’t get enough…
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.
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 though, no matter how hard we tried. 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 minutes. It quickly became obvious that this was going to be a long and monotonous trek. I almost felt guilty because we hardly ever abandon a hike this quickly.
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 this time.
Capitol Reef – This is what you can expect: