Capitol Reef National Park is perhaps best known for the stunning Waterpocket Fold. This geological feature stretches for nearly 100 miles across Southern Utah. It passes directly through the middle of Capitol Reef.
But while exploring this feature is a must during your visit, the park has far more to offer—including plenty more history to discover.
One must-see during a visit to Capitol Reef is the ancient petroglyphs left behind by some of the region’s earliest inhabitants. Thousands of years before guests began flocking to the Capitol Reef lodging they know and love today, Native American tribes were hunting and foraging in the land that now makes up the national park, Torrey, Utah, and even our own Cougar Ridge ranch.
Keep reading to learn more about the petroglyphs of Capitol Reef, the history of the people who created them, and how to visit them during your stay.
A History of the Fremont People
The Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people are some of the earliest known tribes to make their homes in what is now Southern Utah. Both groups lived in the area as early as 2,000 years ago.
Anthropologists believe that these tribes largely lived in smaller groups. Each would have consisted of a few smaller families. Likely due in part to the often harsh landscapes they lived in, their lives were fluid. This allowed them to move as needed to go in search of food and water. They started as hunter-gatherers, moving within a region that stretches into modern-day Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. They hunted for deer, bighorn sheep, and smaller creatures like rabbits, birds, and rodents.
Sometime around when they came to Southern Utah, these tribes began to supplement their diets with farming. They established crops of corn, squash, and beans along the region’s waterways and within floodplains. As they began to stay longer in one place, they also began creating petroglyphs.
A History of Capitol Reef’s Petroglyphs
The panels of rock drawings that you can see in Capitol Reef National Park today were created sometime between 300 and 1300 Common Era (CE). They consist of both pictographs and petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are drawings that have been carved into the surface of the rock. Pictographs are painted on the surfaces. Because of this, weathering often degrades pictographs not located in sheltered areas like caves, making petroglyphs a more common find.
The petroglyphs left behind by the Fremont and Ancient Puebloan people feature a variety of images and scenes that would have been typical of their everyday lives. They include many human-like figures, often wearing elaborate headdresses, necklaces, and other ornaments. Many petroglyphs also feature some of the animals that these early people hunted or encountered, including birds, deer, bighorn sheep, snakes, and lizards.
We can’t know for sure what these images are meant to depict. But anthropologists believe that they likely record religious events, everyday life, and mythological stories.
Where to See Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef National Park
While there are several places in and around Capitol Reef where you can see petroglyphs, many are difficult to get to or have been eroded over time, making them difficult to see.
The best and most pristine examples are the petroglyphs located on Highway 24. They are about 1.5 miles east of the park’s Visitor Center. There is a marked parking lot there that allows easy access to the carvings. Once you’ve parked, look for the short, flat trail that leads to two raised boardwalks.
On the shorter of the two boardwalks, you can see images that include large anthropomorphic (human-like) images, bighorn sheep, and other animals. The larger boardwalk will take you closer to a set of petroglyphs. However, these are more difficult to make out because of a patina that has developed on them.
Keep in mind that all petroglyphs are federally protected. The boardwalk makes it easy to get close enough to see the petroglyphs while still protecting them from damage. If you’d like to get a closer look, consider bringing a pair of binoculars with you. Never attempt to climb over the boardwalk for a closer look. To learn more about visiting petroglyphs as an anthropologist would, check out this guide.
Booking Your Capitol Reef Lodging
Ready to see these incredible petroglyphs for yourself? First, you’ll need to book your Capitol Reef lodging. While there are a variety of places to stay near Capitol Reef, Cougar Ridge provides easy access to the park. It also offers a variety of amenities to enhance your trip. Whether you’re planning a group trip and opt to book the Lodge or want a more intimate trip with your close family in one of our private Villas, we have an option for everyone!
When you book today, you can enjoy 20% off your stay of 3 nights or more! Book today to stay at the best and closest Capitol Reef lodging, making it easy to see the park’s incredible petroglyphs, hike the many trails, or enjoy easy access to the region’s stunning scenic drives.