Capitol Reef National Park kind of snuck up on us. Really. We knew we’d be close to it, but we didn’t realize we’d be driving through it. After spending a week in the Moab area with Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we headed west on Highway 70 and then south on Highway 24 in the south central part of Utah. Noelle here, by the way.
Capitol Reef is in the heart of red rock country. I mean seriously there are massive red rock structures, hoodoos & pinnacles everywhere you look! So many lookouts over canyons and land bridges, it’s like driving through another world. The big draw here is the Waterpocket Fold, which is something of a 100-mile wrinkle of the earth. I don’t fully understand it, even though I’ve read quite a few websites about it.
Capitol Reef got its name from the surrounding geology. Capitol for the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes, and reef for the rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like an ocean reef.
Goblin Valley State Park
On the way, we passed Goblin Valley State Park in Green Valley, which we just heard about yesterday from another hiker. He said it’s exactly like being in an episode of the Flintstones. He expected to see dinosaurs lifting boulders with their heads, while Fred rides in the basket on its back. The park has also been compared to a Mars-like landscape. We talked about stopping on our way towards Grand Staircase. But then saw the website warnings of occasional several hour waits to enter the park between March and June (especially on weekends). We didn’t want to wait several hours, so we drove on by. Don’t be like us. Plan ahead and stop at this park on a weekday!
Further along, past Goblin Valley, you can take Cathedral Road for a spectacular view of Cathedral Valley and multi-colored mountainous rocks. Temples of the Sun and Moon are along the way on this four-wheel drive road. Keep going nine more miles and take the left split to Cathedral Junction. From there you can take another left to the Cathedral Valley Overlook and campground. We chose not to do this route, but wish we would have after hearing about it from other travelers. It’s definitely on our list for next time. That’s the thing we’ve found, there are so many places we want to explore, but realistically, we’ve had to learn to pick and choose.
Capitol Reef National Park
So we’re driving along and then bam! there’s a Capitol Reef National Park sign. How cool is that?! The entrance booth is after you turn onto the Scenic Drive by the Visitors Center, so you don’t actually have to pay until then. But along Hwy 24 you can see petroglyphs, the Fruita Schoolhouse, Hickman Bridge and Capitol Dome. It’s one of the wildest drives we’ve taken so far.
I guess the big take away is that the Capitol Reef area is huge, even while the actual Park itself isn’t that large compared to some other parks we’ve explored. So you really can spend a lifetime in this area of Utah and not experience all there is to see and do. We try to cover the big ticket items for you, but there’s so much more than we’re able to see.
Capitol Reef Fruit
During the summer months, when fruit is in season, take time to pick fruit from one of the many orchards in the Fruita area. The orchards grow apple, peach, cherry, pear, plum, apricot, and almonds. You can pick and eat fruit free of charge while you’re visiting. Or pay a small fee to take fruit home with you. The Gifford House sells jellies and jams made with fruit from these orchards, so be sure to stop in there! You won’t be disappointed.
We opted for the mixed berry pie with vanilla ice cream. Oh my word. Delicious. I’m not even a big pie fan. I just don’t care for the crusts, but this was really good. The pies are small, just the right amount for two people and cost $6.50 each (in 2021). Steve and I sat outside at a picnic table and enjoyed this yummy goodness, while listening to children laughing and running around. Okay, we heard some squabbles too, but that’s part of traveling with kids.
Outside Gifford House is a water station for filling drinking bottles and even five gallon tanks. We saw quite a few people filling right up. We checked out the cool old barn on the property too, before heading up the scenic drive.
We stopped to see the petroglyphs along Highway 24. Raised wooden walkways make it easy to get close enough to look without touching these beauties. You can even press a button for an audio description of the area and of the peoples most likely to have carved the drawings. I’ve just been in awe of how many ancient sites we’ve seen throughout all of Southern Colorado and Utah.
This stop is such an easy one with those boardwalks, it’d be a shame to pass this up. Kids would probably really love seeing these old rock drawings. It’s just crazy that they’ve survived all these years.
Check out the petroglyphs at Mesa Verde National Park too!
Camping in Capitol Reef
There’s a developed campground in Fruita, just a little past the Gifford house. It has 71 spaces, with reservations available March 1 – October 31st. Each site has a picnic table and firepit. Plus there are trees, lots of trees. As we drove into this area, my heart began smiling at all the greenery. After being in the desert so long, I felt so relieved to see grass and trees and creeks. This Pacific Northwest girls needs some green space! Fruita campground is an oasis in the desert for sure.
While individual sites don’t have RV connections, there is a central dump and potable water station near the front of the campground. It also has garbage dumpsters and is easily accessed. This campground fills up quickly, so make sure to plan ahead (like six months ahead).
