Capitol Reef National Park is a spectacular and yet the least visited of all national parks in Utah. That alone should make you jump at the opportunity to visit this place, but if you are still wondering about it, keep on reading.
Away from Moab and a distance from the Interstate-70, this remote national park sees only a fraction of visitors and offers an entirely different experience compared to other national parks in Utah.
I visited Capitol Reef after making stops at four other Utah National Parks, and immediately regretted that I didn’t do it sooner. Capitol Reef has no crowds, and offers mind-blowing landscapes and cool hiking trails that meander through narrow slot canyons and take you to scenic vistas that only a few people get to see.
Spending half a day at Capitol Reef is definitely an option if you are a short on time, (or want to see only a few highlights of the park), but the best way to explore Capitol Reef National Park is by spending a couple of days here.
In this article, I will talk about the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park as well as give you my tips on when to visit to avoid the crowds, where to eat and how to explore some of the best hikes in Capitol Reef.
PRO TIP: If you plan to visit other national parks in Utah, but don’t know where to begin, read my complete guide to the best West Coast National Parks that will help you plan your itinerary.
Best hotels in Capitol Reef National Park
Most Capitol Reef hotels are located in Torrey at the western entrance of the park, but there are also a couple of accommodations in Loa, a tiny community west of Torrey.
Capitol Reef Resort is a good option if you are looking for great amenities and excellent food available at a restaurant on site.
There are also many less expensive options like Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel, the Noor Hotel at the edge of the Capitol Reef National Park or Sand Creek Cottage with private parking, kitchen and home-style feel about 18 miles from the park.
Camping at Capitol Reef National Park
If you want to see the clear dark skies, camping is one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park. Fruita Campground is the only campsite within the park, limited to 71 sites with no hook-ups that can be reserved online.
Torrey also has several campgrounds, in case Fruita campground runs out of space. Sandcreek RV Park sits on the outskirts of Torrey and has spots for RV’s and tents; Cedar Mesa Campground is a primitive campground with fewer spots in Torrey, and Wonderland RV Park is the most popular option for RV’s and campers thanks to amenities such as restrooms, showers and laundry.
America The Beautiful National Parks Pass
If you plan on visiting Capitol Reef, there’s a good chance you will also visit other National Parks in Utah. Get America The Beautiful National Parks Pass which costs only $80 and can be purchased at nay national park or online.
PRO TIP: Download an offline map of Capitol Reef National Park ahead of your visit or grab a paper map at the visitor center. Cell phone service is non-existent in many areas of the park, and you will not be able to look up directions or check anything online.
Getting to Capitol Reef National Park
The closet major airport to Capitol Reef National Park is 172 miles away in Salt Lake City. But you can also fly into Las Vegas, which is 327 miles away from Capitol Reef National Park, since it’s a convenient starting point to all national parks in Utah.
Renting a car for your trip to Capitol Reef National Park
To visit Capitol Reef National Park as well as other Utah national parks, you will need a car.
Whether you decide to rent an RV or a regular car depends on your plans. If you are looking for an RV, check out RVshare, a website with a great selection of all sorts of RVs, and if you are looking for a regular car, book it on DiscoverCars, one of my favorite websites for car rentals.
How long does it take to drive through Capitol Reef National Park?
The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is a 7.9 mile paved road. It tales about 1,5 hours to drive the Scenic Drive and the two dirt roads Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge that spur off.
Best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park: an overview
Before you start planning your trip to Capitol Reef National Park, let’s go over some of the park’s highlights. This will help you to plan your adventure and better understand how and where to spend your time at this national park.
1. Camp at Cathedral Valley District
Camping is one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef, and Cathedral Valley District is the top place for it.
This rugged district dominated by the three sandstone monoliths sits in the northern part of Capitol Reef National Park, and offers a perfect getaway if you are looking to escape busy areas of the park. The Cathedral Valley Loop spans for 58 miles and takes an average 4-5 hours to drive around.
To get to Cathedral Valley District, you will need a 4X4 and since the drive is pretty long, I recommend camping there, especially if you want to capture magical sunrise over the valley.
