Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park sees more than 1.2 million visitors each year

Capitol Reef National Park’s Waterpocket Fold is a 100-mile (160 km) monocline that exhibits the earth’s diverse geologic layers. Other natural features include monoliths, cliffs, and sandstone domes shaped like the United States Capitol.


The natural sandstone formations make this location amazing to visit.

The easiest to access portion of the Waterpocket Fold, found near the Fremont River, is known as Capitol Reef: capitol for the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes, and reef for the rocky cliffs which are a barrier to travel, like a coral reef.

The geologic story of Capitol Reef can be broken down into three steps, each of which occured over millions of years of geologic time: deposition, uplift, and erosion.

Nearly 10,000 feet of sedimentary strata were deposited in the Capitol Reef area. These rocks range in age from Permian (as old as 270 million years old) to Cretaceous (as young as 80 million years old.) Because the Waterpocket Fold has tilted this geologic layer cake down to the east, the older rocks are found in the western part of the park, and the younger rocks are found near the east boundary.

This layer upon layer sequence of sedimentary rock records nearly 200 million years of geologic history. Rock layers in Capitol Reef reveal ancient environments as varied as rivers and swamps (Chinle Formation), Sahara-like deserts (Navajo Sandstone), and shallow oceans (Mancos Shale). Fossils found in these rocks give additional clues about these ancient environments and inhabitants. These ancient sediments were deposited when the region was at or near sea level, far below the current elevation.

Long after the sedimentary rocks were deposited, the entire region was uplifted thousands of vertical feet, due to large-scale plate tectonic forces. Most of the Colorado Plateau was uplifted relatively evenly, keeping the layers roughly horizontal, creating the “layer cake” appearance common throughout the region (such as at the Grand Canyon). Capitol Reef is a giant exception to this pattern–due to the Waterpocket Fold.

What is the Waterpocket Fold?
The Waterpocket Fold defines Capitol Reef National Park. A nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, the Waterpocket Fold is a classic monocline, a “step-up” in the rock layers. It formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when a major mountain building event in western North America, the Laramide Orogeny, reactivated an ancient buried fault in this region. Movement along the fault caused the west side to shift upwards relative to the east side. The overlying sedimentary layers were draped above the fault and formed a monocline. The rock layers on the west side of the fold have been lifted more than 7,000 feet (2,134 m) higher than the layers on the east.

More recent uplift of the entire Colorado Plateau and the resulting erosion has exposed this fold at the surface within the last 15 to 20 million years. The name “Waterpocket Fold” reflects this ongoing erosion of the rock layers. “Waterpockets” are small depressions that form in many of the sandstone layers as they are eroded by water, and are common throughout the fold at Capitol Reef. Erosion of the tilted rock layers continues today forming colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, and graceful arches.

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Native American History

There is a rich Native American History at Capitol Reef National Park

Hunters and Gatherers
Capitol Reef National Park protects a rich background of American Indian habitation throughout the Colorado Plateau. Archeologists have discovered information about the indigenous people who lived in the region for nearly 10,000 years, relying on radio-carbon methods and oral traditions from tribal communities.


The earliest records of Paleo-Indians in Utah date back to 12,000 years ago. Archeologists believe these people arrived during the Pleistoscene (last Ice Age) by the Bering Land Bridge and were the first North Americans. Sites from this era are extremely rare and fragile. Few artifacts remain, making their lifestyle difficult to interpret and understand. However, archeologists suggest that Paleo-Indians did not build homes but rather used rock shelters and caves. These people used projectile points called Clovis and Folsom to hunt small animals and megafauna, such as mammoths. When megafauna became extinct due to climate change, Paleo-Indians adapted to an Archaic lifestyle. Archeologists suspect that Paleo-Indians migrated through the Waterpocket Fold but have found no Paleo artifacts to date.


The Archaic Period is defined by a nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle that was adapted to climate change. Desert Archaic Indians lived from 8,000-1,600 years ago and migrated depending on the availability of resources. They hunted herds of mammals using a lightweight, spear-throwing stick called an Atlatl. Archaic Indians relied on plants for food, and used them to make baskets, clothing, and medicine. They used stones to make tools and wove nets to trap animals. Desert people ground seeds and nuts with a metate, or slab of stone, and a mano, smaller hand-held stone, to make paste or flour. They lived primarily in caves or rock shelters, storing hides, tools, and food, while moving from place to place to hunt game.

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Park History

How Capitol Reef became a National Park

“Whereas certain public lands in the State of Utah contain narrow canyons displaying evidence of ancient sand dune deposits of unusual scientific value, and have situated thereon various other objects of geological and scientific interest; and Whereas it appears that it would be in the public interest to reserve such lands as a national monument, to be known as the Capitol Reef National Monument…”

-Proclamation No. 2246 on August 2, 1937, Page 136 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt


Ephraim Portman Pectol was a Mormon Bishop in Torrey, UT until 1928 when he was elected to the Utah State legislature. He and his brother-in-law, Joseph S. Hickman began a promotional campaign, submitting stories and photographs to newspapers to attract interest to the Waterpocket Fold area. In 1937, President Roosevelt set aside 37,711 acres of the Capitol Reef area as a National Monument. This comprised an area extending about two miles north of present Utah Highway 24 and about ten miles south, just past Capitol Gorge.


