Guest post by Lindsay Lewis-Thomas of The Traveluster.
United States is very well known for their extensive national park system. People from other countries seem most impressed with the sheer vastness of the U.S. (it takes a full day to drive through the state of Texas) and the outstanding, naturally stunning national parks.
Many people choose to visit Utah to get the most bang for their national park buck, which is filled with protected areas and some of the most striking scenery in the country. This is why my husband and I chose Utah for our national park vacation last fall, visiting Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef National Parks.
Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyon Lands are the popular parks that draw most tourists to Utah. However, one of the best national parks in Utah, according to locals, is a newer, lesser-known park called Capitol Reef. This is how we somewhat intentionally, sort of accidentally arrived in Utah’s newest, least visited national park.
It all started in Bryce
As soon as we arrived in Bryce Canyon, we headed straight in to the ranger station. It was barely daylight, and the smell of fresh coffee punctuated the air. My husband struck up a conversation with the pony-tailed guy with the mountain-man beard behind the counter. After the ranger drew “the perfect route” for us to hike on our map, my husband mentioned that we had “a full day tomorrow before catching our 7 PM flight in Salt Lake City. What should we do?” He meant what should we do in Bryce Canyon.
The conversation went something like this:
“Have you been to Capitol Reef, yet?”
“No. We were thinking about going there on our way to the airport.”
“If you weren’t planning on going, you should seriously consider canceling whatever plans you had and going straight there instead. It’s the best park in Utah, hands down…. and I’m from here.”
Now, that was a pretty serious endorsement! We had heard about Capitol Reef. It was so close to Bryce, and it seemed to be somewhat on the way back to Salt Lake.
I usually try to squeeze too much in to a trip, so I thought it best to limit our five-day visit to two national parks. Then here was this guy, convincing us that we couldn’t come all this way and miss Capitol Reef. What’s more, he made a strong argument for being able to see Bryce Canyon’s highlights in one full day (instead of two) on the route he laid out for us. Then we could make our way to Capitol Reef and see a whole new park.
Adding icing on top, he mentioned that we would also drive through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Dixie National Forest (a few times, apparently, because Dixie connects all the parks in the area via huge, non-contiguous swathes of land).
Capitol Reef turned out to be the reward we received for minimalistic vacation planning and maintaining a flexible schedule.
The name Capitol Reef is derived from the white domes of Navajo sandstone that resemble capitol building domes, combined with the rocky cliff barriers that are akin to a coral reef.
Capitol Reef is famous for its unique geological structure, the waterpocket fold, which is a large wrinkle in the earth, formed 50-70 million years ago when mountain-building events reactivated an ancient fault. The overlying rock layers draped over the moved fault forming a classic monocline: a regional fold with one very steep side among otherwise nearly horizontal layers.
Residents of the Reef
Nomadic hunter-gatherers migrated through the area long ago, leaving petroglyphs as archaic evidence of their presence. Visitors can view some of these petroglyphs up close along Highway 24.
The Freemont culture became a permanent fixture around 500 AD. Much later, the Mormons arrived and established the Fruita Rural Historic District in the 1800s, planting fruit orchards like the apples, which are still there today. During harvest season, visitors are allowed to collect apples from the orchard. The Fruita historic schoolhouse also remains as an historic relic.
The Mormons left their own “we were here” petroglyphs high on the rock cliffs. They etched names like Isaac Hayes and Quinby Stewart in the stone, accompanied by the year, 1911.
A Quick Park Tour
Short on time, we took the main highway 24 through the center of the park to see the Fruita Historic District, petroglyphs (the older ones), and Capitol Dome. Although Capitol Reef is 100 miles long, it’s very narrow, so this takes no time at all- an hour max. From there, we backtracked and then took the scenic drive south, per the park ranger’s recommendation.
We drove down both Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash, which are essentially canyon trails with gravel-dirt roads. Cars are allowed to drive through the canyon until a certain point, then you must park and hike. We did a little mini-hike. The canyon walls are tall and the gorges narrow at points.
One of the most noticeable things about Capitol Reef was the lack of people. There was hardly a soul around. It was like we had the place to ourselves, which was very nice; like being in someone’s cool backyard filled with canyons.
Utah, A Treasure Trove of National Parks
I don’t think we could have made better choices about how to spend our five days in Utah.
Zion NP offered the most diversity in terms of trails. One day will find you scaling a canyon ridge with a birds-eye-view of the park, and the next, you’re wading through a white water river at the bottom of a slot canyon. You could probably spend the most time in Zion. Our favorite part of the park was the least popular area on top of the ridge. It was the most crowded of the three parks overall.
Bryce Canyon surprised me. I didn’t think I would love it as much as I did. I knew it would be more arid and desert-like (the valleys of Zion are more verdant and lush. I like lush). Here, we enjoyed our favorite hike of the entire trip, the Queen’s Garden-Navajo Loop- one of the best in the world, according to National Geographic.
Capitol Reef was the total sleeper, the underdog that won our hearts at the very end. Although just a taste, we got the perfect sample of the park and left wanting to come back for more. It was so remote that it felt like our very own private retreat. We’d like to go back and explore more of the park, including the Waterpocket Fold in the south and Cathedral Valley in the north.
About the Author
Lindsay is a freelance writer and runs the blog The Traveluster, where she shares culture-focused travel stories and tips from a lifetime traveling and studying culture. She holds degrees in anthropology and geography and a masters in international peace and conflict resolution. Currently living in Nashville, TN, she has previously called Baton Rouge, LA, Washington, DC, and Seville, Spain home. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest.