Capitol Reef National Park gets its name from the “whitish domes” within its boundaries, one of the more remote of which is Ferns Nipple. Capitol Reef is a 242,000+/- acre national park that was established to protect a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as a monocline. Ferns Nipple sits on top of this water pocket fold. Capitol Reef receives few visits from technical rock climbers as the quality of rock is not comparable to Zion to the west or Moab to the east. It is comprised predominately of sandstone and varies in hardness from the soft crumbly Entrada to the relatively hard Wingate. The Wingate cliff walls are the most popular for climbing, as natural fracturing has created several climbable crack systems. In addition, the hardness of the Wingate lends itself more readily to the successful use of nuts and cams; however it can flake off and be very unpredictable. Capitol Reef is much more popular for its hiking and backpacking trails like Upper and lower Muley Twist Canyon, Halls Creek Narrows, Spring Canyon Burro, Cottonwood & Sheet's Gulch slot canyons, Hamburger Rocks and Brimhall Bridge.
As I mentioned with Island in the Sky, it is favorable not to step on or damage the cryptobiotic crust as it can take over 50 years to repair itself, if at all. Wildlife that is still observed in the park present day include a tremendous variety of birds, reptiles and bats, several different kinds of shrews, ringtail cats, minks, spotted and striped skunks, bobcats, mountain lions, yellow belly marmots and red and gray fox.
The Mormons settled the town named Fruita which now serves as the main campground and orientation area in Capitol Reef National Park off of Hwy 24. They left several orchards behind as the town eventually was abandoned. Today, the orchards are preserved and protected as a rural historic landscape by the parks. They are composed of cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, almond, and walnut trees. The National Park Service now owns and maintains the orchards. You are encouraged to pick and eat as much ripe fruit while camping or visiting the area. But if you are bagging it, they have volunteer payment boxes with prices, etc. at the open orchards.
Two published guide books cover climbs at Capitol Reef. They are Desert Rock and Rock Climbing Utah. Neither describe the Ferns Nipple route(s).
Utah State Highway 24 runs east and west through the park. The Scenic Drive (25 mile round-trip) paved road begins at the Visitor Center (Ranger Station). Other dirt roads traverse the park both north and south of Highway 24. Be sure to check current flash flood conditions before heading out on these backcountry roads.
From Highway 24 at the Visitor Center, take the Scenic Drive road south to the Grand Wash (dirt) road. Turn left and proceed to a pullout on the right side. Ferns Nipple will be in clear view from this spot. However, keep in mind that my ascent and descent are not considered the “normal” (easier) route. Check in with the rangers for information regarding that route.
Capitol Reef National Park will request that you pay a US National Park fee ($5 for a day/week pass, $50 for an annual pass) to use the Scenic Road. There are no requirements for climbing permits. Backcountry camping is allowed and actually free, but requires that you pull a permit at the ranger station in Fruita. Climbers using chalk are required to use chalk which closely matches the color of the surrounding rock. The use of white chalk is prohibited. Due to the abundance of prehistoric rock writings, the section of the rock wall north of Utah Hwy 24 between the Fruita Schoolhouse (Mile 80.6) and the east end of the Kreuger Orchard (Mile 81.4) is closed to climbing. In other areas, climbing is not permitted above or within 100 feet of rock art panels or prehistoric structures. Other areas closed to climbing are: Hickman Natural Bridge and all other arches and bridges, Temple of the Moon, Temple of the Sun, and Chimney Rock.
When To Climb
Climbing during the summer is very hot as temperatures frequently reach the upper 90's to near 100 degrees (higher and cooler than other sections of the Utah desert). Carry plenty of water. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. Sandstone is weak when wet, so avoid climbing in damp areas or right after a rain.
The Fruita Campground is an oasis of sorts. Surrounded by historic orchards, this developed campground has 70 RV/tent sites, each with a picnic table and grill, but no hook-ups. An RV dump station is located near the entrance. Heated restrooms are available. The nightly fee is $10.00. Open year-round, the Fruita Campground is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef National Park and as a result usually fills by early to mid-afternoon during the visitor season. They do not take reservations.
The Cedar Mesa Campground is located approximately 35 miles south of the Visitor Center on the Notom-Bullfrog Road. This primitive, no-fee campground has five sites, each with a picnic table and fire grate. There is also a pit toilet, but no water is available. The campground is open year-round, but visitors should check with the Visitor Center for road conditions prior to planning an overnight stay.
The Cathedral Campground is located approximately halfway on the Cathedral Valley loop road which traverses Capitol Reef's Cathedral District. Located about 36 miles from the Visitor Center, this primitive, no-fee campground has six sites, each with a picnic table and fire grate. There is a pit toilet, but no water available. The campground is open year-round. This campground is at approximately 7000’.
Desert camping restrictions are much different than those in more forested alpine areas. You are not to collect firewood or build ground fires. You are not to 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 1/2 mile or in sight of roads or trails. Be careful that you are not camping in a flash flood area.