This is a difficult section to write. Capitol Reef National Park is one of those little-known gems, drawing far fewer visitors than its more famous neighbors, Bryce Canyon and Zion, and to be honest, it's easy to be selfish and keep this jewel of a park a Utah traveler's inside secret.
Alas, that wouldn't be fair. For one thing, Capitol Reef is a place you really ought to know about. For another, the secret's already getting out. Not long ago, Outside magazine sang the praises of Capitol Reef as one of America's eight under-visited national parks -- "parks as they were meant to be."
What Makes the Capitol Reef So Special?
Capitol Reef National Park offers loads of that spectacular southern Utah scenery, but with a unique twist and a personality all its own. The area's geologic formations are downright peculiar; this is a place to let your imagination run wild. You'll see the appropriately named Hamburger Rocks, sitting atop a white sandstone table; the tall, rust-red Chimney Rock; the silent and eerie Temple of the Moon; and the commanding Castle. The colors of Capitol Reef's canyon walls draw from a spectacular palette, which is why some Navajos called the area "The Land of the Sleeping Rainbow."
But unlike some of southern Utah's other parks, Capitol Reef is more than just brilliant rocks and barren desert. The Fremont River has helped create a lush oasis in an otherwise unforgiving land, with cottonwoods and willows along its banks. In fact, 19th-century pioneers found the land so inviting and the soil so fertile that they established the community of Fruita, planting orchards that have been preserved by the Park Service.
Because of differences in geologic strata, elevation, and availability of water in various sections of the park, an assortment of ecosystems and terrain, as well as a variety of activities, coexist. There are hiking trails, mountain-biking trails, and four-wheel-drive touring roads; a lush fruit orchard; desert wildflowers and rich, green forests; an abundance of songbirds; and a surprising amount of wildlife -- from lizards and snakes to the bashful ringtail cat (which isn't a cat at all, but a member of the raccoon family). Thousand-year-old petroglyphs, left behind by the early Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan (also called Anasazi) peoples, and traces from the more recent Utes and Southern Paiutes, Wild West outlaws, and industrious Mormon pioneers (in the one-room Fruita Schoolhouse, their children learned the three R's and studied the Bible and Book of Mormon) are found throughout the park.
The name Capitol Reef, which conjures up an image of a tropical shoreline, seems odd for a park composed of cliffs and canyons and situated in landlocked Utah. But many of the pioneers who settled the West were former seafaring men, and they extended the traditional meaning of the word "reef" to include these seemingly impassable rock barriers. The huge round white domes of sandstone reminded them of the domes of capitol buildings, and so this area became known as Capitol Reef.
A more accurate name for the park might be "The Big Fold." When the earth's crust uplifted some 60 million years ago, creating the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau, most of the uplifting was relatively even. But here, through one of those fascinating quirks of nature, the crust wrinkled into a huge fold. Running for 100 miles, almost all within the national park, it's known as the Waterpocket Fold.