Filed under: Activities & Attractions, Campgrounds & RV Parks, Family Camping, Family Weekend Trips, Historic Places & Landmarks, Holidays on the Road, Nature & Wildlife, Outdoor Recreation & Hiking, Roads & Routes, RVing with Grand Kids, Scenic Byways/Historic Routes, State & National Parks
Land of the Sleeping Rainbow: Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is filled with geological wonders that stagger the imagination.
Somewhat remote, and not as well known as the other parks, Capitol Reef is located on the northern edge of the Grand Circle Tour. Capitol Reef encompasses a 100-mile natural upheaval in the earth’s crust known as the Waterpocket Fold.
We’ve traveled Utah’s red-rock country from Bryce to Arches and Zion to Monument Valley, but none is more impressive than Capitol Reef. Hundreds of millions of years of geological history are contained within this long, narrow park that stretches about 100 miles from its northern to southern boundary.
Time moves very slowly in the ageless world of colorful spires, pinnacles, and domes that form Capitol Reef. Formed by cataclysmic events of eons past, these rock formations have been defined and redefined over past ages as ancient sea waters advanced and retreated across the changing surface of the earth.
The Navajo call the area the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow”, an accurate depiction of the many hues of the landscape of Capitol Reef. The “capitol” comes from the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resembles the nation’s capitol building, and the “reef” comes from the rocky cliffs that are a barrier to travel, like coral reefs.
Although many early explorers avoided this region due to its rough terrain, Colonel John C. Fremont struggled through the area during blizzard conditions during the winter of 1853. Experiencing severe hardship, he stashed part of his supplies in the snow along the frozen river. Later explorers, finding the catch, named the river for him, the Fremont River, and also added a nickname for the waterway—the Dirty Devil after observing its muddy appearance during spring runoff.
The Mormons arrived to settle the little community they called Fruita in the late 19th century. About a mile east of the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, the remains of an old still suggests that early pioneers helped support themselves by making bootleg whiskey. The Fruita Schoolhouse, furnished as it was at the turn of the 19th century, stands along the highway less than a mile east of the visitor center.
Farther east the Petroglyph pullout displays a broad stretch of Fremont Indian petroglyphs carved into the base of a tall Wingate sandstone cliff. The designs include trapezoidal human figures decorated with jewelry and accompanied by bighorn sheep.
The short drive from the town of Torrey to the turn-off for the Capitol Reef Visitor Center is awe-inspiring. Highway 24 winds past rock formations such as Chimney Rock, Twin Rocks, and the Castle.
The aptly named Scenic Drive juts 10 miles south from the visitor center past Fruita campground and south along the western side of the Waterpocket Fold into the park’s interior. It has dirt-road turnoffs for Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge with scenery to match their names.
Although the scenic drive is the easiest way to see Capitol Reef, there are numerous other routes. Drive Highway 24 through the park to Notom-Bullfrog Road, which runs south along the eastern edge of the park. There is access to slot canyons and washes in varying conditions and is paved for the first 10 miles.
If you have a 4WD vehicle and weather conditions are right, you can make the long drive up to the beautiful Cathedral Valley at the northern end of the park, where tall buttes and pinnacles are reminiscent of the stark monoliths of Monument Valley. Since you’ll be venturing into extremely remote country it’s essential that you check with a park ranger before making this trip; be sure you have plenty of fuel and water and that you are prepared for any emergency.
Did You Know?
Less than ¼ inch of rain can produce Flash Floods. Flash Floods are caused by run-off from intense, localized thunderstorms that drop a large amount of rain over a short period of time. They are most common in Capitol Reef in July, August and September, but can occur at any time of the year.
If you use a DSLR, the single-most helpful accessory you can own, aside from a tripod, is a polarizing filter. This seemingly simple bit of glass, which screws on to your lens in a rotating mount, performs a host of remarkable photographic feats, including darkening blue skies, removing reflections, and increasing color contrast and saturation. Using a polarizer is easy: All you do is turn the filter until you see the effect you want in the viewfinder, and then shoot.
Capitol Reef National Park
Elevation: 5,400 feet (visitor center)
Operating hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day
Location: From Torrey, 11miles east on Highway 24 (visitor center)
Admission: $5/vehicle (good for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted
Camping: $10/night; all sites first-come, first-served
Pets: Not allowed on any hiking trails or anywhere in the backcountry
Address: HC 70 Box 15, Torrey, UT 84775
Phone: (435) 425-3791
The nation behaves well when it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
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