Capitol Reef National Park: A Lesser Known Gem in Utah

Capitol Reef National Park..does it ring a bell? Probably not! Neither Tim nor I had ever heard of this National Park. We were surprised to find out it seems to have nothing to do with either a capitol or a reef at first glance, considering it’s in the middle of the desert of Southern Utah. Kinda far from both the capitol AND any kind of reef. We eventually did find out why it’s named Capitol Reef…more on that later!

Utah is so flipping amazing

We decided to check out Capitol Reef after our visit at Bryce Canyon. There are 5 National Parks semi-close in Southern Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. They are nicknamed “The Big 5”. Since we decided to skip Zion due to crowds and heat, we knew we wouldn’t hit all of the Big 5…but 4 is close, right?

Driving in Utah is just crazy. So many times we looked out our windows and thought, “WTF is this landscape!!!” I mean, it is really cool. It’s just sooo different to our eyes, coming from Pennsylvania. And these strange alien landscapes go on for hours, to varying degrees. A lot of the driving in the middle of the country (sorry, plains states) is so boring – nothing to see but desolate fields. Utah was a state that definitely kept us entertained as we moved from destination to destination.

Crazy curves while driving on the moon

Our Campground

For our visit to Capitol Reef, we stayed at Singletree Campground, which is a US Forest Service campground in the Fishlake National Forest. There were no hookups at this campground and only pit toilets, but they did have a dump station and a fresh water fill. The campground was beautiful – the tall pine trees and streams felt like a breath of fresh air, and it was very much in the middle of nowhere. We struggled to get any cell phone service, and I recall that it was fairly cold during our time there due to the campground sitting at high elevation.

Our campsite in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah
Calla hadn’t gotten to play in a stream in a long time. She got a little dirty…all worth it for the fun!
Just hanging out at the campground

Visiting Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef was an amazing national park. We’re still not entirely sure why it’s lesser known than some of it’s counterparts like Zion. We still talk about Capitol Reef, saying that it’s one of our favorite places we’ve been. 

At Capitol Reef there is no need for your NPS Pass or entry fee because the area is so remote that the park’s main road is also the only highway in the area. Everyone needs to be able to access it, so this is one national park you can visit for free!

We usually start our national park visits at the Visitor Center

So, why is the park called Capitol Reef? Straight from the National Park Service:

“Early settlers noted that the white domes of Navajo Sandstone resemble the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Prospectors visiting the area (many with nautical backgrounds) referred to the Waterpocket Fold, an 87-mile long ridge in the earth’s crust, as a reef, since it was a formidable barrier to transportation.”

https://www.nps.gov/care/faqs.htm

Well, ok then! The whole time we were trying to see if we could see the Capitol building in any of the rock formations, but nothing was too convincing. 

Capitol Building in the background, anyone? No? Ok

We did a nice hike in the park where we hiked to a natural arch. At the beginning of the hike there was a river which was nice to see. It sounds silly typing this now, because we are currently in the mountains, and water is everywhere. But after months in the desert, things like this really become novel.

WATER!
Tim and Calla on the trail
The natural arch. Someone has to be the photographer, right?
Calla did some hiking on her own, too

After our hike, we headed to the middle of the park to an area known for it’s fruit orchards. Fruit orchards in a national park?! This was new to us. When the fruit is in season, you can pick it, which is pretty cool. Up to this point, all of our national park experiences had been hiking and/or viewing overlooks or other scenic spots. To have an activity you can participate in that is not one of those things is unique.

The fruit orchards are form the original Mormon settlers in the area, and there are TONS of them. We’d love to return when fruit is in season and go pick some.

One orchard is to the right behind Calla. So pretty!
Any day that you get to pet horses is a good day

There is also a little house where you can go buy fresh baked fruit pies. This is also unique when it comes to National Park experiences! They seem to barely sell pre-packaged snacks, let alone homemade baked goods. So of course we had to try one.

Get your fruit pies here
Pies for sale inside a National Park?! What?!

The final thing we did during our day at the park was to take a scenic drive, which provides great views of the Waterpocket Fold. This ridge in the earth’s crust is truly a sight to be seen, and the scale of what happened geologically left our heads spinning. You can’t capture it in one picture because it’s way too big.

We are not ones to enjoy spending lots of time in the car, we’d rather be out and about hiking and exploring the park that way. But this scenic drive was recommended to us as a “must do” and we’d have to agree with that recommendation. There is so much distance to cover that there’s no way that you could do it in a hike. I’ll leave you with some pictures from the drive, which can describe it better than I can.

Other cars for scale
Calla and I at Capitol Gorge
Oh, Utah…
Part of the Waterpocket Fold
Also used our truck for scale
We did another little hike that had petroglyphs + pioneer names etched on rocks
Coolest drive ever?

Although Capitol Reef wasn’t known to us until we were already in Utah, we were so glad we took a day to stop there and explore. It is a unique National Park that is a great mix of hiking, sightseeing by car, and other family-friendly activities such as fruit picking, horse petting, and pie eating. We’ve been to many parks since and none of them have offered as many unique things to do as Capitol Reef! 

Date Visited: May 2018

2 Comments

  1. Hi Hanna,
    We just left Capital Reef this am. Now at Spanish trails RV Park, here for four days. Although we are in our late 60’s, I hope our paths will cross in the next few days. I enjoy reading you blog and it would be great to meet you all.

    Ted Miller

    1. Hi Ted!! That is so nice of you and of course we’d be happy To meet up but we visited Utah in May! We are way behind on our posts!

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