Capitol Reef Top Drives — A National Treasure

Driving east, past the intersection with Highway 12 on the right, you pass through classic Utah redrock for the 4 miles to the boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. Established as a national monument in 1937 and made a national park in 1971, Capitol Reef is one of America’s greatest natural treasures.

The park preserves the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface (“waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater). The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with a visual resemblance of the park’s many white Navajo Sandstone domes to that of the nation’s Capitol Building. Capitol Reef is an incredible mixture of the finest elements of Bryce and Zion Canyons in a less crowded park that is more relaxing to visit than either of those more-famous attractions.

This is an evocative world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep, twisting canyons; of broad, sweeping vistas; of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless landscape; of limitless sky and desert rock. While Bryce and Zion are like encapsulated little fantasy lands of colored stone and soaring cliffs, Capitol Reef is almost like a planet unto itself. Here you get a real feel for what the earth might have been like millions of years before life appeared, when nothing existed but earth and sky.

There is no fee for travel directly through the park on Highway 24. If pressed for time, you can see plenty of Capitol Reef from the highway — and informational roadside signs interpret what you see — but it would be a real tragedy to miss the park’s attractions just to the south. It is easily possible to spend three days or more exploring this park. A basic introduction (including the park scenic drive, drives to the ends of Grand Valley Wash and Capitol Gorge, and perhaps one short hike) should occupy at least 3 hours.

About 7 miles after the park boundary on Highway 24 is the well-marked turnoff on the right for the park visitor center and Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. The visitor center is open daily (except certain federal holidays) year-round from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended hours in summer. Be sure to pick up the literature on the park and on the old Mormon community of Fruita. At the fee station (passing through Capitol Reef is free, but there’s a $5 fee for activities in the park, including the scenic drive), pick up the very handy park driving brochure (free), which contains detailed descriptions of the numbered interpretive stops as well as useful geological information.

Scenic driving information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press).