We weren’t sure what to expect at Capitol Reef National Park. It’s quite literally Utah’s middle child of National Parks. Bryce and Zion are found in the west, while Arches and Canyonlands lie to the east. Many people pass over this park in favor of the more visited ones but we think that they’re missing out. And that’s not just middle child syndrome talking.
While some of Utah’s parks have an abundance of a specific formation type (Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon and the namesakes of Arches and Canyonlands) Capitol Reef has a variety of formations. There are arches, domes, spires, gorges, and canyons—basically a whole lotta really funky rocks.
Here are 7 reasons not to miss Capitol Reef National Park.
1. The Tanks in Capitol Gorge
The many diverse formations in Capitol Reef are part of the Waterpocket Fold. “Water pocket…huh?” That’s what we said when we first heard the term “Waterpocket Fold”. In short, it’s an area of land that raised up 7,000 feet 50-70 million years ago because of tectonic activity. Instead of cracking, the land bent, creating a fold. Over time, layers of surface rock eroded and exposed the fold. There are many cavities in the eroded sandstone where water gathers. These are called potholes or waterpockets.
The Tanks are examples of these waterpockets. They’re natural reservoirs where snow-melt and rainwater collect. There’s a series of them running down the rocky canyon. One pool leads to another.
2. Town of Fruita
Guess what Fruita’s full of? You go it—fruit! It’s a small town that’s lush with orchards and the history of early settlers who made this remote place their home. Only 10 families lived in the town at any one time but they were a self-sufficient community. There’s a museum, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and nature center. You can also pick fruit from the variety of trees in the orchards.
The inhabitants of this area from 300-1300 CE left behind rock carvings or petroglyphs. They appear in multiple areas of the park. A few can be found along the trail to the The Tanks. Even more can be seen from a short boardwalk along HWY 24.
4. Chimney Rock Loop Trail
While we were still somewhat confused about the Waterpocket Fold name, we hiked the Chimney Rock Trail. On the hike we had an “Aha!” moment regarding the whole “fold” part. From the views on the trail we could see that Capitol Reef is one crooked park. I don’t mean outlaw style crooked, but literally the earth looks crooked…or folded. The layers of rocks are angled which can make the views from high ledges a little more dizzying. This is one of our favorite trails in the park. You get changing and increasingly interesting perspectives of the trails namesake, but also expansive panoramas of the surrounding area.
5. Arches and Bridges
There are numerous destination rock formations in Capitol Reef. Cassidy Arch and Hickman Bridge are two of the must-sees, in our humble opinions. The Cassidy Arch trail (named after Butch Cassidy who is rumored to have used the area as a hideout) is rated as strenuous because it’s a steep hike over smooth rocks, but it’s worth the effort. The arch is huge! Also, you can walk over the top of it and stand on the arch, which is rare. Usually you aren’t allowed to walk or climb on arches. This one is a starting point for a canyoneering trip that begins by repelling down from the arch. We didn’t do any repelling, but maybe next time.
Hickman Bridge is accessed by a short relatively easy trail. There’s a bonus on this hike too—another smaller natural bridge along the way that’s part arch/bridge and part cave. From the opposite side of Hickman bridge, you can see Capitol Dome—one of the formations that gave the park its name.
6. Expansive Views
Capitol Reef has magnificent long views—even if they sometimes made us feel like the earth was tipping sideways. There are so many different formations and contrasting colors in the rocks that you can stare at the same spot for a long time and keep noticing new things. Or maybe that was just my excuse to take a rest from hiking.
7. Cathedral Valley
Disclaimer: We didn’t actually go to this area of the park. A ranger warned us that the roads require a high clearance vehicle and we didn’t want to risk another rescue operation. Cathedral Valley still made the list because everything we’ve read and seen about it looks completely spectacular! This valley is filled with a vibrant rainbow of colorful rocks and monolith formations. Since it’s even more remote than the rest of the park you’re sure to find solitude. This is at the top of our list for our next Utah visit. Anyone know how to install a lift kit on a Ford E150 Van?
Have you had to skip an adventure while traveling? Did you ever get a second chance to try it? And for real, if anyone has any advice about the lift kit, we’re all ears😊