How to get to Cathedral Valley
To access Cathedral Valley, you can use one of three access points. I will provide more details about distances and important locations in the “Tour” section, but here is how to get to them:
River Ford– Get off Utah 24 about 2.7 miles east of the park boundary, onto a dirt road that reaches the Fremont River in less than half a mile. You will get on Hartnet Road, which leads about 33 miles to Cathedral Valley Junction in Upper Cathedral Valley, but you will need a high clearance vehicle for that.
Caineville Road– Get off Utah 24 onto a signed dirt road about 9.5 miles east of the park boundary. This road leads about 26 miles to Cathedral Valley Junction in Upper Cathedral Valley and also passes Lower Cathedral Valley.
Last Chance Road– Take Exit 91 off Interstate-70 and follow the main trunk road for 27 miles. Make sure to download an offline map, if you decide to go this route, as many parts of the road are intuitive and signage is not very good.
2. Learn history through Fremont Petroglyphs
One of the coolest things about Capitol Reef National Park is that you don’t have to hike for hours to see the historic petroglyphs. You can actually see some incredible historic wall off the main road less than 5 minutes away from the visitor center. This is one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park if you want to learn the history of this area
3. Enjoy the views along Highway 24
Highway 24 is the main road in the Capitol Reef that runs east to west. Although it is about 16 miles long, it definitely feels a lot longer mostly because of the awesome scenery along the way.
If you are driving from the east you will first see massive red walls with cliffs and star drop-offs. When you pass Capitol Reef Visitor Center, and arrive in Torrey, the scenery will give way to sprawling mesas with quirky rock formations and high desert vegetation.
4. Drive on Loop the Fold
Exploring Waterpocket Fold, the ancient geologic formation, is one of the best under-the-radar things to do in Capitol Reef National Park.
Loop the Fold is the road that takes you around water pocket fold and begins at the Notom Bulllfrog Road before the entrance to the park. Unlike Cathedral Valley, you can do this drive in a regular car, however, during winter or monsoon season, a 4X4 is necessary because the road is unpaved.
One of best things about this scenic drive is the variety of cool slot canyons along the way some of which are very easy to reach such as Surprise Canyon and Headquarters Canyon.
In case you decide to drive the entire loop, you will arrive at Burr Trail Road with a series of switchbacks leading to incredible overviews. I particularly recommend taking a hike to Strike Valley overlook from where you can enjoy panoramic views of the area.
This is by far one of the most remote areas of the Capitol Reef National Park, where very few visitors go and it makes for one of the most wonderful experiences as you will have most of the trails to yourself.
If you plan on spending your day in this part of the park, bring plenty of water, snacks and a map.
5. Make a stop in Fruita
No visit to Capitol Reef is complete without a stop at Fruita, a historic town that was a home of early Mormon pioneers who settled in this remote part of Utah. Here you will find the only campground in Capitol Reef, get to see the historic Fruita barn and try delicious pies and sweets at Gifford House.
6. Pick fruits at Fruita orchards
One of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park is picking fruits in the Fruita orchard!
There are many fruit trees and from spring to early fall you can pick cherries, apricots and apples for free or for a nominal fee. When I was visiting the orchard, there was also a group pf horses right nearby which was really cool.
7. Take Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
Another highlight of Capitol Reef, this 8-mile scenic route begins in Fruita and ends near Capitol Gorge Road showing you some of the most incredible views along the way. If this is your first visit to Capitol Reef, allow extra time because you will most likely will want to pull over and take some photos.
Since this is one of the most popular things to do in Capitol Reef National Park, plan this scenic early morning before it gets busy.
8. Enjoy sunset from Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlooks
After you spend your day hiking and exploring Capitol Reef, head over to Sunset Point and Goosenecks overlooks, a cool vista that can be reached via a short trail from the parking lot accessible via gravel road.
While Sunset Point is just a short walk up the hill, Goosenecks overlook is about 0.3 miles away and can be reached via dirt trail. Plan to spend about 30-40 minutes here to take in the views before heading back to your hotel or campground for the night.
Watching the sunset from this place is one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef to wrap up your day.
9. Check out Waterpocket Fold
Fun fact: Capitol Reef National Park is home to water pocket fold, an impressive rock formation and the most defining feature of the park that originated about 50-70 million years ago.
This “wrinkle” spans over 100 miles through the park and creates a stunning landscape of red-rock cliffs, mesas, domes and canyons.
