Capitol Reef National Park
HC 70 Box 15
Torrey, UT 84775-9602
Capitol Reef National Park is located in southern Utah -- approximately 250 miles south of Salt Lake City -- among many other legendary "slickrock" parks. Contrary to its name, the park does not have any "reefs," except in the sense of upthrust rocky ramparts that resemble tropical coral reefs in their varied colors. This national park is also renowned for its enormous light-colored domes, which resemble the dome of the U.S. Capitol building. In addition, it has intricate mazes of red cliffs, pinnacles, and canyons.
Entrance fees: $5/vehicle for seven days
Visitor center: The visitor center is open daily except December 25.
Other services: Three campgrounds
- Cathedral Valley Campground. Open year-round. 435-425-3791.
- Cedar Mesa Campground. Open year-round. 435-425-3791.
- Fruita Campground. Open year-round. 435-425-3791.
Visiting Capitol Reef National Park
From a distance it looks like a swell of gigantic ocean waves, but the Waterpocket Fold, of which Capitol Reef is a part, is an immense pleat in the earth's crust that rises in great parallel ridges for 100 miles across the starkly beautiful desert landscape of southern Utah. Breached in many places by streams and erosion, the up-folding rocks present a striking spectacle of nature.
The awe-inspiring formation is not actually a reef, but a ridge of limestone that once existed in an ocean. Waterpocket Fold is one of the world's largest and finest monoclinal flexures. In these unusual places, the earth's crust has buckled upwards. Early pioneers, who were not geologists, called any rocky barrier to their travel a reef, and this reef's sheer cliffs, which are nearly 1,000 feet high in some places, blocked the east-west travel in this region for decades.
Today, travelers who make the journey to Capitol Reef will find the park accessible by car, horseback, or foot. For detailed sightseeing tips, turn to the next page.
Sightseeing at Capitol Reef National Park
Over the centuries, the exposed edges of the uplift have eroded into a slickrock wilderness that encompasses most of Capitol Reef National Park's scenic splendors. Layer upon layer of brightly colored sandstone is cut by deep, serpentine canyons or eroded into natural bridges or massive domes. One of these great monolithic rock structures apparently reminded an early traveler of the capitol dome in Washington, D.C., and he came up with the name Capitol Reef.
One of the most wonderful parts of the canyon is along the Fremont River. In this deep-cut passage, the early Mormons settled and planted extensive groves of fruit trees, including apple and peach. The park headquarters and visitor center are found here, along with a fine campground.
At sunrise and sunset scattered bands of mule deer are often seen feeding in this area, as well as the occasional coyote and gray fox. Sometimes lucky park visitors encounter a herd of desert bighorn sheep. The last sighting of a native bighorn was in 1948, and park officials believe that they disappeared because of diseases caught from domestic sheep. The park has since reintroduced the desert bighorn.
Another marvelous area is located in Cathedral Valley to the north of the Fremont River Canyon. In fact, Ansel Adams took one of his most memorable photographs (of the Temple of the Sun rock formation) at this site. The lovely Cathedral Valley reveals eroded spires of Entrada sandstone that rise 50 stories from the valley floor.
In the valley, a narrow four-wheel-drive road loops among stark and bizarre formations with such names as the Gypsum Sinkhole, the Walls of Jericho, and the Temple of the Sun. Elsewhere the pioneers descriptively dubbed the terrain Poverty Flat, Fern's Nipple, Tarantula Mesa, and Dogwater Creek.
Capitol Reef's lovely, 25-mile-long scenic drive leads into the heart of the park along an old wagon trail called the Blue Dugway. Legend has it that this road has been used by Native Americans, outlaws, miners, and gypsies. It is said that the Devil himself was once spotted strolling on the trail. A pioneer farmer supposedly drove him away with the Book of Mormon. Today the Blue Dugway is graded and covered. It connects the former Mormon community of Fruita with the section of the Waterpocket Fold called Capitol Reef.
The backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park is a rugged realm, and careful preparations should be made before undertaking any major trips. Most importantly, sufficient water must be taken in this vast desert region.
Capitol Reef National Park Photo Opportunities
You'll find dozens of picturesque vistas as you hike along the Fremont River and through Cathedral Valley. Here are some suggestions for other unforgettable sights:
- Muley Twist Canyon: In the southern end of the park, wilderness trails wind through places with poetic names such as Muley Twist Canyon. This path is so narrow that, in pioneer days, mules had to slither through the canyon.
- The Castle: Located near the Visitor's Center, the Castle rock formation has an unusual green layer that is associated with uranium.
- Panorama Point: From Panorama Point, visitors will see a sweeping vista of sandstone formations framed by the peaks of the Henry Mountains. On a clear day, visibility might be 100 miles or more.
- Cassidy Arch: One spur road off the Blue Dugway leads into the Grand Wash, a canyon supposedly used as a hideout by the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy. From the trailhead in the canyon, a spectacular hiking trail climbs for a mile up to an imposing rock formation known as Cassidy Arch.
This rugged region of southern Utah has been home to various inhabitants, including the Fremont people and early Mormon settlers. To read more about the early Capitol Reef dwellers, turn to the next page.
The History of Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is in such a remote corner of the Colorado Plateau that the nearest traffic light is about 80 miles away. But for centuries, Capitol Reef has been known as a place of dramatic beauty that has drawn visitors to gaze at its wonders or reap its bounty. Ancient petroglyphs, often figures of bighorn sheep and other animals, were cut into rock walls by people who inhabited this area more than 700 years ago.
The people who carved these figures, known as the Fremont people, once plowed fields in the central area of today's park, where towering cliffs contrast with a green oasis along the Fremont River. The Fremont people were a Puebloid group who hunted and gathered for sustenance. Archaeololgists have recovered artifacts distinct to the Fremont, including pottery and unique clay figurines that closely resemble the pictographs and petroglyphs found in the park today.
In the 19th century, Mormon pioneers settled in the high plateau lands to the west of Capitol Reef. One community took root at the junction of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. Originally called Junction, the settlement became known as Fruita after its inhabitants farmed and planted orchards in the valley. The prodigy of the Mormons' farming can be seen today in the apple, pear, peach, apricot, cherry, plum, and mulberry trees that still flourish. The one-room schoolhouse that visitors can tour was established by the Fruita settlement in 1896 to serve as a community center as well as an educational building.
The last residents left in the early 1960s, but current visitors can still reap the benefits of the previous community's diligence, such as when the Fruita orchard blossoms with a myriad of fruit in the spring. As each fruit ripens, park visitors are allowed to partake on a pick-your-own basis. That's just one reason to make the journey to this magnificent slickrock park.
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