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NATIONAL PARKS GUIDES: CAPITOL REEF

Capitol Reef NPS Utah
Capitol Reef, Utah

History and Stats

The Fremont people originally populated the region as early as 1000, but in the 13th century, likely due to sustained drought, they left the area. Paiutes would eventually move into the area long after. In 1872, John Wesley Powell’s team of explorers would survey the area, just as Mormon settlers moved into the area, some settling into what would become Fruita.

Preservation efforts began in earnest in the early 1920s, and would eventually take root as interest in the area grew. Despite being made a National Monument, the effects of the Great Depression would keep Ranger from arriving in the area for some time.

Throughout the first few decades, the area was largely under the authority of Zion National Park, and would face growing pains of rising popularity, expansion and governmental feuding over legalese and cattle grazing rights, but would eventually be redesignated as a National Park by President Nixon.

Date Founded: Designated as a National Monument on August 7, 1937, though not opened to the public until 1950. Officially made a National Park on December 18, 1971.

Size: 241,904 acres

Elevation: Lowest point: 3,877 ft at Hall’s Creek; Highest point: 8,960 ft near Billings Pass

Rainfall: 7.5in, 10in of snow

Visitors: 1.1 Million a year

Open: Year-round

Fees: $7 for individuals on foot or on bike, and $15 for automobiles. *We will note that these fees are covered completely by the America The Beautiful Pass, which applies to over 2,000 different sites. Commercial vehicles for tours are subject to a higher fee.

Mission

“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

As the park is largely anchored by the restored remains of the town of Fruita, history is a large focus in the park, both the history of the original native settlers and the Mormons of the 19th century. The geology of the park is especially diverse and represents a unique geological perspective along with notable rock formations. There are multiple campsites and trails available, and the park is incredibly popular with hikers and campers alike. There’s no lack of options for the outdoor enthusiast in the area, and more information can be found here.

Facilities

The Visitor Center is open year-round (8-4:30) with the exception of November 24, December 25 and January 1. The Visitor Center features exhibits and a film offering an introduction to the park. Gifford House Store and Museum (open March 14 through October 29, 8-4:30) features historical context for the settlement of Fruita and also sells baked goods, among other things.

Closest Civilization

Torrey is a small town and a 15-minute drive from the Visitor’s Center. As a tourist hub for the park, there are ample lodging, dining and shopping options.

CAPITOL REEF NPS.jpg

Lodging

There is a 71-site developed campground near Fruita, with a nightly fee of $20, though this is discounted with certain ATB passes. The majority of sites are reservation only and can be reserved here, but there are a few sites that are first-come-first-serve.

The two primitive campgrounds are somewhat remote but are free of charge. They feature pit toilets and picnic tables, but no water. Backcountry camping is also an option, and free as well, but a permit must be obtained from the Visitor’s Center.

Additionally, there are a number of lodging options in the surrounding area at a variety of price points, and more camping options a short drive away.

Camping Level

Novice to Advanced. While the Fruita sites are comparatively civilized, the primitive sites are fairly remote. Finally, backcountry camping should only be undertaken by those with extensive outdoor skills and with thorough preparation. More information on backcountry camping can be found hereOur Novice Camping Gear Guide can be found here.

Seasonal Programs

There are daily Geology talks as well as talks on the region’s original Fremont inhabitants. In addition, there is evening programming with rotating subject matter. May through October, the programming expands, with guided hikes, orchard talks, stargazing and more. More information can be found here.

Our experience

As the weather in the region had taken an unfriendly turn and we needed some wi-fi to take care of the next leg of the journey, we opted for a motel and planned to enjoy the park the next day. Even in the offseason, the park was fairly crowded, and though we had more in mind, all we were able to do was the Hickman Bridge Trail. We enjoyed the trail and wished we had more time to stay, but the next leg of the journey was calling.

Things we’d like to try next time

We would definitely opt to stay in the park and stay longer, for starters, and likely try for one of the primitive sites for a weekend trip and hike to their respective nearby sites. If that were the case we would definitely make sure to check some of the Ranger programs.

Special Note

  • The area was not easily accessible until the construction of Route 24 in 1962.
    Waterpocket Fold, a massive, 100 mile-long geologic crease running the length of much of the park, is visible from space. It runs all the way to Lake Powell.
  • Early in the area’s history, the region was known as “Wayne Wonderland”, as part of it is situated within Wayne County.
  • Several hundred acres within the confines of the park are actually privately held land.
  • There are over 3,000 fruit trees in Fruita and all are open to the public. Fruit eaten within the orchards is free, although there is a nominal fee for fruit taken out of the orchards. If you’re lucky, you may get to pick a snack. Be nice to the trees- they’re antiques!
  • Route 12 runs South from Torrey and is known as the Million Dollar Highway for its breathtaking views of Gran Escalante.
  • Boulder, another nearby town, is home to Hell’s Backbone, a James-Beard nominated restaurant with its own farm. We highly recommend having a meal there. You can read more about Hell’s Backbone and other cross-country standouts in Eating Across America.
The view from the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The view from the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Were you lucky enough to pick a fruit? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does the dome actually look like the capitol building? Which of the two primitive sites is best? What should we do the next time we’re there?

Official NPS Site

Check out more of our guides to the National Parks.

Read more about our experience at the Capitol Reef National Park here.

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