Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah 84775
This National Park has something for everyone.
History and Nature in one National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is perfect for geology, nature, and history lovers alike. The park has fantastic programming for kids and you’ll certainly be busy for your whole visit, whether you’re only in the park for one day or if you’re there for a whole week.
The park is huge and there is lots to see. We recommend sticking to the Fruita area, especially if you have younger kids or are not feeling super adventurous. The Fruita district is the most developed, with paved roads and clearly marked and maintained trails, while the other two districts, Waterpocket and Cathedral, have many unmarked trails and unreliable roads. These areas are worth visiting if you’re an experienced hiker and navigator, but if you’re uncertain there is plenty to do and see in the Fruita area.
Fruita is the historic town located in the park, established in the late 1800s by Mormon settlers. There’s not much in the town beside the historic Gifford Homestead and the old schoolhouse. The homestead was inhabited until the 1970s when the government bought the house as an educational experience in the park and is the only place in the park that sells food, baked goods, and simple groceries. Both locations, the homestead, and the schoolhouse are great places to learn about the history of the region and the lives of people that lived in the area.
The best part about the town is the historic orchards, which turn this town to an oasis in the desert scene of the park. These orchards are the same ones that the pioneers farmed as their main source of food and income from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. If you’re visiting in the summer, you can pick cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, and pears. If you’re visiting in March or April, the orchards will be blossoming with flowers and are unbelievably pretty.
The only developed campground in the park is in Fruita, right next to the orchards. There are no RV hookups, but there are an RV dump, picnic tables and fire pits at each site. There is also running water in the bathrooms. We recommend reserving a site, even though there are plenty of spots the park can get very busy in the summer.
More Things to Do
If you’re looking to take in as much of the beautiful scenery as possible, we recommend the Scenic Drive Road, which starts at the visitor center. It’s about an hour and a half drive and during that time you’ll travel in and out of canyons and up and down inclines with unbelievable, changing views. There are eleven stops along the way, with short walks to viewpoints or else informational signs. Our favorite stop is the last one, which is a short walk to petroglyphs, pictures carved into rocks by indigenous people (people of the Freemont Culture), who lived in the area long ago. Kids are always fascinated by these images, as are adults, seeing them was a highlight of our trip. This road also makes for a great bike ride and is the only one in the park where you could pull a child in a tag-along stroller. The ride can be up to thirty miles, but if you stick to the main road the whole time, it can be as little as sixteen (eight each way) and you could turn around at any point to make the ride shorter.
If you’re visiting in the summer months, don’t miss the Ripple Rock Nature Center. Not only are there many learning opportunities, junior ranger nature and geology talks, but also pioneer games, arts and crafts, and fake cow milking. It’s the perfect way to get out of the sun for an hour or so while still having a fun time.
There are also many hikes just off of Scenic Drive Road. Capitol Gorge Trail is our favorite, as it’s super adjustable depending on the distance that you’re willing the hike. After walking the first quarter-mile you’ll see the petroglyphs mentioned above. Go another quarter mile and you’ll reach the Pioneer Register, where many pioneers carved their names into the rock when they first settled the area. You can turn around here, making your whole trip about a mile, or you can continue on through to the end of the canyon where the end of the trail is marked by an old abandoned car. From the trailhead to the abandoned car and then back to the trailhead is five miles total, but the hike is pretty flat overall.
Another trail to tryout is Cohab Canyon, which conveniently starts at the Fruita campground. The hike starts off with a steep climb up the canyon wall above Fruita but then flattens out for most of the rest of the way, so don’t let the incline scare you away. There are viewpoints looking out across the Fruita area and skinny slot canyons to pass through. The trail ends after a little less than two miles.
Waterpocket and Cathedral Districts
If you’re looking to explore outside the more developed areas of the park, make sure to prepare yourself. Research the trails you’re looking to hike and bring maps to help you navigate. The signage in the Waterpocket and Cathedral districts is minimal and the trails are not maintained.
Our two favorite hikes in these areas are the Headquarters Canyon Route and the Morrell Cabin Trail. Both have fantastic views. Headquarters Canyon travels along steep cliffs so it’s best if you’re carrying your kids or if they are preteens or older. Morrell Cabin Trail ends at a cabin used as a stopping point for cowboys until the 1950s.
There are also two undeveloped campgrounds in these areas, Cedar Mesa and Cathedral Valley. It’s best to have four-wheel-drive if you’re traveling to these spots, but it’s worth the trouble if you can make it. The spots are secluded and spread out, although there are only about six sites at each campground.
Capitol Reef National Park is a great place to visit with your family. The history and the natural beauty of the area is sure to excite everyone.