Capitol Reef National Park's Scenic Drive – Wayne County, Utah
Capitol Reef National Park is easily bypassed by visitors due to the most popular national parks in Utah nearby - Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park and Arches National Park - which attract the majority of visitors. We stopped here on our way from Colorado to go hiking in Bryce Canyon and Zion. Compared to those two parks, Capitol Reef is not overcrowded with visitors, but it has its own beauty that you would want to discover. The park can boast of its beautiful landscapes that will make you wonder in awe of the power of wind, water and erosion. Needless to say, the geology of the place is very impressive. You need to see the place with your own eyes to appreciate fully what the park has to offer.
Located in south-central Utah, the park was named after the series of white domes and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone that are said to resemble the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Capitol Reef was once home of the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan native tribes, from about 300 to 1300 CE. Evidence of these peoples are petroglyphs and pictographs found throughout the park. Then the Mormon pioneers settled in the valley in the 1870s, in the area called Fruita today. They cultivated the land with orchards, some of which still exist today. You can even pick your own during harvest season.
The early explorers in the area were led by John C. Fremont in 1853 and John Wesley Powell in 1869. In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside 37,711 acres as Capitol Reef National Monument, but it was not officially opened to the public until 1950. It was established in 1971 as a national park, signed by President Richard Nixon.
Capitol Reef National Park is located along what was once the edge of an ancient shallow sea. The reef, traditionally defined as a rocky barrier to travel, has prevented easy access for years until the current State Highway 24 was constructed in 1962. The park is long and narrow, approximately 60 miles long and 6 miles wide on average. The most scenic section is the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic landform that extends nearly 100 miles long from north to south from the towns of Wayne through Garfield, preserved within the park.
There are miles of hiking trails and horseback riding in the park. There is a campground near the Visitor Center with amenities, but for more adventurous folks, backpackers or climbers, there are two primitive campgrounds located in the remote parts of the park. These are free with pit toilets, but there is no water available. For stargazers, the park is designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015. The area is mostly arid desert and the best time to visit the park is Spring and Fall. Summer temperatures can reach near 100 degrees. Depending on what activities you plan to do, you might need a high clearance vehicle since some areas beyond the paved road are remote and rugged.
TO GET HERE
From Salt Lake City is about a 3-hour 45-minute drive via I-15 S. Then take Exit 188 and follow US-50 East. Turn right to Utah State Road-260 south to Utah State Road-24 East to the park.
Combining visiting other national parks near Capitol Reef National Park:
From Bryce Canyon it is about a two-hour drive
From Zion National Park it is about a three-hour and 30 minutes drive
From Arches National Park is about a two-hour drive
From Grand Canyon National Park it is about a five-hour and 50 minutes drive
- SCENIC DRIVE -
When we visited this park, we didn’t actually plan on stopping here but we thought we should just take a look and then explore it another time. The weather was a little overcast as well. So, we did not hike here but just went on a scenic drive to the overlooks and walked to inner canyons a short distance. The scenic drive, about eight miles, is enough to entice outdoor enthusiasts to explore. Remember, this is not a loop road, you have to comeback the same way. Coming from the west, before you reach the Visitor Center, you will find, along Utah State Route 24, viewpoints such as Chimney Rock, Mummy Cliff, Panorama Point, Sunset Point and the Fluted Wall.
The park preserves a rugged landscape of winding canyons, natural bridges, towering monoliths and massive domes known collectively as Capitol Reef. It is part of the nearly hundred-mile long up-thrust known as the Waterpocket Fold, formed between 50 and 70 million years ago. It was a movement along the fault that uplifted the west side relative to the east side. It is believed that the tectonic movement of the North American continental plate that formed the Rocky Mountains may have formed Capitol Reef.
Many millions of years of weathering and erosion resulted in this fascinating display of layers of rock and fossils. These are the geologic features that define Capitol Reef National Park and this formation still continues today.
You might wonder why many rock walls are full of holes. We did. They are called Solution Pockets which are small cavities developed on the sandstone walls caused by weathering effects of wind, water and ice. It's also called tafoni or honeycomb weathering. The sandstone's exposed soft areas erode easily thus creating holes.
If you have time, the Cathedral Valley which offers incredible monoliths, is located in the southern part of the park; this is the most remote area.