Exploring Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park Scenic Drive

Meet Capitol Reef National Park.

Of the “Mighty 5”, Capitol Reef is the newest addition to Utah’s five parks. Capitol Reef was established in 1971, about 40 years after Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks and 7 years after Canyonlands National Park. Capitol Reef may be the new kid on the block but it certainly is not the Donny Wahlberg of the group.

Capitol Reef National Park is located near Utah Highway 12. Some of you may remember my thoughts on Utah Highway 12. If you do not remember or have not checked them out, go ahead and give it a go. We will wait for you here.

Pretty scary, huh?

So needless to say when I was heading east from Bryce Canyon National Park I was “super” pleased that my route took me along Utah Highway 12. I will admit that Highway 12 was not as terrifying this round as the last encounter. At least I knew what I was in for. Heart stopping nose dives with no guard rails and traversing along the ridge of a mountain.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

As we arrived in Torrey Utah, near Capitol Reef, we turned off of Highway 12 and headed further east along Utah Highway 24. Torrey Utah, although small in size, does have some impressive scenery for its 179 residents. The colorful bluffs and ridges that are the backdrop for the town are some of the most photographed areas of Capitol Reef. As a newbie visitor I did not realize these famous bluffs were not inside the park so my recommendation is to snap a few photos while in Torrey before going into the park. Our route did not include us backtracking so we will have to brave Highway 12 again some day to capture our own photos of the stunning entrance to Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef National Park encompasses both geology and history. The park is long and narrow in shape and to me slightly resembles a lighting bolt. Part of what gives the park its bluffs and cliffs is the Waterpocket Fold. The Waterpocket Fold is a crease in the earth’s surface that is about 100 miles (160 km) long. The fold is believed to be between 50 to 70 million years old and most likely the result of the same continental plates that made the Rocky Mountains. The fold, also known as a monocline, looks somewhat like a ginormous earthworm trail snaking its way through the area. Over time the elements have exposed the multiple layers of colorful sandstones. The park picks up part of its name from white rounded domes of sandstone that have a striking resemblance to the United States Capitol Building. The second part of the park’s name, reef, comes from the jagged rocky cliffs that look like a coral reef.

Capitol Reef National Park

The park is filled with many different colors of sandstone

Although the park’s geology history dates back millions of years, the Capitol Reef area did not become inhabited by humans until 7000 Before Common Era (BCE) to 500 BCE. The Native Americans, referred to as the Archaic Hunters and Gathers, lived in the Capitol Reef area during this time period. They were hunters and gathers who followed the animals they needed for sustainability. Most likely because they were on the move often, following the animals, they left little behind to piece together much history about them.

Capitol Reef National Park

Views from the Scenic Drive

From 300 to 1300 Common Era (CE) the Pueblos who lived in the area were more settled then the previous inhabitants. The Pueblos were referred to as the Fremont Culture and lived near the Fremont River that flows through the park. The Pueblos started farming corn, beans and squash in addition to hunting and gathering. They also built pit houses and used preexisting caves for shelter unlike the previous inhabitants who used only caves for shelter. Pictographs and petroglyphs can be found throughout the park, giving insight in to the lives of the people who lived there during that time period.

Non-natives first entered the Capitol Reef area in 1853 and it was part of the religious group the Mormons who homesteaded in the valley during the early 1870’s. The Fremont River provided plenty of water and the towering rocks helped keep the valley warm, both beneficial elements for agricultural success. The park has several buildings to explore as well as orchards that the Mormons established. Uncontrollable flooding from the Fremont River eventually pushed the homesteaders out of the valley to surrounding areas, such as Torrey Utah. A side note if you are traveling with a dog the orchards are dog friendly and fruits growing in the orchards are free to consume while you are visiting!  A small fee is asked for any fruits picked and taken from the park.

Capitol Reef National Park

Views from the Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef National Park

In 1928 a Mormon bishop, Ephraim Portman Pectol, of Torrey and his brother-in-law were instrumental in bringing awareness to the Waterpocket Fold and its natural beauty. Their efforts were recognized in 1937 by President Roosevelt who set the land aside as a national monument. The monument was later made a national park in 1970, and now protects 254,000 acres of land, a little over 6 times what had been originally set aside in 1937.

And now that you are caught up on Capitol Reef’s geology and history we are free to move about the park. Our visit to Capitol Reef was brief and in hindsight we really should have spent more time there. Although there are many hikes to explore the area, none are dog friendly. The park does however have several scenic drives. For our visit we took the Scenic Drive, an almost 16 mile (25.7 km) round trip road. It is important to note that the road is not a loop but there are many areas worth seeing again.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Gorge Road

The Scenic Drive is suitable for passenger cars and RV’s up to 27 feet (8.22 m) in length and consists of both paved and dirt portions. There is a $10 USD entrance fee to take the Scenic Drive. The fee box is cash only and unmanned. As I rarely carry cash I returned back to the visitors center, about 1 mile (2 km) and spoke with a ranger about paying for the entrance fee with my card. As I have the America The Beautiful Park Pass my admission for the drive was waived as the pass covers entrance fees to National Parks and monuments and covers some, but not all extra fees charged.  The small fee for the Scenic Drive is well worth it even if you do end up paying it. The drive takes you into the meat of the park, giving you several opportunities to dart off onto other dirt roads taking you deeper into the park.

Capitol Reef National Park

Solution Pockets

We followed the Scenic Drive, taking in the wide open spaces and richly colored towering bluffs. We then turned onto the Capitol Gorge Road, an unpaved road that was 2.4 miles (3.8 km) one way. I highly recommend taking this road as not only is the scenery breathtaking but you can also see up close impressive geology, such as solution pockets. Solution pockets are found in sediment that has become rocks from being under immense pressure. Weak parts of the sediment have been eroded away by the elements, leaving small pockets in the rock’s surface, which I found to be interesting to look at.

Capitol Reef National Park

A cozy home for 15

After we completed the Capitol Gorge Road, we returned along the Scenic Drive and followed Highway 24 out of the park tracing along the Fremont River. Our final stop before leaving the park was at the small house shown above, the Behunin Cabin. This one room cabin was built in 1882 and was home to the Behunin family, which included 13 children. They were one of the first families to homestead in the area and like the others, the flood waters from the Fremont River pushed them to higher ground after their crops were washed away. I stood in awe of the little house and wondered how 15 people could live in such a cozy space.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is located on Utah Highway 24 near Torrey Utah. Park entrance is free, however as I mentioned there is a $10 USD fee for the scenic drive. This park is unique encompassing so much history and geology, and is well worth a visit.  A much longer visit than what Boomer and I spent for sure, as we there for only a few hours.

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