When first-time visitors arrive in Southern Utah, they’re often surprised to see that the red rock desert landscape is much more alive than you might expect. But while it’s true that the red rock peaks and cliffs make for some beautiful landscapes, the region is also home to alpine forests, lush expanses, the green orchards of Fruita—and plenty of wildlife.
There are a wide variety of animals that call Southern Utah home. In Capitol Reef, lucky visitors might have the chance to spot several different mammals, as well as lizards, snakes, and more. If you’re visiting Capitol Reef National Park and Chuckwagon Lodge this year, keep reading to learn some of the wildlife you might see.
Perhaps the most common mammal you’ll come across while visiting Capitol Reef National Park or anywhere in Utah is the rock squirrel. These small, furry creatures are abundant anywhere food and shelter can be found. Watch for them scampering over rocky surfaces in search of water and food sources.
While they may share a name with their midwestern and Canadian counterparts, rock squirrels are often larger, reaching up to 21 inches in length. Their tails are less bushy than most of their non-desert relatives as well. During the summer months, rock squirrels are most active during the morning and evening, and may hide away once the heat of the day sets in.
While these small creatures may look innocent enough, you should never approach or feed them. Like any other rodent species, they carry diseases that could be transmitted to humans through direct contact.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, one animal that you’re unlikely to see while visiting Capitol Reef National Park is the mountain lion. But while you might not get to see one, this is another mammal that’s native to the park and much of Southern Utah.
Mountain lions are the largest predators in the region. However, they don’t pose much of a threat to visitors. That’s because they are incredibly secretive, hiding out in mountainous areas and rarely coming near populated areas. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t practice caution, especially when hiking on remote trails.
Never hike alone, particularly at dawn and dusk. If you’re hiking with children, always keep them close and don’t allow them to play in heavy vegetation or near river banks. If you do ever see a mountain lion, do not approach it or try to run from it. Do what you can to appear as large as possible and stay where you are.
Another common sight in Southern Utah is the mule deer. These adaptable mammals are some of the largest in the region. You’ll spot them grazing in open fields, especially during the morning or late evening when the weather is cool. Once the sun climbs into the sky and temperatures begin to rise, they too seek shelter in the rocky terrain.
Mule deer are largely afraid of humans, so you usually won’t have to worry much about maintaining your distance; they’ll do that for you. However, during their mating season or “rut,” male mule deer battle each other to establish dominance and may become aggressive towards humans at this time. Another threat that mule deer pose is to drivers; collisions with automobiles in the park are not just deadly, but common. This is another good reason to always drive with caution while visiting Capitol Reef National Park.
Bighorn sheep are a symbol of Utah. They thrive on the rocky cliff faces of Capitol Reef, Zion, and elsewhere in the state. But while these beautiful creatures are often used in advertisements for the region, sightings of them aren’t as common as you might think.
While bighorn sheep are a somewhat-rare sight in the region, they were once even more so. Once considered extinct in Capitol Reef, 40 of the species were taken from Canyonlands National Park and placed in Capitol Reef in the 1990s. They were also reintroduced in Arches National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at this time. Since then, the herd has increased in numbers. Your best chances at spotting one while visiting Capitol Reef National Park are in the southern end of the park and in the areas to the south and east of Fruita, including Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash.
A beaver might be the last animal that you’d expect to see while visiting Capitol Reef National Park. But while they aren’t commonly associated with desert landscapes, head to the Fremont River in Capitol Reef and you might just spot a beaver.
Beavers are mostly nocturnal, making them tough to spot during the day. But keep your eyes open for their wooden dams, which resemble clumps of sticks and mud assembled into large piles near ponds. You might also spot tracks in the mud, or the telltale signs of their teeth on downed trees.
Other Mammals You Might See While Visiting Capitol Reef National Park
These aren’t the only mammals you might get lucky enough to spot while visiting Capitol Reef National Park. Some other animals you could see include:
- Gray fox
- Canyon bat
- Yellow-bellied marmots
- White-tailed antelope squirrel
Some animals are easy to spot in certain parts of the park, at different times of day, or even at different times of year. You can always stop by the Capitol Reef Visitor Center to talk with a ranger about where your best chance of spotting a certain animal is.
Planning Your Visit to Capitol Reef
If you’re lucky enough to see a bighorn sheep or even a herd of mule deer while visiting Capitol Reef National Park, it’s important to make sure that you’re enjoying these animals from a safe distance. Getting too close can cause unnecessary stress on these animals, and they could react by charging or biting, putting you and anyone near you at risk. But viewing and taking pictures from a safe distance is a great way to enjoy these animals and observe them in their natural habitat.