With less than a million visitors per year (compared to nearby Zion’s 3.6 million visitors), Capitol Reef National Park is a park that tends to lie below many traveler’s radars. The park is certainly not the easiest to get to – it’s 225 miles away from the closest major airport in Salt Lake City – but its rewards come in the form of striking red rock vistas, uncrowded trails, and orchards ripe for the picking. A visit to Capitol Reef National Park with kids can easily be combined with Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, making for one epic Southern Utah road trip. Capitol Reef’s largest draw is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long sandstone buckle in the Earth’s surface filled with narrow canyons and interesting geologic features. The pioneer settlement of Fruita, with century-old orchards still in use today, is a unique draw as well. Be for hitting the road, check out our guide below so that you can get the most out of your visit to the park.
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Capitol Reef National Park: Fruita Historic District
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Your first stop when visiting Capitol Reef National Park should be the visitor center, located on the edge of the historic town of Fruita. This is where you can pay your entrance fees (note: there is no fee to visit sites along Hwy 24 but there is a fee to use the scenic drive), grab maps, pick up your kids’ Junior Ranger booklets, and talk to park rangers about programs and advisories. From there, follow the road into Fruita where your family will be transported to the time when Mormon pioneers first settled the land along the Fremont River and Waterpocket Fold. Nineteen orchards planted by the pioneers are filled with interesting varieties of classics such as cherries, apricots, pears, peaches, and apples. Best of all, you are welcome to pick fruit from any unlocked orchard and eat them inside the orchard for free! Any fruit you do want to take outside the orchard can be bagged and weighed at the self-pay station. Besides fruit, expect to see plenty of mule deer and turkeys in this area. After all, why would they want to pass up a free meal?
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Good to know: The fruit is seasonal and availability is subject to Mother Nature. We unluckily happened upon the short window in between apricot and pear season so there was no fruit for us to pick. Avoid an epic meltdown like the one my city-dwelling 9-year-old had (who knew picking fruit in a national park was on her bucket list?) – and check the park website before you visit to get a good idea of what might be available.
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Another spot not to be missed is the Ripple Rock Nature Center, located across from the Old Blacksmith Shop. Here kids can check out some cute exhibits designed with children in mind as well as turn in their completed Junior Ranger booklets and participate in the Junior Ranger Geology talk. This is a great way for kids to learn about different types of rocks found in the region (a visit to Capitol Reef is a must visit for burgeoning geologists) and earn the coveted Junior Ranger Geology Patch. Ooohhhh!!!! Aaaaahhhhh!!! After all that hard work, reward your family with a homemade mini-pie or cinnamon roll from the Gifford House. These delicious pies come in all sorts of orchard-fresh varieties – think cherry, apple, and peach. These are incredibly popular so I suggest heading to the Gifford House sooner rather than later. If your kids aren’t in to pie, they will be happy to know that ice cream is for sale as well. There is a lovely picnic area next to the Gifford House near an old barn if you want to pack a lunch and make a meal out of the experience .
Capitol Reef National Park: Can’t-Miss Scenic Drives
Your $10 national park entrance fee allows you to enjoy the scenic drive and its hikes. Be sure to pick up the self-guided tour map in the park visitor center. Turn at Grand Wash turnoff for some fun hiking and lovely scenery. The road is not paved but it is graded, making it suitable for all cars as long as the weather is good. Grand Wash is a gradually narrowing canyon, eventually becoming 600 feet high and just 16 feet wide at one point. My kids loved climbing in the various crevasses and alcoves in the wash’s sandstone walls. If you take it all the way through you will eventually meet Hwy 24 about 3 miles in.
If you are looking for more of a challenge, take the 1.7 mile trail (one way) to Cassidy Arch. The trail begins about 1/4 mile from the entrance to Grand Wash and winds its way up the side of the mountain. It gains a total of 950 feet in elevation along the way and your efforts are rewarded with sprawling views of the region as well as sprawling Cassidy Arch. The arch was named after Butch Cassidy who is said to have used Grand Wash to reach Robber’s Roost. I recommend taking this hike in the early morning or late afternoon when shade is more available. We made the trek during midday and it was HOT!
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Be sure to take the scenic drive to the road’s end at Capitol Gorge. Here an easy hike through a narrow canyon takes you past petroglyphs drawn by the Fremont people who lived in this region from 600-1200 AD. Further in, you will come across a Pioneer Registry on the side of the slot canyon. Pioneers passing through the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s etched and burned their names into the sandstone wall. Standing in this space it is easy to imagine wagon trains coming through filled with brave and adventurous folks looking for success out West.
Did you know? 4th graders and their families get in to national parks for free! Head to the National Parks Service website for details on how to get a complimentary annual pass worth $80.
Hwy 24 sites in Capitol Reef National Park
There are plenty of great sites to experience along Hwy 24. Coming from the town of Torrey, the park’s small gateway city, your first stop should be Panorama Point. You will see Chimney Rock on the left just before reaching the turnoff to the point which includes short walks to Goosenecks Overlook and the short Sunset Point trail which overlooks the Fremont River down below. As the name suggests, this is a lovely spot to enjoy the sunset but it is also a great spot for admiring Capitol Reef’s remarkable night sky.
As you continue down Highway 24, be sure to make pit stops at the Fruita Schoolhouse – kids will love heading behind the school to discover where children of the past left their mark in the rocks. Also, take a look at the Petroglyph Pullout which features a massive petroglyph panel carved in to the sandstone wall above a boardwalk shaded by trees. Then, make time for the hike to Hickman Bridge, a must for any visitor to Capitol Reef. This 2-mile round-trip trail gradually climbs in elevation until it reaches the 133-foot arch known as Hickman Bridge. The bridge is impressive and the area around the bridge offers lovely shade from the often-relentless desert heat.
Stay Here, Eat There in Capitol Reef National Park
Photo by: Sharlene Earnshaw
Capitol Reef Resort is a delightful surprise in the middle of the Utah high desert. It sits in between the national park entrance and the town of Torrey and was built with families in mind. Lodging options are varied, from spacious traditional rooms with private patios to large teepees framed by the dramatic red rock of the Waterpocket Fold to covered wagons circling a shared fire pit. Kids will love playing in the pool , running around on the expanses of grass, and roasting marshmallows with new-found friends. Horseback riding is also available on desert trails paralleling the property. The property does have a restaurant which offers a buffet-style breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. Across the street from the property is the Rim Rock Restaurant and the Rim Rock Patio. This funky little patio bills itself as a “spaghetti western cafe” with wonderful views of Capitol Reef as well as a horseshoe pit to keep the kids occupied while waiting for your meal. The menu is simple with just a few options (think pizza, pasta, barbecue sandwiches, and salads ) but what they do, they do well. I found the prices to be incredibly affordable, especially considering their location, a remote area that caters to tourists. The main restaurant is more upscale features a variety of pastas, steaks, fish, and poultry options.
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