Utah's Best Kept Secret
If you are making to journey to visit Bryce Canyon National Park or Arches National Park, then you simply have to pencil in some time to visit Utah's best kept secret by far...Capitol Reef National Park!
Because our year-long trip has revolved around the national park system, we always were going to be 'going through' Capitol Reef as we hit the other major Utah players. We hadn't heard much about this remote park and only allotted 2-3 days for a quick camping stop to check out the sorta famous Fruita campground; a beautiful spot nestled in an ancient lush canyon on the site of the original Mormon settlement surrounded by fruit trees. One of the preserved settlers' homes is now a shop that sells tasty fresh baked goods. They had us at baked goods, so we figured 'what could we lose?'
What we didn't expect to uncover was probably the biggest secret gem of our trip thus far! A visit to Capitol Reef is like a step back in time to an ancient earth. The colors, formations, history and silence has left us changed forever.
As we quickly learned, Capitol Reef contains miles of incredible hiking trails where you are usually the only person within sight in canyon washes full of ancient marine fossils, petroglyphs from early Fremont tribes, a lush blue river cutting through the park, and the only arch in America that you can stand on! All inside the boundaries of this secret gem.
If our photos don't convince you to visit this amazing park, perhaps some of these tips will:
Not to miss is the incredible Fruita campground. It is not very large so if you want, you can reserve a spot far in advance pending you have the foresight to do so. However, just like everything else on our trip, we just showed up to try to get the first-come-first-served spots. Unfortunately, they had no availability, but some were opening up the following day. The camp host directed us to some BLM land right off the road between mile markers 73 and 74 on UT-24 that we could camp at in the meantime.
Because it was dark when we started looking, we couldn't find the exact spot the host mentioned, so we just pulled over in one of the highway turnouts and set up camp for the night. No one bothered us, but Alex was flooded with all sorts of 'the hills have eyes' fears all night long!
Turns out, she had nothing to worry about. We actually pulled over about 100 yards from the real BLM site that had 5 RVs parked overnight. Ha! I didn't let her hear the end of it and it gave us a good laugh over morning coffee.
That morning we went early to the campground and got a great spot!
It is evident the moment you enter the campground that this is a special place. Wild deer and turkeys wander throughout the property, fearless of humans or barky chihuahuas. The grounds are grassy, well maintained and in the middle of hundreds of fruit trees planted by the original Mormon settlers.
At different times of the year, you can walk through these orchards and pick fresh fruit. Unfortunately, we missed the harvest as we were there in late fall, but we were able to see the changing colors of the leaves. It was beautiful and treat we weren't used to as native San Diegans.
Fresh water, bathrooms and dish washing stations are available at this campground making it very comfortable for either RV or tent campers. So definitely try to stay here if you can!
Be Prepared To See No One On The Trails
One of the best things about this park is that it is so underpopulated. No one is here, which is why we believe it is Utah's best kept secret! It was a huge difference from the super crowded Bryce and Zion parks we hit earlier in the month.
To illustrate how uncrowded Capitol Reef is, Alex and I didn't see any other hikers on any of our hikes over the course of a week. We had so much fun yelling and singing, just to hear our our voices come reverberating back seconds later. It felt like we had the whole park to ourselves!
Just to note: we did go in October which is the low season, but from what we hear, the park is pretty much guaranteed to be this way all year round!
There is A Lot To Do!
Since we were only planning on passing through the park, we did not realize how mesmerized we would become with it and how much there was to do! There are so many hikes and viewpoints we didn't know what to do with ourselves. So we decided to extend our trip a week but we still left with things undone.
I even got up before sunrise on my own while Alex slept-in just to hike the 'must see' Rim Overlook Trail we were told about. I didn’t want to leave without seeing it and I had a fun time trying to navigate in the darkness with nothing but a headlamp and my new best friend, cairns.
Learn to Hike With Cairns:
Speaking of 'cairns'... it was this park where we learned to find & follow them on the hiking trails.
