Capitol Reef National Park


Utah offers up a lot of national parks, but Capitol Reef is probably the least-known of all of them.  Stuck in the middle of the state, and surrounded by desert, you have to make an effort just to get here.  But the rewards are everywhere — instead of offering just one or two exciting features, Capitol Reef is a collection of smaller wonders, all jumbled together in a landscape that doesn’t quite make sense.

Since I made the effort to get here, I wanted to explore deeper into the park, by driving through the Waterpocket Fold — the narrow valley formed by two rifts in the earth’s crust, which stretches for most of the length of the park’s north-south corridor.  I’ll explore the Waterpocket Fold on the next page.  First, I checked out the park’s most accessible features, along Utah Route 24 — the park’s only highway link to the outside world.

Since I had visited Capitol Reef before, back in 2004, I didn’t intend to stop at every feature along the main road, but I still hit many of the most noteworthy ones as I entered from the west, beginning with:

Twin Rocks

Twin Rocks is conveniently located at the side of Route 24 — no hiking required to admire the two balanced boulders.

Chimney Rock

You can also get a good view of Chimney Rock from the road.  There is a 3-mile loop hiking trail that takes you closer to Chimney Rock, but you don’t need to hike it to get a good view.

Panorama Point

Panorama Point provides exactly what the name suggests — a high point off the main road where you can enjoy a 360-degree view.  From the point, many of the park’s features are a good distance away; what’s most noticeable is the dirt road that passes below the overlook, headed to:

Goosenecks Point

After a short drive out the dirt road, a short walk ends with a view of the Goosenecks of Sulphur Creek.  Sulphur Creek is a tributary of the Fremont River, which slices through Capitol Reef National Park.  The main highway will meet up with it in another mile or two.  Here, though, the creek is 800 feet below you.

Also nearby, at the end of the road to Goosenecks Point, is Sunset Point, a good place to watch the sunset.  I didn’t make the short hike out there, since it was early in the morning.

The Fluted Wall

Back on the main road, you can get a look at the Fluted Wall without any special effort.  Shortly beyond, there’s another vertical cliff:

The Castle

The Castle serves as a landmark for the park’s visitor center.  The Castle looms above the junction with the Scenic Drive, which leads out to the Gifford Homestead, its barn, and its fields of apple, peach, and cherry trees.

Gifford Farmhouse

During my stop at the visitor center, the rangers invited me out to the Gifford Farmhouse.  The old homestead has been transformed into a museum and country store — amazingly, they found room for both inside the tiny house.

Most of the Gifford Farmhouse is set up just as it would have been in the mid-1900’s.

The Giffords were the third family to live here.  The home was originally built in 1908 — the Giffords didn’t move in until 20 years later.  They lived more than four decades here, and made two additions to the farmhouse (a kitchen, and later, a bathroom).  They drank their water from the Fremont River and didn’t receive electricity until 1948.  They didn’t move away until 1969, when Dewey Gifford sold his property to the National Park Service.

The often-photographed Gifford Barn is nearby.

This picture looks back towards the visitor center and Highway 24.  You can continue out the scenic road for about 10 miles, however I had other plans, so I returned to the highway.

Capitol Dome & Pectol’s Pyramid

The main passes by Capitol Dome, one of the landmarks that helped earn the park its name, thanks to its resemblance to the then-newly-constructed dome in Washington, D.C.

Pectol’s Pyramid is also visible from the same wayside.  There’s also a trail here, but I didn’t explore it.

While many of the other hills and rock formations in Capitol Reef go unnamed (or at least, unmarked), the next few miles on Utah Route 24 are a treat.  The road twists and turns as it passes in between one formation after another.  It follows the Fremont River, and all the way, I was keeping a close look on the water.  In order to get to where I wanted to go — the northern end of the park and Cathedral Valley — I would need to ford the river.  The park rangers gave me a brochure on how to safely make the crossing, and told me the water was low enough, that it shouldn’t be a problem in a 4 wheel drive SUV.  For most of the way to River Ford, the Fremont River looked tame and shallow.  But…

… when I reached the crossing point, I chickened out.  This was not something I wanted to try to explain to my rental car company!

According to the brochure, you’re supposed to enter the river and immediately turn right, hugging the bank until you’ve gone about 100 feet or so, then make a sharp left turn which takes you straight across the deepest part of the Fremont River.  I couldn’t do it, and it was just as well.  I had a long way to go, driving through the Waterpocket Fold, then down Route 95 to Blanding before sunset.  Cathedral Valley would have to wait for another time.

Cathedral Valley requires a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.  All the roads in the northern section of Capitol Reef Park are dirt.  You do not have to ford the river in order to reach Cathedral Valley.  Instead, you can head west from Torrey on Route 24, then turn north on Route 72, then take another dirt road east.  Since such a big detour would have taken most of my day, I chose to skip it.

From River Ford, backtrack west on Route 24 to the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park.  Just before the park boundary, watch for Notom Road — which travels the length of the Waterpocket Fold.

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