High red rock cliffs, deep narrow gorges, carved natural bridges and arches all linked by a verdant fruitful valley. Each of Utah’s other four national parks share a couple of these features, but Capitol Reef National Park has a little of it all.
With my recent adventure to this beautiful place, I have now hiked in all five of Utah’s national parks—another bucket list item checked off. A peculiar geologic formation called the water pocket fold makes Capitol Reef what it is. This formation acted as a barrier for pioneers in the territory but also as a shelter in a lush river valley surrounded by massive cliff walls. This is where my adventure began, in the historic Fruita District.
Fruita Historic District
A small group of Mormon pioneers settled in Fruita in 1880 along the Freemont River. They grew extensive orchards of many fruit varieties. Today, the historic orchards of around 3,000 trees and a few remaining historic buildings are in possession of the National Park Service and well-maintained. You can pick ripe fruit in season, and at the historic Gifford House you can purchase pies, jams, preserves, salsas and more made from local fruit.
Other remaining structures are the Gifford’s barn, a blacksmith shed, and the old school house. Additionally, after the area was declared a National Monument in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built some trails. Remnants also remain of ancient and pioneer history in the form of petroglyphs found throughout the park.
Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge
The only fee area of the park, aside from camping or major fruit harvesting, is the scenic drive portion of the park just south of Fruita. This 10-mile drive winds through spectacular scenery to some primitive road, some trails and wilderness areas of the park.
There are two gorges along the route, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. Both are generally open for vehicular access down a gravel road. However, a few weeks before I visited major flash floods washed out the road into Capitol Gorge. It is a shame not to be able to drive into the canyon since it is a historic highway connecting Fruita to farming communities in the east, but hiking through the canyon was amazing and even more historic. And, it was super peaceful since I only passed a handful of other hikers.
After a couple of miles walking in the shadows of narrow cliffs, around goosenecks and passed side slot canyons, there is a small picnic pavilion and latrine. This is also the trailhead for the Golden Throne overlook and Capitol Gorge Trail to the Pioneer Register and water tanks.
I continued on the gorge path passing Hisatsinom (Freemont) petroglyphs and places where pioneers carved their names on the wall. Unfortunately, the Pioneer Register seems to have been mostly covered by a small sand dune after recent flooding, so only a few names were visible.
I really enjoyed this peaceful hike in Capitol Gorge. It wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable driving in and out. And, I got to witness the force of nature or at least its after effects in the canyon.
This ended up being a very long hike, so I didn’t make it in the Grand Wash. Also, I wanted to get to the Gifford House before it closed.
On my way to Hickman Natural Bridge, I pulled over to see the old school house and a large collection of petroglyphs. The school was the only public or community building in Fruita and was used for church meetings and social events in addition to school. The petroglyphs turn-off leads to a lovely collection on the canyon wall of Freemont art, large and small. Unfortunately, due to natural rock cleavage part of the art has been lost.
Hickman Natural Bridge is a magnificent sandstone formation spanning sixty feet. The nearly mile-long trail leads up a cliff side and through a canyon over slick rock and sand. Along the way a couple of smaller bridges can be seen forming. Eventually the bridge appears. At this point the trail splits into a loop under the bridge.
You can get right under it and see the massive boulders that have slowly fallen away. This leaves the bridge looking carved. It is truly a beautiful piece of creation that is constantly being shaped by nature.
Panorama, Goosenecks and Sunset
My final stop for this adventure was the turn-off for Panorama Point. Sunset was fast approaching, and I wanted a prime location to watch. The map said Sunset Point is one such place. So, after walking out to Panorama Point and the Goosenecks Overlook I hiked the third-of-a-mile trail to a clump of rocks for one of nature’s classic shows.
The fold with its towering cliffs glowed red and orange as the warm light hit them. as the precise time for sunset approached the shadows started creeping up the valley and eventually the cliff faces. At this point i left knowing the spectacle was over. However, lots of folks were just arriving expecting a brilliant performance right on cue. My tip for experiencing the sunset would be to arrive to your viewing position 45-60 minutes before the forecast sunset time. this way you can watch the light and colors as they shift and change. Many times the show takes place opposite the setting sun and there is no colorful aerial performance.
I could have spent a few days exploring Capitol Reef National Park. There is a reason this stretch of land is set aside and preserved for the enjoyment of all.