Most national parks are known for their natural beauty. And while Capitol Reef National Park has plenty of that to be sure, it also has a great deal of history associated with it. Since ancient times, groups of hunter-gatherers lived throughout the area, and around 500 CE, the Fremont society settled in what is now Capitol Reef. Evidence of the Fremont people can still be seen in the park today, in the petroglyphs and pictographs they left behind.
There are a couple of different places within the park where you can see this ancient art. The first place is along the scenic drive, near the Fruita Schoolhouse. Here the petroglyphs are right next to the road, so you can park your car for a minute, and hop out to take a few pictures. They are easy to see.
The second place to see petroglyphs and pictographs is at the end of the Capitol Gorge spur road, which takes a little more effort to get to. The road is long and winding, and passes through a gorge (the name does not lie), so use caution before proceeding. Do not attempt this road if the weather looks questionable due to the risk of flash floods.
From the parking lot, follow the trail for a bit (it is flat and easy, but very sunny) and you will find the petroglyphs. Also of interest within this gorge is the Pioneer Register.
Early pioneers had to clear this road for use, and the first group to do so back in 1884 carved their names into the rock walls of the gorge to commemorate the accomplishment.
If other hikers hadn’t told us where to look, we seriously never would’ve found it. There are no signs telling you at what point in the gorge to look for it, and it is not easy to see, as you can tell from the picture:
So here’s how to find it. The petroglyphs are super easy to find and are right around eye level on the left hand side of the trail. Seriously, you can’t miss them even if you try. At this point, it is easy to be distracted by the petroglyphs, snap a few pictures, and then move on. But this is also where the Pioneer Register is located. From the petroglyphs, look across to the other side of the gorge, and look higher than you think. I honestly don’t even know how they got their names so high up there.
A little farther down the trail on the left hand side there is another area with names of early pioneers carved into the rocks. Some of it is cool and from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but some is also more modern vandalism. So, kinda cool, kinda not. And remember: the pioneers didn’t know any better- you do. Don’t add your name to the wall! It is a federal offense.
The area around Capitol Reef was popular among Mormon settlers in the 1800s. Some buildings from these early settlements are still standing today, and can be visited within the park. Along the scenic drive not even a mile from the visitor center is the old Fruita Schoolhouse. You can’t go inside the building, but it is still interesting to peek inside the windows and see how the children used to be taught. And here’s a little factoid that will make you grateful to be born when/where you were: this school was open and functioning until 1941. Yikes.
Another historical site of interest within the park is the Behunin Cabin, built by Mormon settler Elijah Behunin (a pioneer who lead the group who cleared the trail through Capitol Gorge) for his family back in 1883. This teeny tiny one-room cabin housed Behunin and his wife, as well as eleven children.
The cabin is so small in fact, that the older children had to sleep outside in alcoves in the cliffs. Once again, very grateful to not be an 1800s pioneer. This cabin is located along the road leading into the Waterpocket District, but is worth the drive even if you don’t head all the way into that section of the park. Definitely makes you appreciate what you have.
While we most certainly did not envy the life of these early settlers, just for funsies, we decided to recreate a Behunin family portrait…
Taking a break from hiking to learn about the people who called Capitol Reef their home just adds to what makes this park so unique and interesting!