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Underrated? Wait Until You Experience Capitol Reef National Park

When most people think Utah national parks, immediately the four well-known ones pop to mind: Zion, Bryce, Arches, and Canyonlands. Oft-ignored, Capitol Reef National Park seems to be the underrated cousin, but it can compete with stunning scenery and experiences, especially when the golden hour casts a glow across rock formations. Plus, it doesn’t have the crowds.

Golden hour glow on rock formations in Capitol Reef/Photo by Becky Lomax

Capitol Reef is a colossal 90 miles long, but at the point where most people visit, it is only eight miles wide. Yet in that thin waist, impressive canyons sprawl every direction. Fruita, an old Mormon settlement, tucks orchards of fruit trees between deep and wide canyon walls. The visitor center, campground, picnic area, historic buildings, and trailheads pack into the orchards, giving this green belt a different feel — and smell — from the desert foliage in the rest of the park. You can even pick the fruit in some of the orchards when it ripens.

The extent of eroded cliffs on the park’s west side reveal the Waterpocket Fold/Photo by Becky Lomax

Waterpocket Fold
Capitol Reef gets its uniqueness from the Waterpocket Fold — literally a giant fold in the Earth’s crust that shoved up westward. In places, waterpockets formed in rocks, collecting seasonal water that supports wildlife. Put two places in your itinerary to see the geology of this immense folded rock: The Castle, a lightly tinted fortress of eroded rock, crowns two other layers of the Waterpocket Fold, which are visible from the scenic drive. A short walk to Sunset Point and a look eastward lets you grasp the vast size of the fold as eroded cliffs run for miles.

Ancient petroglyphs tell stories from the Ancestral Puebloans in Capitol Reef/Photo by Becky Lomax

Petroglyphs
Evidence of Ancestral Puebloans marks cliffs walls at Capitol Reef. For an easy place to see petroglyphs, stop at the Petroglyph Exhibit on the scenic drive east of Fruita. Accessible boardwalks go to locations where you can spot the ancient art, and viewing telescopes are set up for one collection up high. The petroglyphs offer a glimpse into the life of the ancient people who lived here long before it became a national park. To photograph the petroglyphs, go in the morning or evening when the wall is shaded to avoid the glaring sun or dappled shadows cast by trees midday. 

Hikers very small below the huge Hickman Bridge/Photo by Becky Lomax

Arches and Natural Bridges
Nature has left works of art formed largely by wind erosion. These natural phenomena are impressive as they defy gravity, but you have to hike to two of the best. Hickman Bridge is the easiest to reach, located off the scenic drive and 0.9 miles up the Hickman Bridge Trail. You can walk under the arch to explore its back side. Cassidy Arch requires a stiff 1.7-mile climb up steep switchbacks off the dirt Grand Wash Road. It tucks in a large slickrock basin, where you look across a gaping hole at its rock span.

Immense walls of Grand Wash squeeze in The Narrows/Photo by Becky Lomax

Slot Canyons and Washes
The lure of southwest canyons is often in slots and washes, places where you can feel canyon walls shoot skyward and imagine the power of water that carved them. For slots, hike 1.7 miles through Cohab Canyon. Steep switchbacks shoot uphill to swing into this almost-hidden canyon harboring a maze of slots that pinch into dead ends. For the best canyon walk, slog your way through the sandy bottom of Grand Wash. The canyon twists below high walls that shade much of the interior from the harsh desert sunlight. As you walk this 2.2-mile route, walls squeeze close in The Narrows.

Vast slickrock on the Navajo Knobs Trail/Photo by Becky Lomax

Slickrock Slabs
One of the thrills of walking in desert landscapes comes where trails disappear on slickrock. Rock cairns often show the way across these slabs of stone, some that crawl along ledges and others that spread into huge shelves or sloped hillsides. You can get a hint of slickrock hiking in portions of the Frying Pan, a 2.9-mile route linking Cohab Canyon and Cassidy Arch. The trail also yields exceptional views across the tops of canyons. But you’ll find the best slickrock hiking on the 4.7-mile Navajo Knobs Trail. The trail climbs to a light-colored slickrock layer that appears repeatedly as wide highways plunging over cliffs or field-sized sloped ascents. Just follow the cairns.

Header photo: Geological layers visible in different colors on The Castle/Photo by Becky Lomax

From her home outside Glacier National Park, Becky Lomax revels in the Intermountain parks. You’ll find her hiking the mountain parks in summer and skiing them in winter. In spring and fall, the Southwest parks satisfy her need to hike. She’s the author of Moon USA National ParksMoon Glacier National Park, and Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton.

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