Charles Kelly began a love affair with the deserts and canyons of Utah that would last a lifetime after he moved to Salt Lake City in 1919. He concentrated his exploration energies on southern Utah and the Colorado River area and his interest in archeology, as well as more recent history, grew. In 1943, Charles Kelly was appointed “custodian-without-pay” at Capitol Reef National Monument. He continued to work without pay as a volunteer until 1950 when the NPS offered him a civil service appointment as the first superintendent. At age 62, he held his first federal job.


NPS areas nationwide received new facilities to meet the demand of increasing park visitation under the program name Mission 66 during the 1960s. The Fruita campground, staff rental housing, and a new visitor center were built at Capitol Reef during this time. Visitation climbed dramatically after the paved road was built through the Fremont River canyon near Fruita and the old Capitol Gorge road closed in 1962. Nearly 150,000 people were visiting the park annually and the staff was growing by 1967. The NPS proceeded to purchase private land parcels at Fruita and Pleasant Creek. Most private property passed into public ownership on a willing-buyer/willing-seller basis.


Two bills were introduced into Congress in 1970 to determine if Capitol Reef should become a national park. The Department of Interior officials recommended that 254,000 acres be set aside as a national park. They also recommended a ten-year grazing phase-out period, to protect and conserve the land. A year later, the legislation, An Act to Establish the Capitol Reef National Park in the State of Utah, became Public Law 92-207 when it was signed by President Nixon on December 18, 1971.

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The best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is a park best explored by foot. Most of the park’s 243,921 acres is open for exploration and with nearly 200 miles of marked frontcountry trails and backcountry routes, there are many opportunities for exploring Capitol Reef. You’ll also find options for scenic driving tours, rock climbing, horseback riding, and biking. Capitol Reef is the place for recreation and re-creation!

Hiking and Backpacking
Capitol Reef has nearly 200 miles of trails and routes that range from easy, short walks to 3-day backpacking trips. There’s something for everyone.

Road Tours
There are three districts in Capitol Reef that can be explored by vehicle. Some of the roads are unpaved and can usually be navigated by standard vehicles or those with high-clearance.

The multiple rock layers found at Capitol Reef offer a diverse canyon environment.

Rock Climbing
Capitol Reef has experienced minimal use by technical rock climbers. However, recent years have seen an increase in climbing in Utah’s canyon country.

Bicycle Tours
Bicycles must remain on maintained roads open to vehicular traffic. Bicycles may not travel off road, in washes, on closed roads, on hiking trails, or backcountry routes.

Horse and Pack Animal Use
Horse and pack animal use is considered a valid means of viewing and experiencing Capitol Reef.

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Home of six endangered plant species

The Waterpocket Fold defines Capitol Reef National Park. A nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, the Waterpocket Fold is a classic monocline: a regional fold with one very steep side in an area of otherwise nearly horizontal layers. The varied topography, geology, elevations, and precipitation patterns along the Waterpocket Fold have resulted in a diversity of microhabitats and niches for plant species to inhabit. Nineteen geologic formations are exposed within the Waterpocket Fold, each with unique combinations of minerals, soil types, aspect and slope.

In addition to the diverse geology, elevations in the park range from less than 4,000 feet (1,219 m) in the south near Hall’s Creek to over 11,000 feet (3,353 m) in the north near Thousand Lakes Mountain. This elevation gradient results in increasing annual precipitation from the south to the north end of the park. The combination of wide ranging elevations and precipitation, coupled with the diverse geology and topography, allows 85 vegetation associations to exist in the park. A total of 887 plant species occur in the park, many of which have very restricted distributions, occuring on specific geologic formations, soils, slopes, or elevation or precipitation ranges. Capitol Reef National Park has more than 40 rare and endemic plant species, six of which are federally listed as threatened or endangered.

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Animal Life

There is a vivacious animal life in Capitol Reef National Park

Wildlife in Capitol Reef is diverse due to the variety of habitats such as pinyon-juniper, perennial streams, dry washes and rock cliffs. We solicit details of the wildlife seen by visitors because such information adds immeasurably to the value of the park records. Take a look at the ecology site bulletin for more information on how habitats impact animal species.

Capitol Reef National Park has recorded:

239 bird species
71 mammal species
15 reptiles
5 amphibians
13 native fish species

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails at Capitol Reef National Park


In the Fruita area, there are fifteen day hiking trails with trailheads located along Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive. These trails offer the hiker a wide variety of options, from easy strolls over level ground to strenuous hikes involving steep climbs over uneven terrain near cliff edges. Hikes may take you deep into a narrow gorge, to the top of high cliffs for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, under a natural stone arch, to historic inscriptions…and much, much more! Round trip distances vary in length from less than 0.25 miles to 10 miles (0.8-16 km). All trails are well-marked with signs at the trailhead and at trail junctions and by cairns (stacks of rocks) along the way. Some trails have self-guiding brochures which are available, for a nominal fee, at the trailhead or at the visitor center.


