In the heart of Utah amongst some of the most popular and crowded national parks in the country, sits a large and unassuming park that has yet to be taken over by the throngs of tourists. At nearly twice the size of nearby Zion, but only a quarter of its visitors, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem that will surprise you with both its beauty and history. Given national park status in 1971, its most famous feature is the Water Pocket Fold. The fold is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust which extends over 100 miles in which the west side is 7000 feet higher than the east side. Other geological wonders such as natural cathedrals, slot canyons, and petroglyphs combined with fruit orchards and a dark sky designation make this national park one not to be missed.
The Capitol Reef area and surrounding lands have a rich history of the indigenous American past. Dating as far back as 12,000 years, there is evidence (albeit very little) of nomadic tribes making their way across the Water Pocket Fold. Around 1200 A.D., the Fremont Culture and Anasazi were the first to settle the area and turn to farming to supplement their hunting and gathering. If you are interested in learning more during your visit, you can check out the Anasazi State Park Museum which is located in Boulder, Utah about 45 minutes south of Capitol Reef National Park. Another fun stop for kids is the Freemont Culture Petroglyph Panel off Utah Highway 24. Here you will see drawings of human-like figures, bighorn sheep, and geometric shapes carved into the rock. A must for any budding archeologist!
Centuries after the Freemont Culture left the area, Mormon settlers began to inhabit the area. They used the fertile land near the Fremont River to farm and their small town of Fruita became known for its orchards. Visitors to the park today can actually still head to these orchards and pick fruit at the designated U-Pick farms. An unexpected treat for both kids and adults alike while visiting the national park!
What would a visit to a national park be without a good hike? With over fifteen day-hiking trails and a plethora of options for backcountry hikes, every family is sure to find a trail for its skill level. For beginners and families with young children, there are short, easy hikes that you can take right off the side of the road. Capitol Gorge is a recommended hike that you can do with kids in tow. (Do you need to say where Capitol Gorge is located?)
Hiking Safety Tips:
– Always have enough food and water for the day no matter how short the hike. The dry heat in the desert will leave you thirsty even on the shortest of walks.
– Check and double-check the weather on the day of your hike. If there is even the slightest possibility of a rainstorm, DO NOT HIKE. Even a very small amount of rain can cause flash floods in the canyons. If you are hiking and hear thunder, immediately get to higher ground or exit if you can do so quickly and safely.
– Know where you are hiking or hire a guide for longer hikes if you are unfamiliar with the area.
– Always let someone outside of your hiking party know where you are going.
Like most national parks, Capitol Reef also has a Junior Ranger program for kids. Stop by the Visitor Center or Ripple Rock Nature Center to pick up the Junior Ranger activity book and let the kids earn a ranger badge! While you are at the NatureCenter, be sure to let the kids try out all the hands-on activities that are set up there or sign up for the junior geologist program!
Where to stay
Have you ever slept in a teepee? How about a Conestoga wagon? If you are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, check out Capitol Reef Resort. Located just outside the entrance to the park, it’s fun and western-styled accommodations are a great way to get the kids excited about sleep after a long day.
The teepee can accommodate two adults and one child, while the Conestoga wagon can fit up to six guests. The Conestoga wagon will not fit a baby bassinet, so be sure to book it only if your kids are a bit older and can sleep in regular bunk beds. Also, while both the teepee and wagons have private bathrooms, they are located a few steps outside your dwelling. If your family is ready for a bit of an adventure though, staying in a teepee or wagon is sure to be the highlight of your kids’ trip!
If you are looking for something that is a bit more luxurious rather than fun, there are also large private cabins with separate bedrooms and a kitchenette you can book. In addition, large suites in the main hotel with a deck overlooking the red cliffs are available.
Capitol Reef Resort rates start around $150/night.
Staying just outside the park also makes for a great opportunity to drive in once the sun goes down and take full advantage of Capitol Reef’s International Dark Sky designation. Sometimes the park will offer special viewing events and programs, so be sure to check before you visit! Otherwise, grab a pair of astronomy binoculars before you head out and enjoy the millions of stars in the night sky with your kids. You can also download an app like Stargazer and watch as your kids immerse themselves in the beauty of space as they search for constellations. If you’re lucky, you may even see the International Space Station go overhead!
With over 378 square miles in Capitol Reef National Park, plus a ton of activities and small towns to explore just outside of it, you may just find yourself booking multiple trips to this area. Combine it with trips to Zion or Bryce Canyon for a full national park circuit or, make it an entire trip on its own. Either way, you are sure to have one memorable experience with your family!
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