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Temples of the Sun and Moon sandstone formations in Utah's Capitol Reef National Park. (Photograph by Larry Geddis, Alamy)
TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to Capitol Reef

Nan Groves Anderson has lived near Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah for 17 years and hikes there regularly. And as the executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Coalition, she gets to share her love for her slice of red-rock-country heaven with the world. Now she’s sharing her insider insight on this geologic wonder with the National Geographic community.

Here’s a look at Capitol Reef through an insider’s eyes.

Capitol Reef Is My National Park

Fall is the best time to visit my park because the colors are exquisite, the weather is glorious, and there is fruit for the picking in the Fruita orchards. But winter is my favorite. Seeing snow on the red rocks is truly spectacular.

My park’s biggest attraction is the Scenic Drive but a visit isn’t complete without getting out of your vehicle and hiking.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to pack a picnic lunch, and hike one of the well-marked trails, If you have a high-clearance vehicle, explore the Cathedral Valley loop or Burr Trail.

My favorite “park secret” is an adventure drive starting in the Fishlake National Forest high in the forest above the small town of Fremont, then dropping down into Capitol Reef’s amazing red rock, going past the Temples of the Sun and Moon, and exiting out near Caineville Wash.

Watch out for the sun (in the summer it’s easy to get burned) and be sure to bring lots of water when you hike in the park.

Head to the scenic drive at dusk if you want to see wildlife, especially deer. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a few bighorn sheep.

For the best view, head to the Strike Valley Overlook/Upper Muley Twist on the Notom Road/Burr Trail.

Cohab Canyon to Frying Pan and past Cassidy Arch is the best trail in the park. But I can’t leave out the Upper Muley Twist and Lower Muley Twist hikes.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, try the Navajo Knobs hike and Sulphur Creek Trail.

To experience the park’s cultural side, be sure to see the ancient petroglyphs created by Fremont and ancestral Pueblo people about two millennia ago. For more recent history, visit the Gifford Homestead, which presents a picture of what life was like for farmers in the early 20th century.

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to hit the scenic drive through the park all the way to Capitol Gorge, hike the Hickman Bridge Trail, and visit the Gifford Homestead.

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend Steve and Jen Howe with Redrock Adventure Guides.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be the Cathedral Valley overlook, with views of the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

Retired Capitol Reef Superintendent Al Hendricks is an “unsung hero” of my park because he spearheaded and completed the Capitol Reef Field Station and the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch project.

Experiencing Utah’s “Mighty 5”–Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands national parks–could only happen because Capitol Reef (the last of the five) is in the middle of all that scenic wonder. Travel on Scenic Byway 12 from Bryce to Capitol Reef on Utah’s only “All-American Road.”

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the homemade pie and ice cream at the Gifford Homestead.

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit the Burr Trail–an incredible dirt-and-gravel road that traverses Capitol Reef and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It starts just outside Capitol Reef on Highway 24 and heads south, parallel to the Waterpocket Fold, crossing the Fold in a breathtaking series of switchbacks and ending in the small town of Boulder, Utah.

If my park had a mascot it would be a Fremont Indian petroglyph.

The biggest threat to this park’s future is deterioration of facilities due to the federal government’s lack of investment in capital improvements. Capitol Reef needs trail enhancements, additional parking, an upgraded and improved visitor center, and additional staff to be all that it can be.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because there is no place like it on Earth. Capitol Reef is the story of a geologic feature called the Waterpocket Fold, told with wind, water, and erosion.

Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources (books, films, websites, apps, etc.):

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