Capitol Reef National Park is one of those undiscovered gems, its rangers quietly going about the business of protecting and interpreting its natural wonders and historic sites while visitors flock to its more famous neighbors, Bryce Canyon and Zion.
But when people do stumble across this park, they are often amazed. Capitol Reef not only offers spectacular southern Utah scenery, but it also has a unique twist and a personality all its own.
The geologic formations here are incredible, if not downright peculiar. This is a place to let your imagination run wild, where you'll see the commanding Castle; the tall, rust-red Chimney Rock; the silent and eerie Temple of the Moon; the appropriately named Hamburger Rocks, sitting atop a white sandstone table. A spectacular palette of colors paints Capitol Reef's canyon walls, which is why some Navajos called the area "The Land of the Sleeping Rainbow."
Capitol Reef is more than brilliant rocks and barren desert, however. Here the Fremont River has helped create a lush oasis in an otherwise unforgiving land. Cottonwood, willow, and other trees fill its banks. In fact, 19th-century pioneers found the land so inviting that they established the community that's now called Fruita, planting orchards that have been preserved by the National Park Service.
Because of differences in geologic strata, elevation, and water availability in different sections of the park, you'll find a variety of ecosystems and terrain, along with a selection of activities. There are trails for hiking; roads for mountain biking and four-wheel-drive touring; fruit orchards; green cottonwood groves and desert wildflowers; an abundance of songbirds; and a surprising amount of wildlife, from lizards and snakes to the bashful ring-tailed cat (which is really a member of the raccoon family). You'll also find thousand-year-old petroglyphs left behind by the ancient Fremont and ancestral Puebloan peoples, and other traces of the past left more recently by the Utes and Southern Paiutes. This was both a favorite hideout for Wild West outlaws and a home for industrious Mormon pioneers, who planted orchards while their children learned the three Rs and studied the Bible and the Book of Mormon in the one-room Fruita Schoolhouse.