Home » 1999 Cross Country Road Trip

Capitol Reef National Park, UT

Friday, August 6, 1999 - 9:00am by Lolo
85 miles and 2.5 hours from our last stop


Our drive towards Arches took us right through Capitol Reef National Park, where we planned to spend a few hours exploring. Unfortunately, the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge--which was the main thing we wanted to do here--was closed because of flash floods. Too bad, because that's where the best views of the canyons and rock formations are. We would just have to make do with some of the highlights along Route 24, which was the way we were crossing the park anyway.

Andrew under Hickman Natural BridgeAndrew under Hickman Natural BridgeWe stopped first for a picnic at Fruita, just south of the Visitor Center. Unlike the colorful rock cliffs and barren desert of the rest of the park, Fruita was green oasis with cottonwood and willow trees along the banks of the river that flowed through it. It didn't seem like Utah at all. The Mormons, thinking it was a pretty nice place too, established a settlement here in the 1870s and planted orchards and vegetables along the river bank. There was also a nice campground here--a good place to stay on a future visit.

After lunch, we got back on Utah 24 and headed east through the park, making stops along the way. Our first stop was to peek through the windows of a tiny log cabin which used to be the Fruita schoolhouse. This tiny one-room building also served as a community center. Hard to imagine.

Then, for some history of a very different people that once settled this area, we stopped at the Petroglyph Pullout to see the thousand-year-old Fremont Indian rock art. We took the short walk to the viewpoint; however, since we weren't allowed to climb the talus slope to the base of the petroglyphs, we needed to use our binoculars to get a good look at them.

We hate to leave a National Park without doing at least one hike, so we decided to hike the 2-mile, fairly strenuous Hickman Bridge Trail. The "Bridge" at the end of this trail was not of the man-made variety but rather a beautiful 135 foot wide, 125 foot high Natural Bridge. Hikes with a specific destination at the end always work best with the kids--it keeps them going even when they want to turn back. The Natural Bridge really was quite impressive and a good preview of what was to come at our next stop, Arches National Park.


Capitol Reef National Park in south central Utah is much less well known and therefore much less crowded than most of Utah's other national parks, such as Zion and Bryce. However, this undiscovered treasure offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Utah.

The park's central geological feature--the Waterpocket Fold- was formed more than 70 million years ago when forces within the earth began to uplift, squeeze, and fold dozens of rock formations into a giant 100-mile long wrinkle in the Earth's crust. It was named Waterpocket because of the many pools of water that get trapped in the tilted strata. Brilliantly colored rock spires, domes, canyons, and arches were carved out of the fold by millions of years of erosion.

Capitol Reef was named by explorers who found the cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold to be a barrier to their travel west. Many of these explorers had been seafaring men, so the rock barriers reminded them of an ocean "reef" blocking ocean travel. The rounded sandstone domes in the park reminded them of the domes on "capitol" buildings; hence the name Capitol Reef.

In stark contrast to the brilliant cliffs and barren desert of the park is the lush oasis of cottonwood, willow, and ash trees along the banks of the Fremont River. In the 1880's, Mormon pioneers established the community of Fruita here and planted orchards along the river's rich banks. These orchards, as well as a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and the Behunin Cabin, have been preserved here by the National Park Service. There is a campground and picnic area here as well.

Other evidence of much earlier human habitation can be found in the thousand-year-old petroglyphs left behind by the ancient Fremont and Anasazi people.

From Route 24, which crosses Capitol Reef National Park from east to west, you can see some of the park's best features, such as Capitol Dome, Chimney Rock, the Fruita Schoolhouse, and the roadside petroglyphs.

If you have more time, drive the paved 25-mile roundtrip scenic drive, which has excellent views of the dramatic canyons and rock formations of Capitol Reef. At the end of the scenic drive is the gravel Capitol Gorge Road, a 5-mile loop with what many think is the best scenery in the park.

Capitol Reef National Park location map in "high definition"

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