If you look at Capitol Reef National Park on a map, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s unusually long and narrow. That’s because the park runs on a north-south axis along a huge buckle in the earth’s crust called the Waterpocket Fold.
This noteworthy geologic feature is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Layer upon layer of rock folded over each other. This 100-mile-long— but relatively narrow—feature takes its name from the countless small bowl-like depressions, the small potholes, tanks, or “pockets” that hold rainwater and snowmelt.
Look at it from the right vantage point and it’s a classic example of a monocline, with a gradual slope on the east side leading up to a line of steep cliffs. These sheer, unbroken rock walls were once such an impediment to travel that early settlers likened them to an underwater reef.
In places, these reddish-orange cliffs are topped with a cream-colored Navajo sandstone that weathers to form rounded domes not unlike the one atop the U.S. Capitol building. Put the two ideas together and you’ll understand where Capitol Reef National Park gets its unusual moniker.
Today you’ll find Capitol Reef National Park divided into three distinct regions: the main part of the park, and the remote southern and northern sections.
Access to the main part of the park is relatively easy thanks to State Route 24 (Scenic Byway 24). The aptly named Scenic Drive ($10 entrance fee) juts 10 miles south from the visitor center past Fruita campground (64 sites, with no hookups, available on a first-come, first-served basis) and south along the western side of the Waterpocket Fold into the park’s interior. It has dirt-road turnoffs for Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge with scenery to match their names.
The twisting Grand Wash spur road takes you into a landscape dramatically different from the dark red hills along the base of Capitol Reef. Grand Wash is a narrow, steep-walled canyon subject to dangerous flash floods that often arrive with little warning. Avoid canyons and washes when storms threaten.
While most visitors never venture any farther than this, there are adventures waiting to be had in more remote parts of the park. South of State Route 24, you have both Notom-Bullfrog Road, which parallels the park’s eastern boundary, and State Route 12 (All American Highway 12), which does the same thing on the west side of the park.
Both are great drives in and of themselves but, more importantly, they connect to Burr Trail Road, which offers views of the Henry Mountains and direct access to the southern reaches of the Waterpocket Fold. The Burr Trail switchbacks are not suitable for RVs.
When it comes to what to do on a visit to Capitol Reef National Park, the list of possible adventures is long and wide-ranging. The easiest way to see all that Capitol Reef has to offer, of course, is on wheels. Most park roads are at least partially paved, and even the gravel sections are accessible to ordinary passenger vehicles in dry conditions.
Capitol Reef is a hiker’s paradise, with more than a dozen well-marked trails in the main section of the park alone.
One of the best and easiest outings in this area is a visit to what’s known as Panorama Point or the Goosenecks Overlook, which lies just west of the visitor center off State Route 24. There you’ll find what can best be described as a miniature Grand Canyon, as the meanders of Sulphur Creek have cut a convoluted channel into the bedrock hundreds of feet below.
Grand Wash is another prime hiking destination. From the parking area you can hike a short distance to view 400-foot Cassidy Arch, named for outlaw Butch Cassidy.
Finally, be sure not to miss the large petroglyph panels located just off State Route 24. Many of the trapezoidal human forms are depicted with facial expressions and adorned with elaborate headdresses and necklaces. Other images feature animals such as deer and bighorn sheep. The short boardwalk will give you an up-close look at this extraordinary collection of rock art.
Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah and can be accessed from the east (take exit 40) and west (take exit 149) via Interstate 70, and from the north (take exit 95) and south (take exit 188) via Interstate 15.
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.