The only paved road in the park that allows to see Waterpocket Fold is Highway 24. You can also see the fold by hiking the Burr Trail along the Notom Bullfrog Road that runs parallel to the fold.
The erosion of watrepocket fold continues to this day, in fact, the word water pockets is referred to the many basins that have formed in sandstone layers eroded by water. Since these basins are common throughout the area, hence the name, water pocket fold.
Exploring this area is one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National park off the beaten path!
Best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park
If you want to do some of the best hikes at Capitol Reef, camp and spend time outdoors, visit Capitol Reef from May through September. Capitol Reef is not as hot as Canyonlands or Arches in summer, and can be a bit cooler if you are hiking at higher altitudes, but you still should carry plenty of water.
While June through August is the busiest time and the monsoon season lasts from mid-July through early August, affecting hiking conditions. September is the best time to visit the park when the dry and sunny weather creates perfect conditions for hiking. Mid-to-late fall and winter are considerably slower in Capitol Reef due to colder temperatures.
Still, you can visit the park during November and enjoy all the space as there will be only a handful of people at the park.
Best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
Most visitors know Capitol Reef National Park thanks to a handful of highlights such as the Fruita Barn, Capitol Reef Scenic Drive and the ancient petroglyphs, but there are many more things to do in Capitol Reef National Park aside from that.
During my visit to Capitol Reef National Park I kept wondering about why this park doesn’t see more visitors. Many hikes at Capitol Reef National Park that I took were nearly empty, which might be something you want to do after visiting some of the busiest national parks in Utah.
1. Cohab Canyon
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Surprisingly few people know about Cohab Canyon, and yet, this is one of the best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park. The trailhead to Cohab Canyon takes you right above Fruita and begins near the main road. Since the hike is a bit steep in the beginning, it’s better done from March through October when the trail is clear from snow.
2. Cassidy Arch
Length: 3.4 miles
Cassidy Arch is one of the best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park, but there are a few things to know since the trail runs through the deep canyon. I made a mistake when I visiting Capitol Reef National Park in late July and started my hike at noon and had to turn around about half way because of the flash flood warning.
GOOD TO KNOW: If you want to visit Capitol Reef in summer, be aware of the monsoon season that lasts mid-to-late July through September and often brings torrential rain in the afternoon making it dangerous to hike through narrow slot canyons.
Unfortunately, Utah National Parks and surrounding areas see deaths every year during this time, because many people are unaware of the dangers that come with flash floods.
To avoid the monsoon season, do this hike in September or early October or early summer when temperatures are still mild, the sunshine is plentiful and there are almost no chances of rain.
The hike to Cassidy Arch will take you 400 feet above the Scenic Drive and the nearby Grand Wash Trail. Although this is not a technical hike, make sure to wear shoes with good grip and carry plenty of water.
3. Hickman Bridge
Length: 1.8 miles
One of the best short hikes at Capitol Reef National Park, Hickman Bridge is a perfect option if you are short on time. The trailhead begins at the parking just a few miles down from the Capitol Reef visitor center. Be sure to arrive early, as the trail can get busy by late morning/early afternoon.
4. Navajo Knobs
Length: 9.5 miles
One of the most strenuous hikes at Capitol Reef National Park, Navajo knobs gains a whopping 2,100 feet of elevation, so prepare plenty of water and snacks for your hike! The trail first takes you to Rim Overlook and continues from there to one of the best panoramic overlooks in the entire park.
5. Capitol Gorge Trail
Length: 1.5 mile
This easy trail is perfect retreat on a hot summer day thanks to plenty of shade created by the steep canyon walls that surround it. Here, you can also see the famous Pioneer Registry, or the historic graffiti, with the names of early settlers who passed here in late 18th center etched into the wall.
To reach the trailhead, you will need to take Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive all the way to the end.
6. Grand Wash Trail
Length: 4.8 miles
One of the most impressive (and underrated) hikes at Capitol Reef, Grand Wash takes you through a huge canyon that gets more and more narrow as you keep going. While you can hike the entire length of the canyon, you can also turn around and go back at any point.