Cairns are constructed stacks of rocks set by park rangers to help mark trails. They are built so when you stand next to one, you can see the next one usually 5 to 20 feet away to guide you down the path. This is especially helpful when crossing areas of “slickrock,” (large areas of smooth rock on hikes) that wouldn’t otherwise show signs of a trail.
Be very sure not to knock over cairns or build your own. On my predawn hike, I somehow ended up about a quarter mile off the trail because I missed a cairn an started following footprints of other hikers. When I realized I was off the trail, I went back and found the cairns and could finish the hike. If I didn't have those markers, I would have ended up very lost with no cell service!
That's Right... There is NO Cell Service
Seriously. Its a full dead zone throughout the park, including all the trails and even the land surrounding it. We have both Verizon and Google Project Fi (a combination of T-Mobile and Sprint cell service) and we had absolutely zilch service. Not even when using the clever “if-I-stand-on-my-tippy-toes-and-angle-the-phone-just-right-I-can-get-half-a-bar” move.
So be prepared to really be disconnected. It took a day or two for us to get used to it, but we really loved how it forced us to be present and find other ways to entertain ourselves besides email, Facebook, and Instagram. We ended up playing cards for hours, making new friends over campfires, and making lots of memories. We probably wouldn't have had these experiences if our noses were in our phones, so it was a welcomed discomfort.
The other fun thing is that if there truly was an emergency, the campground has an old-fashioned payphone! Yep.. haven't seen one of those in years! You could also drive out of the park about 8 miles west to the town of Torrey and start to watch the glorious bars of cell service pour back into your mobile device of choice. But we recommend embracing the remoteness!
Take A Trip to Cathedral Valley
The Cathedral Valley is in the eastern part of the park and is quite remote, so the majority of visitors don't make it over that way. This part of the park has an Indiana Jones adventure feel, so be prepared for a bumpy ride past formations called 'Dragon's Back' and 'Temple of the Sun and Moon'!
If road conditions are good, one might be able to access this area with a regular car, but I would recommend only driving back there with a 4 wheel drive vehicle that has adequate ground clearance.
Because we only have our hybrid Sonata, we decided to opt for common sense and booked an off-road adventure with with Hondoo Rivers and Trails Tours.
The tour is $165 per person for a full day tour, includes a good packed lunch and is really worth it! It's huge country back there, so it was nice to have a guide to show us the way and teach us about the rock formations and the history of the valley.
Alex's favorite was visiting Glass Mountain, a 20 foot tall mountain of selenite crystals in the middle of the desert. She's super into crystals and energy, so this was a huge highlight for her!
To say the least, Cathedral Valley was worth it! A not to be missed experience!
Visit the Gifford Homestead:
This small homestead is located at the Fruita campground and sells some amazing baked items! It used to be home to the Gifford family, some of the early settlers in the Fruita valley and now has a cute shop and bakery.
After our long hikes, we tried two of their personal sized pies and cinnamon rolls. They were really delicious and we had to restrain ourselves from binge eating them. We also bought some of their homemade salsa which somehow was devoured in a day.
The home also has some artifacts and pictures from the days of the early settlers to the area, which gives a historical element to the area.
Hike Down to the Pioneer Registry
The historical graffiti etched into the walls of the red sandstone at at Capitol Gorge is an old Pioneer Registry, where pioneers passing through would 'register' their names. Each wagon would try to out do the last wagon with creative penmanship and some even shot bullets at the walls to spell out their names. It's really an interesting place to see where hundreds, maybe thousands passed through on their quest of Manifest Destiny.
If Capitol Reef isn’t on your list of parks to see or places to vacation, it is time to add it. Hike through gorgeous deserted canyons, or to natural arches that sail beautifully over the landscape, or through orchards of beautiful fruit trees. Relax in one of the best campgrounds in the national park system. See sandstone cliffs and formations that nature has been sculpting for thousands of years. Eat some pie. It’s all a good idea in this park. And we didn’t even do everything. There is still plenty for us to do the next time we visit Capitol Reef and we will definitely be back!