Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is characterized by sandstone formations, cliffs and canyons, and a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust called the Waterpocket Fold. It extends from nearby Thousand Lakes Mountain to the Colorado River (now Lake Powell). Erosion has carved the rock into marvelous shapes. This is an inviting wilderness of rock with descriptive names such as Capitol Dome, Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash and Cathedral Valley.”
Capitol Reef National Park was established to protect this grand and colorful geologic feature, as well as the unique natural and cultural history found in the area.
The name: Capitol Reef
The most scenic portion of the Waterpocket Fold, found near the Fremont River, is known as Capitol Reef: capitol for the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes, and reef for the rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like a coral reef.
Visitors to Capitol Reef National park are often curious about the fruit trees that lie within a mile or two of the Visitor Center. These trees – apple, pear, peach, cherry, apricot, mulberry, even Potowatomee Plum – are the most obvious reminder of the pioneer community that once prospered in the narrow valley of the Fremont River. Other places of interest include the Fruita Schoolhouse and the Gifford Homestead.
Only having half a day for the park?
Here’s a schedule:
Stop at the visitor center and view the displays and orientation slide program. Pick some delicious fruit when in season. Hike one of the shorter trails in the Fruita area. Tour the Scenic Drive (approximately 90 minutes round trip). Visit the petroglyphs, historic schoolhouse, or the Behunin Cabin (along U-24), or the Historic Gifford Homestead or the blacksmith shop (on the Scenic drive). Join a ranger-guided program, if available.
Creation of the der Waterpocket Fold
The Waterpocket Fold defines Capitol Reef National Park. A nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, the Waterpocket Fold is a classic monocline: a regional fold with one very steep side in an area of otherwise nearly horizontal layers. A monocline is a “step-up” in the rock layers. The rock layers on the west side of the Waterpocket Fold have been lifted more than 7000 feet higher than the layers on the east. Major folds are almost always associated with underlying faults.
The Waterpocket Fold formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when a major mountain building event in western North America, the Laramide Orogeny, reactivated an ancient buried fault. When the fault moved, the overlying rock layers were draped above the fault and formed a monocline.
More recent uplift of the entire Colorado Plateau and the resulting erosion has exposed this fold at the surface only within the last 15 to 20 million years. The name Waterpocket Fold reflects this ongoing erosion of the rock layers. “Waterpockets” are basins that form in many of the sandstone layers as they are eroded by water. These basins are common throughout the fold, thus giving it the name “Waterpocket Fold”. Erosion of the tilted rock layers continues today forming colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, and graceful arches.
Nearly 10,000 feet of sedimentary strata are found in the Capitol Reef area. These rocks range in age from Permian (as old as 270 million years old) to Cretaceous (as young as 80 million years old.) The Waterpocket Fold has tilted this geologic layer cake down to the east. The older rocks are found in the western part of the park, and the younger rocks are found near the east boundary.
This layer upon layer sequence of sedimentary rock records nearly 200 million years of geologic history. Rock layers in Capitol Reef reveal ancient environments as varied as rivers and swamps (Chinle Formation), Sahara-like deserts (Navajo Sandstone), and shallow oceans (Mancos Shale).
The following entrance fees are charged for traveling the park’s Scenic Drive beyond the Fruita Campground. Passes are valid for 7 days.
Holders of America the Beautiful Annual Passes are provided access into Capitol Reef and other federal fee areas.
Admits one individual with no car. Typically used for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Private Vehicle: $20.00
Admits one private, non-commercial vehicle and all its occupants.
Admits one private, non-commercial motorcycle and its riders.
Camping in Capitol Reef
The 71-site Fruita Campground is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef. Reservations are available March 1- October 31.
Capitol Reef offers two free primitive campgrounds in more remote parts of the park.
MORE Information about Fruita Campground, primitive campgrounds and alternatives here: https://www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/campinga.htm
Scenic driving Tours
The park’s main driving tours include the paved Scenic Drive and two long, mainly unpaved, loop tours through the park’s Cathedral and Waterpocket Districts.
The Hartnet and Caineville Wash Roads that make up the Cathedral District loop are described on this page, as are the Notom-Bullfrog and Burr Trail Roads that make up the Waterpocket District loop.
The Scenic Drive starts at the park Visitor Center and provides access to Grand Wash Road, Capitol Gorge Road, Pleasant Creek Road, and South Draw Road. The Scenic Drive is a 7.9 mile (12.7 km) paved road with dirt spur roads into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge that, weather permitting, are accessible to all passenger vehicles and RV’s up to 27 feet in length. The Scenic Drive is not a loop, so you must return on the same road. An entrance fee of $20 per vehicle is charged for the Scenic Drive. The self-pay entrance station is located just south of the campground on the Scenic Drive. There is no entrance fee for holders of the America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands passes.
A free Guide to the Scenic Drive brochure is available at the entrance station.
South Draw Road (access from Scenic Drive)
The South Draw Road is a high clearance 4-wheel-drive road that extends from Pleasant Creek to the park boundary near Tantalus Flats. The South Draw Road is rough and rocky, includes several creek crossings, and, in inclement weather, becomes impassable to even 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
The South Draw Road is reached by following the Pleasant Creek Road from the end of the Scenic Drive to the crossing at Pleasant Creek. The South Draw Road climbs upward from Pleasant Creek, exits the park, and eventually meets Utah Hwy 12 at 8,500 feet on Boulder Mountain. The access to the South Draw Road from Boulder Mountain is closed in winter, and access from Pleasant Creek is not possible, except during the mildest winters, due to snow.