Primitive Camping and Boondocking
The area offers two primitive campgrounds as well, one off Cathedral Valley Loop Road. It’s accessible by high clearance four wheel drive. The other is Cedar Mesa Campground, which is generally accessible by cars and RVs from Notom-Bullfrog Road. This are probably good options, but you know we like to boondock!
So, we noticed huge BLM camping just out of the Park on the way to Torrey. We saw lots of RVs of all sizes here, and there’s a small river so you can even take a dip. We kept going towards the town and stayed on Beas Lewis Flat Road. It’s beautiful! A little crowded over the three day holiday weekend while we were there, but nothing compared to the craziness near Arches National Park. We had two-three bars of AT&T, so that’s a bonus.
Our GPS coordinates were N 38°17’51.48″, W 111°23’23.52″.
Sand Creek RV Park in Torrey
We spent a couple nights hooked up to electricity in the small town of Torrey, about fifteen minutes from the Park. It’s a cute and clean small RV Park, which we highly recommend. The owners are friendly and welcoming. Showers are clean and warm. There are two washers and two dryers that you use and then put your $5/load into the night drop box. It’s an honor system, which seems to work well.
This easy stop for us allowed us to catch up on website and YouTube stuff and just have some down time for a couple days. It’s a perfect location, right down the road from the Chuckwagon General Store and the Capitol Burger food truck. The burger was delicious! So stop in there and support a small town!
Off Road in Capitol Reef
We drove to the end of the paved road and then kept on going! There’s a path through the mountain that is sort of like a giant slot canyon. It’s passable by two wheel drive cars, as we saw some low cars making the drive. But honestly it’s much better suited for high clearance SUV’s, jeeps and trucks. We went along with Cupcake and did just fine, except for this one huge pot hole that you can’t go around! We did a little swerving and jostling!
A guy driving behind us stopped to chat with us in the parking lot. He asked about our website (listed on the back of our camper) and told us about his recent lay off and decision to take a little time off before his next job. He said when we went through that big pothole, he was yelling, “You got this, Steve! Keep on going!” So funny. And encouraging too. I was glad to meet him, because he’s so much like us. About our age and unsure if the work till you retire and then die scenario is right for him. I hope we’re showing that there are other alternatives. We can buck the system and live to tell the tale!
Where are the pictures?
Anyway, I didn’t take any pictures of that drive in, but we did capture some video. It was pretty awesome! Here’s one thing I’m learning about my videography skills…it’s not that easy. haha. If you haven’t checked out our YouTube channel, go look at it! Steve’s getting better all the time at making and editing videos. I think they’re pretty informative and if they’re not, then they’re at least fun! 🙂 But me…I keep thinking I’m taping great adventures, like scooting into Zebra slot canyon in Grand Staircase Escalante. Later though, Steve sits down to edit and it turns out I’ve pushed the buttons at the wrong times. I miss the whole thing I’m trying to film, but get excellent footage of the truck’s floorboard or of my feet as I scoot back out of the slot canyon. Me and video, we just don’t have a connection.
So I thought I took a LOT of video as we drove back into this super cool area of Capitol Reef National Park, but it turns out I didn’t actually take photos OR very much video. Yikes!
Once we got to the end of that crazy four-wheeling road, we came to a large parking and picnic area. A short trail off of it took us to the Pioneer Register. It’s a part of the road/trail where the early Mormon settlers traveled and then carved their names on the rock walls. I can’t even imagine coming through here in a wagon train or even later on with terrible roads and an early automobile. Seems impossible that people have lived here throughout the ages and have crossed this area on foot and horseback. That’s a much more rugged life than I can imagine.
“… make gardens, orchards, and vineyards, and render the earth so pleasant that when you look upon your labors you may do so with pleasure, and that angels may delight to come and visit your beautiful locations.”Brigham Young as he sent settlers to remote corners of Utah
Capitol Reef at sunset
Two spots stick out as the premier sunset spots in Capitol Reef. They are Panorama and Sunset Points. Panorama is a drive up spot, so it’s super easy to get to, but it does get a little crowded. Sunset Point is less than a half mile and it’s easy and just like its name says, it’s a good place to see the sunset over the canyons near Fruita.
Hickman Bridge is a moderate trail out to a 133-foot natural land bridge with great canyon views also. So it’s a good place to dust off a rock, sit down and watch the sunset too. This whole area is full of red rock treasures and amazing places to explore.
I really enjoyed this park, though it does get hot, even in the fall. I loved the strawberry rhubarb pie 🥧
We enjoyed it too Lynn. It was sure beautiful.