7. Combine Grand Wash with Cassidy Arch and Frying Pan
If you have extra time, hike a stunning 10.4 mile loop trail that offers some of the best scenery of the park. While the majority of visitors to Capitol Reef choose shorter hikes, this trail offers the taste of the ultimate adventure as you will see few people and will be able to enjoy jaw-dropping landscapes all around you.
8. Sunset Point
Length: 0.8 miles
As the name suggests, Sunset Point is one of the best areas for catching the sunset and the trail leading there is super easy. You don’t have to watch until the evening to come here because the views here are fantastic at any time of the day.
I recommend combining Sunset Point with a 0.2-mile Goosenecks overlook trail right nearby. These are the best easy hikes at Capitol Reef National Park
9. Chimney Rock
Length: 3.6 miles
One of the lesser knowns hikes at Capitol Reef National Park, Chimney Rock trail takes you above the stunning bright red valley and into the canyon. The hike has a steep ascent that leads you to a flat mesa and flattens out after that. The highlight of this hike is the tall chimney rock near the side of the canyon wall.
10. Cathedral Trail
Length: 2.5 miles
Cathedral trail is one of the best easy hikes in Capitol Reef that offers superb views of the giant sandstone towers in the Cathedral Valley. The hike culminates at the top of the hill from where you can get a nice overlook of the entire valley. If you can get up early enough, do this hike before the sunset to catch the amazing glow of the sun over the valley.
Most frequently asked questions about Capitol Reef National Park
How much time do I need to Capitol Reef?
I recommend between 2 to 4 days at Capitol Reef National Park. Two days is enough to enjoy some of the best things to do in Capitol Reef and do some of the most popular hikes such as Cassidy Arch, Hickman Bridge and leave enough time for one strenuous hike.
Four days is a good amount of time if you are looking to get outside the beaten path and explore Cathedral Valley District, drive Loop the Fold and do a combination of longer hikes at the park.
Is Capitol Reef worth visiting?
If you are still in doubt, I’m here to tell you that Capitol Reef National Park IS worth a visit!
The park is characterized by towering cliffs, deep canyons, sandstone bridges, and is a true outdoor playground. It’s also home to Waterpocket Fold, a unique geologic formation that stretches for over 100 miles.
Cool places to visit near Capitol Reef National Park
One of my favorite places to visit near Capitol Reef National Park was Goblin Valley State Park. This underrated state park is located to the east of Capitol Reef, about 30 minutes north of Hanksville. Goblin Valley is a stunning place, with several easy hikes, but it can be very hot in summer, so bring enough water, because there are no stores here and facilities are limited.
How to spend one day in Capitol Reef?
If you have only one day at Capitol Reef National Park, you can do a combination of scenic overlooks and easy-to-moderate hikes such as Cassidy Arch, Hickman Bridge or Cohab Canyon in the morning.
Make a stop in Fruita to explore the historic district and try delicious pies at the historic Gifford House and drive through the the park to enjoy the scenery and learn about the park’s history through petroglyphs and the geology of the water pocket fold.
Head over to Sunset point to round up your day to relax and catch the colors of the setting sun – you can still enjoy some of the best things to do in Capitol Reef, even if you have limited time.
Best restaurants in Capitol Reef National Park
You will probably get a little bit hungry toward the end of the day after enjoying some of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park. There are several restaurants in Torrey from Subway to a couple of good sit-down eateries.
La Cueva Restaurante – a classic Mexican restaurant with a good variety of items aside from tacos and burritos. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, this place is a must stop, as awesome people in the kitchen can modify some dishes by taking out meat and cheese.
The Rock Garden Eatery and Bar – a great option for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Rock Garden Eatery in the Red Sands Hotel has tons of options on their fresh farm menu. This place boasts rave reviews and great atmosphere, so consider checking it out.
Chak Balam Mexican Restaurant – located on the outskirts of Torrey, Chak Balam is a small restaurant near Sandcreek RV Park. The menu offers enchiladas, fajitas, nachos, burritos and relleno among other dishes. Although this places receives fewer visitors than other restaurants in the middle of Torrey, it’s definitely worth a stop if you want delicious Mexican food.
Final word on best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park
Located away from the major travel route, Capitol Reef is one of the least visited national parks in Utah. It boasts wonderful hiking trails, clear dark skies and some of the best scenery. Make sure to add this national park to your Utah itinerary!
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