Capitol Reef National Park is a geologic wonder. It’s a long strip of a park oriented around a feature called The Waterpocket Fold. This is a massive fold in the earth’s crust that was exposed by the uplift of the Colorado Plateau. Like so much of Utah, the resulting landscape is an absolute stunner. Find yourself a great RV and get ready for one week in Capitol Reef!
Day One: Settling in
If you decide you want to park with full hookups for your trip, Wonderland RV is a great choice. From there, you can quickly get into Capitol Reef and launch your expeditions in the week to come. It’s close to the town of Torrey where you can get supplies and fuel up your vehicle as needed. To get the most out of Capitol Reef, go for a Trailer or 5th Wheel with a 4WD Tow Vehicle. The park has spectacular drives and some amazing back-country. You also want to come when the weather has been dry. Many of the drives become impossible after a significant rain.
On your first day, make your way into the park and head straight for the visitors center. The short drive will give you a taste of things to come. At the visitors center, take some time to learn about the park, its surroundings, and its history. Grab some maps, and talk to the rangers on duty about road conditions, special events, and their recommendations for the best experiences to be had at that time of year.
To get in some trail time before dark, head back up the road to Chimney Rock. This huge tower of red stone stands against the dramatic cliffs of the Captiol Reef. From the parking lot, you can make your way up the unmaintained trail winding up into the rocky landscape. You can hike up 580 feet for some great views, or just explore the stony landscape shaped by the forces of erosion. Either way, you will be engrossed in exploration until the sun starts to set and it’s time to head back to camp.
Day Two: Explore Frutia
In the heart of this rocky, desert landscape is an oasis of green. The community of Frutia was established by Mormon settlers as early as 1879. It quickly grew into an oasis settlement famous for their fruit orchards and baked goods. After Capitol Reef became a national monument, the monument managers slowly bought out the residents of the town. While much of the homes were razed, the orchard itself, and a few of its historic buildings remain and are preserved as part of the park.
If you come in the fall, when the fruit is ripe, you can walk the orchard and eat as much as you care to from the trees. At the old Gifford house, you can purchase fruit pies, preserves and other goodies made by local craftsman in the tradition of the original Mormon settlers. If you come early in the morning you can enjoy huge cinnamon rolls that are to die for.
You can also take a stroll along the river that winds through Frutia and watch birds and deer at play. Go a bit further and you can hike up the bluffs that overlook the town. The trail skirts the edge of dramatic shale cliffs giving you great panoramas in every direction. It’s well worth the effort and great for building up your appetite.
Day Three: Capitol Gorge Trail
For your third day, head down the Scenic Drive along the west side of the park. As the name implies, the scenery is impressive here. Your goal is the Capitol Gorge Trail. To get there, you need to go to the end of Scenic Drive and then head straight into the Capitol Gorge. The road is paved most of the way, but turns to a dirt lane after a time. It’s big enough and flat enough for a small RV, but this is where having a trailer and tow vehicle can start to pay off. It’s very cool driving right down into a canyon with towering cliffs to either side of you.
At the end of the road, you can park and then hike into the depths of the canyon. Capitol Gorge Trail winds into the canyon and can take you all the way through Capitol Reef if you have the legs for it. Along the way, you will find the Pioneer Register where enterprising Mormon Settlers climbed high up the cliffs to carve their names in the sheer stone walls. Further on, you can find trails that lead to seasonal rock pools which the Waterpocket Fold was named for. Every turn of the winding canyon brings new wonders of stone and desert life to explore and experience. Pack a lunch so that you can explore most of the day.
Day Four: Burr Trail Road
Be sure to Gass up in the morning because, for day four, it’s all about a driving adventure. Instead of taking highway 24 into the park, you head south on highway 12 into Fishlake National Forest. Here, the runoff from Boulder Mountain supplies enough water to turn the desert into a forest. If you fancy a bit of fishing, you can make a stop at Plesant Creek to see if you can score some trout. As for any scenic driving adventure, be sure to stop from time to time to stretch your legs, enjoy the fresh air, and snap some photographs of all the scenic wonders along the way.
Just after the town of Boulder, you want to leave highway 12 and head out on Burr Trail Road. Now you are in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Burr Trail Road will take you through Long Canyon, a stretch so fantastic it’s been used in countless automobile commercials to illustrate the “ultimate driving experience.” After 30 miles of stunning scenery, Burr Trail becomes a dirt road. The best part is still to come, so forge ahead. After five miles, you will get to the Burr Trail Switchbacks. You basically get to drive down the side of Capitol Reef itself. Not for the faint of heart, but it is safe, and it really is a pinnacle driving experience.
From there, you turn north on Notom-Bullfrog road and make your way up the East side of Capitol Reef. Again, the scenery is amazing. After 11 miles you will get back onto a paved road and eventually meet up again with highway 24. You can stop over in Frutia for more goodies on your way back to camp. This really is the drive of a lifetime.
Day Five: Temple of The Sun and Moon
The Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon are located in the Northeast part of Capitol Reef National Park. To get there, you will want a 4WD vehicle with decent clearance, most any trucks should get the job done. Drive straight through the park on Highway 24 and look for Cathedral Road, on the right, just before Caineville. Check weather conditions first, as you don’t want to go out there after a recent rain. You are driving over desert washes and it can become one giant mud pit when it is wet.
Like every drive in Capitol Reef, the scenery is spectacular. White silty formations stretch out across the landscape. Stone and mud form a mosaic of strange shapes all around you. After 15 miles of this alien landscape, you end up at Cathedral Valley, a vast and flat area of desert punctuated by lone towers of stone. The Temple of the Sun and Moon are the two largest of these on the landscape. You can drive right up to both. You should also take a short detour and visit Glass Mountain. It’s actually more of a huge boulder and it is made of Gypsum rather than glass. If you ever wanted to look at a 12-foot high crystal, here is your chance.
Since this is backcountry, you can go walking in nearly any direction for as long as you like. Chances are, you won’t see another soul the entire time you are out there. Just keep an eye out for snakes as you are a long way from any kind of emergency assistance.
Day Six: Upper Cathedral Valley
For your last full day in the park, you should consider a trip to upper Cathedral Valley. This is another part of the backcountry on the eastern side of the Reef. Much like yesterday’s trek, you need dry weather to make this journey. This time you take 24 up to Hartnet Road and then turn into the backcountry. You will travel through the North Blue Flats where the sedimentary stone takes on a blue-grey hue. Halfway along the road, turn off to check out the Lower South Desert Overlook. It’s a great spot for scenic photography.
Near the end of the road are more scenic overlooks you can drive up to and take in the stunning views. The valley is dotted with more stone monoliths, the result of stone formations that resisted the centuries of erosion that formed the valley here. If you are feeling adventurous, you can camp out under the stars at the Cathedral Valley Campground. The desert at night is a unique and magical thing that everyone should experience at least once. Just keep in mind it can get quite cool in the night even on days that are warm.
Day Seven: Last Stops
For your last day, take the now familiar road back towards Fruita. Stock up on some pie and treats for the folks back home. Then make your way back. No matter the direction you take, you are sure to be rewarded with more epic scenery you will never forget.
Ready for your trip to the unforgettable Capitol Reef? Get started on finding a great RV to rent on Outdoorsy!
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