A few months ago, I had the great opportunity to visit the Mighty Five National Parks of Utah, which includes Capitol Reef National Park. The trip was part of an ongoing project with Marriott International, The Americas, to highlight some incredible places around the country, including our national parks. Few would disagree that there is something almost magical about America’s National Parks. Often called America’s Best Idea, each park is the result of years of tireless work on behalf of concerned citizens who wanted lands they felt to be unique and undeniably special to be protected forever. The National Park System represents the North American model of conservation, which itself was a hard concept to introduce to the general public more than a century ago but today is the standard by which similar parks around the world are judged. Reserving lands for posterity was not a popular idea at the time, but thanks to a handful of forward-thinking individuals, we as a country have now saved some of the planet’s most incredible natural and cultural wonders, including Capitol Reef. To help inspire you to visit or just better plan your own trip, here are a few things you should know about Capitol Reef National Park.
Capitol Reef National Park & Getting There
Exploring the Park in Two or Three Hours
One of the many reasons why I love visiting the National Parks is how accessible they are even if you don’t have a lot of time to visit. Sure, you could spend many days exploring Capitol Reef but that’s not a luxury everyone can afford. Just because you don’t have a lot of time doesn’t mean you can’t see the best of the parks. Decades ago a concerted effort was made to create driving loops in almost every National Park to allow visitors to easily and quickly see the best or most popular features of each park. So, if you just have two or three hours yes, you can still experience the best of Capitol Reef with ease. One thing to keep in mind about the National Parks of the West though is just how big they are. Even though driving loops exist, the vast size of the parks themselves means you still have a lot of driving to do even if only to see the highlights. Before the trip I purchased a National Parks Annual Pass, which is honestly a smart thing to do if you plan on visiting two or more parks in a year. Not only did it save me money, but it made getting in and out of the parks easier as well. Before tackling the driving route, I stopped off at the visitor’s center to learn more about Capitol Reef and which stops along the drive I thought made the most sense for me to see.
Getting to Capitol Reef is fairly convenient, especially if you’re visiting all Mighty Five National Parks. Driving from Moab, it’s about a 2-hour drive which means if you leave in the morning you’ll have plenty of time to explore the Park and then continue on to wherever you decide to spend the night.
Like most of the Parks in this part of the country, Capitol Reef is massive but is set up in such a way that makes it pretty easy to explore even if you’re light on time. Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is an unappreciated treasure full of cliffs, canyons and domes all within the Waterpocket Fold – a geologic monocline that extends for nearly 100 miles. Capitol Reef became a national monument in 1937, conserving and protecting significant natural and cultural resources. The boundaries were later changed, and Capitol Reef became a National Park in 1971. Today the Park encompasses 381 square miles and in addition to its geological peculiarities also includes archeological evidence of prehistoric American Indians and elements of a historic Mormon settlement that are preserved as well.
There’s a lot to love about exploring Capitol Reef National Park, but some of my favorite activities include:
The Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef takes about 90 minutes round trip and is a great way to experience the best of the park if time is an issue. There are 11 official stops and together do a great job of sharing the history of the park. Rather than share all 11 stops, I do want included some of the highlights. The Moenkopi Formation is an example of the strange structures created by the layered, sedimentary rock that is so common in Capitol Reef. The Grand Wash spur road is a narrow, steep-walled canyon that is prone to flash flooding, but is also beautifully different from the other landscapes you’ll see. The Capitol Gorge spur road is a little daunting, but the unpaved drive takes you into the middle of some incredible scenery. Sheer cliffs and towering walls define the drive, which ends in an area with some great day hikes.
Immediately before the start of the Scenic Drive is a fun place to stop, grab a bite to eat and enjoy the bucolic and green landscapes that are so different from the rest of the Park. The Gifford farm lies in the heart of the Fruita Valley, a desert oasis and part of the 200-acre Fruita Rural Historical District. The farm has been renovated as a cultural demonstration site to interpret the early Mormon settlement of the Fruita Valley. The house shares the typically spartan nature of these farm homes, but is also an active place to visit. Today you can buy a variety of gifts, but the most popular items are the locally baked fruit pies and homemade ice cream that aren’t to be missed and make for the ideal snack.
There are many orchards in the Fruita Historic District and visitors are even allowed to pick fruit when in season. There’s no charge for fruit consumed in the orchard, but there is a fee charged for any fruit removed from the area. Check to see when the orchard times are running, but this is such a fun and unusual activity to find in Utah’s National Parks and I love how accessible they are for visitors.
There are more than 140 miles of roads in and around the Park and over 150 miles of hiking trails for all ability levels. Many day hikes start along Utah Highway 25 and the Scenic Drive, making them easy to access if you’re only in the park for the day. If you want a longer adventure, be sure to do your research and check with the on-site rangers to see about current conditions and safety.
Other than the scenic drive, I enjoyed driving around the various roads in the park, stopping at whatever happened to catch my eye. Sometimes this meant manmade attractions like the old Fruita Schoolhouse, but most of the time it was to admire strange looking rock formations or to undertake short walks from the main road. Capitol Reef is so much more accessible than many other parks, making it a true joy to explore.
Where to Stay
Capitol Reef is a little strange in that for most people it’s usually on the way from one place to another. There are some lodges not too far away, but this is where I stayed during my visit.
I decided to spend the night in Richfield, Utah since it was just an hour from Capitol Reef and set me up pretty well to visit Bryce Canyon National Park the next day. Richfield is a good-sized community which means there were plenty of options for dinner and even big box stores to pick up supplies. My hotel for the evening, the Fairfield Inn & Suites Richfield, couldn’t have been better for my needs. Warmly greeted, the hotel looks new and updated and my room was enormous; more than enough space to spread out and relax. After a long day of driving and exploring national parks, in the evenings all I wanted to do was decompress and get some work done in peace and quiet. There was a great restaurant next door to the hotel, but there are many others less than a 5-minutes drive from the Fairfield. I loved this spot along the Mighty Five route since it was convenient and didn’t force me to go out of my way.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the country’s great natural treasures and it should be a place everyone has on their travel bucket list. No matter how you choose to experience the park, just make sure you take the time to experience its grandeur in person for a trip you’ll never forget.
To learn more about Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks, please be sure to listen to the episode of the Explore the World Travel Podcast I devoted to them.