Capitol Reef offers many hiking options for serious backpackers and those who enjoy exploring remote areas. Marked hiking routes lead into narrow, twisting gorges, slot canyons, and to spectacular viewpoints high atop the Waterpocket Fold. Popular backcountry hikes in the southern section of the park include Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyons and Halls Creek. Backcountry hiking opportunities also exist in the Cathedral Valley area and near Fruita…the possibilities are endless! Stop in the visitor center and talk to a ranger if you are interested in a backcountry hike. They can help you pick out a hike that will fit your time and abilities.

Please review all rules and regulations for backcountry camping.


Hiking Routes in Cathedral District
Hiking Routes in Waterpocket District
Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch Slot Canyons
Halls Creek Narrows
Lower Muley Twist Canyon
Pleasant Creek
Spring Canyon
Sulphur Creek
Upper Muley Twist Canyon


Always carry water! Even the shortest stroll will make you thirsty on a 100°F (37.8°C) summer day. Potable water is available at a water bottle filling station outside the visitor center, and at the spigots in front of each restroom in the Fruita campground. A minimum of one gallon per person per day is recommended, more for backpackers. Water is scarce in the backcountry, especially during the hot summer months. Waterpockets, seeps, and springs are scattered throughout canyon country but are unreliable. Plan to carry in all your water. If you do use water from backcountry sources, boil or filter the water before drinking to kill Giardia.


Hiking in canyon country is not something to be taken lightly. The elevation and high desert climate make this area prone to temperature extremes. Summer months are HOT with temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) and the sun is intense. Summer evenings cool to 50 or 60°F (10-15.6°C). At this time of year, rapid dehydration is common and could be fatal to the unprepared hiker. Spring and fall are mild seasons and are the best times for hiking and backpacking. Winter (November-February) is cold with highs from 30 to 45°F (-1.1-7.2°C) and nighttime temperatures below freezing. Elevations in the park range from approximately 3,800 to 8,200 feet (1,158-2,499 m).

Wear appropriate clothing, footwear, sunscreen, and a hat.

Capitol Reef receives an average of 7.98 inches (20.3 cm) of precipitation each year. Summer thunderstorms can move in quickly, dropping large amounts of rain over a short period of time, causing flash floods. Get up-to-date weather information and watch for changing weather conditions during this time of year. Do not enter a narrow gorge or slot canyon if storms are threatening and never camp in wash bottoms. Infrequent winter snows often fall and melt the same day, but can stay on the ground for days or weeks.

Don’t take unnecessary risks because help may be a long way off. Think before you act. If you do become rimrocked, call for help and wait for assistance rather than attempting to climb down. One misplaced step or handhold could end in tragedy. Do not throw rocks. Climbing on loose talus or steep slickrock is dangerous, and it is always harder to climb down than to climb up. Your safety is your responsibility!


Help protect the fragile desert environment. Stay on established trails, avoid stepping on biological soil crusts, and do not shortcut switchbacks. Do not swim in potholes, tanks, tinajas, or waterpockets. These are important water sources for wild animals, and sunscreen, lotion, and oils on human skin can pollute them. Do not disturb archeological sites. Collecting anything (plant, animal, mineral, artifact) is illegal within the park.


Pets are not permitted on trails or anywhere in the backcountry.


Detailed maps are available from the Capitol Reef Natural History Association Bookstore at the visitor center.

Leave No Trace
Backcountry Do’s and Don’ts

Tell others your plans and expected return date.
Obtain a free backcountry permit prior to your hike.
Carry topographic maps and guides of the area.
Practice Leave No Trace wilderness ethics:
Plan ahead and prepare.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Stay on marked trails whenever possible. (When hiking crosscountry, walk in wash bottoms, on slickrock, or use animal trails to avoid stepping in biological soil crust.)
Dispose of waste properly. Pack it in, pack it out. Bury human waste 6 inches (15 cm) deep in soil and 100 feet (30.5 m) away from water sources.
Leave what you find.
Fires are allowed only in existing fire pans and not in the backcountry.
Respect wildlife.
Be considerate of others.

Collect firewood or build ground fires. Instead, use portable stoves for cooking.
Pollute water sources by washing or bathing. You should always carry water away from the source to clean dishes or bathe then strain out food particles and disperse dirty water. Always use biodegradable soap. Never swim in waterpockets; lotion, sunscreen, and residue on skin can quickly pollute water sources that are not free-flowing.
Camp within 0.5 mile (0.8 km) or in sight of roads or trails. In narrow canyons, try to camp as far away from the hiking route as possible and out of sight.
Disturb or deface natural features, historic, or archeological sites.
Collect items of any kind, including rocks, plants, animals, or artifacts.

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