Waterpocket District loop
- Notom-Bullfrog Road
- Burr Trail Road
Cathedral District loop
- Hartnet Road
- Caineville Wash Road
Detailed information on all Roads: https://www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/roads.htm
Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Tour
The spectacular Waterpocket District, or southern section, of Capitol Reef National Park is open all year.
Vehicles with good ground clearance, such as pickup trucks, vans, and a variety of passenger cars, can usually negotiate most of the roads without difficulty. However, road conditions can vary greatly depending on recent weather conditions. Spring and summer rains and winter snows can sometimes leave roads slick, muddy, washed out, and impassable to the best four wheel drive vehicle. Many of the roads are unpaved, and are often rough, sandy, and corrugated.
Check at the visitor center for current road and weather conditions before you begin.
Vehicle and foot travel in the southern part of the park can be light to moderate, depending on the time of year, so be prepared for the unexpected. If you have problems, help may not arrive for hours or even days. Carry plenty of water, food, gas, adequate clothing, a shovel, and emergency supplies. Cool/cold temperatures will accompany sudden summer storms or an unexpected night out in the backcountry. Daytime temperatures in the summer may top 100 degrees and winter highs may stay below freezing, so dress and plan accordingly.
The Loop Driving Tour
Most visitors to the southern part of the park drive the 125 mile loop, or various sections of it. Start at the visitor center and follow Hwy 24 east to the Notom Road; take the Notom-Bullfrog Road south to the Burr Trail Road; continue on the Burr Trail Road west to Boulder; continue north on Hwy 12 to Torrey; and then drive east on Hwy 24 back to the visitor center. Highways 24 and 12 and the first 5 miles of the Notom Road from Hwy 24 are paved. The Burr Trail Road from the park boundary west to Boulder is also a [paved] surfaced road.
Side trips can be taken south of the Burr Trail Road junction along the Notom- Bullfrog Road to short day hikes at Surprise and Headquarters Canyons (each is a moderate 2-mile round trip), or to the Hall’s Creek Overlook, which may require high clearance or four wheel drive, for an outstanding view of the Fold and Brimhall Natural Bridge. Along the Burr Trail Road, a four-wheel-drive-only side road follows Upper Muley Twist Canyon to the Strike Valley Overlook, a colorful, bird’s eye view of the Fold and the Henry Mountains.
Camping is restricted to the 5-site Cedar Mesa campground located along the Notom-Bullfrog Road 20 miles south of Hwy 24. The campground is free and is run on a first-come, first-served basis. Picnic tables, grills, and pit toilets are provided. Water is not available. Wood collecting is not permitted in the park. A 3-mile round trip hike to Red Canyon, a colorful, high-walled box canyon, starts from the campground.
Backpackers must obtain a free backcountry permit at the visitor center before starting their trip. Multi-day backpacking trips can be done in Hall’s Creek, Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyons, and other areas in the south.
Approximate Distances From the Visitor Center:
9 mi Notom Road
31 mi Cedar Mesa Campground
43 mi Burr Trail Road Junction
45 mi The Post
60 mi Hall’s Creek Overlook
80 mi Boulder (via the Notom-Bullfrog and Burr Trail Roads)
47 mi Boulder (via Hwy 12)
Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley District
The spectacular Cathedral Valley section of Capitol Reef National Park is open all year. Vehicles with good ground clearance, even those without four wheel drive, can usually negotiate the roads without difficulty. However, road conditions can vary greatly depending on recent weather conditions. Spring and summer rains and winter snows can leave the roads muddy, washed out, and impassable to the best four wheel drive vehicle, so check at the visitor center for current road and weather conditions before visiting Cathedral Valley.
Foot and vehicle travel in the Cathedral Valley area is light, so be prepared for the unexpected. If you have problems, help may not arrive for hours or even days, depending on the time of year. Carry plenty of water, food, gas, adequate clothing, a shovel, and emergency supplies. Cool/cold temperatures will accompany sudden storms or an unexpected night out in the backcountry. Daytime temperatures in the summer may reach the upper 90s and winter highs may stay below freezing, so dress accordingly.
The Loop Driving Tour
Most visitors to Cathedral Valley drive the 60 mile loop: start at the River Ford (11.7 miles east of the visitor center on Hwy 24), follow the Hartnet Road to the Caineville Wash Road and return back to Hwy 24 just west of Caineville (18.6 miles east of the visitor center.)
The River Ford is passable at most times of the year, except during spring runoff or following a thunderstorm, when the river may be in flood. The ford has a hard packed, rocky bottom and water levels are normally a foot or less deep. The access road to the River Ford crosses private land. The gate on Hwy 24 may be closed, but is not locked. Please close the gate after you drive through, and honor the posted no trespassing signs along the road near the ford by not parking off road or camping in the vicinity.
Distances from the River Ford:
9 mi Bentonite Hills
14 mi Lower South Desert Overlook Spur Road
27 mi Upper South Desert Overlook Spur Road
27.5 mi Junction of the Hartnet/Polk Creek/Caineville Wash Roads
30 mi Upper Cathedral Valley
33 mi Junction of Caineville Wash and Baker Ranch Roads
33.1 mi Gypsum Sinkhole Spur Road
42.5 mi Lower Cathedral Valley Spur Road (Temples of the Sun & Moon, Glass Mountain)
60 mi Hwy 24 at Caineville Wash Road