Utah’s Overlooked Park:
Capitol Reef National Park
When planning out a trip to Utah’s national parks people tend to focus on the big few. They go for Zion and it’s stunning canyon, for Bryce and the hoodoos it sports, or for the cleverly named Arches and it’s equally witty named neighbor Canyonlands. Most people skip over Capitol Reef entirely. But if you are looking for a park that has everything the others do and more, with twice the range and half the crowds, look no further. When driving through Utah doing all five parks we were blown away by what Capitol Reef has to offer. It was the top of our list entitled “Places we will definitely have to return to.”
We loved Utah’s parks in general. It was amazing to explore the red rock formations, feeling like we were on Mars instead of Earth. Learning about the hoodoos, the cryptobiotic soil, and the iron oxide made us feel like bona fide scientists. But while each other park had a specialty Capitol Reef had a taste of everything.
What we loved:
Something we absolutely adore about the National Parks is the rangers. The staff at the visitor center are always willing to help advise you on hikes or adventures that fit your needs. Capitol Reef was no exception. We had been traveling for some days in Utah, in a car with dubious air conditioning, so we were really ready to cool down. We wanted a hike off the beaten path and we got it. The rangers suggested Sulfur Creek to us, which was exactly what we wanted. It was a trek through a creek, 5 miles, navigating three waterfalls and winding its way through a beautiful slot canyon. Basically, we were in heaven. The water was cool, the rocks were astounding, and the trail was easy. We even got to flex our rock-climbing abilities on those waterfalls. And as Capitol Reef is so big, and covers so much land, the trails are not all on maps. So this hike was completely desolate until the very end. Like the nearby Antelope Canyon, this hike let us explore and walk around in the narrow canyons cut through red rocks. We just skipped the crowds.
The campground was also lovely. While we stressed and worried about getting a coveted spot in Bryce and Zion, Capitol Reef was a breeze. The campground was spacious and plush. The main one, in the Fruita Historic District, was where we stayed. The spots were plentiful, and there was a nice amount of greenery and shade to help us cool down after hot Utah days. It was a breath of fresh air.
The diversity of attractions. Driving into Capitol Reef was through a beautiful canyon, with easily accessible water features that already put it high on our list. The map directed us to petroglyphs, a range of hikes, rock formations, and historic features. The park contains orchards open to the public. You can eat whatever you pick there, but can’t take any to go. There are ranger-led hikes and educational programs both during the day and at night. One of our favorite things is the “park after dark” series of astronomy lessons.
What you should know:
Our time spent in Capitol Reef is summed up by our experience with Sulfur Creek. This hike easily jumps to the top of our list because of the diversity it offered, and the seclusion. Getting to the trailhead takes just a small amount of organization. The trail starts three miles away from the Visitor Center. Parking is easy to come by and the trailhead is not difficult to find. The trail ends back at the Visitor Center though. So after the hike either be prepared to hitchhike your way back to your car or add an additional 3 miles to your trip on the blacktop. It would be easy if you had two cars (which we totally did not). Our suggestion is to hitchhike to the trailhead where many cars pass by on their way out of the park and end your trip next to your vehicle. Also, be prepared to get wet. There is no way around it. At most, you will be walking through knee-high water. As per usual avoid the trail if there is a storm. The danger of flash flooding in slot canyons is a real risk in Utah! But with a glance at the week’s weather, plenty of water (Utah is hot and dry!) and a plan for transportation, you’ll be all set.
Not so great things:
As with any road trip and visit to the National Parks, things can get a bit crowded. The campgrounds were easy to come by for us but can fill up. Even though we were able to find a unique and comfortable spot, the campgrounds are frequently saturated with RVs, people flying their drones, and loud children. The same is to be said about the Visitor Center. Lines sometimes form to get information from the Rangers or to purchase anything from the gift shop. It is also the prime location for children to throw temper tantrums, which is really not the most pleasant. As a young couple, we did not fit into the campground demographic in Capitol Reef. We might have found ourselves more at home in one of the more remote campgrounds, but they were very far away from the main roads, and our time was limited.
All in all:
We loved Capitol Reef. We feel like we barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer, as it is a huge park. We aim to return and try to explore the backcountry more, do some longer hikes, and generally just spend more time there. Our trip was somewhat transient, we were stopping there between other places, and we honestly heard that Capitol Reef was underwhelming before getting there. We didn’t have much time there, and as a result felt supremely unsatisfied with the amount of exploration we got to do. This park has so much to offer, and we want to take full advantage of that on our next trip.