Capitol Reef National Park flies criminally under the radar when it comes to Utahn national parks. Of Utah’s Mighty Five, Capitol Reef might be the most overlooked. Compared to Utah’s other national parks, there aren’t really any iconic destinations in Capitol Reef that lure the casual tourist in. Well, at least none at the level of Angel’s Landing or the Narrows in Zion, or Delicate Arch at Arches. That makes a lot of people wonder, is Capitol Reef National Park worth visiting? Absolutely. In lieu of a single iconic attraction, Capitol Reef has an abundance of unforgettable hikes and breathtaking sights.
With a fraction of the tourists that other national parks get, Capitol Reef National Park might be the perfect destination for an outdoors getaway during the Coronavirus pandemic. The first thing I noticed about Capitol Reef was how it was less developed than other national parks I’ve been to. Dirt road, rocky trails, and few facilities to be seen throughout. Hell, they didn’t even have an entrance gate or ranger collecting entry fees. It is truly a national park for the more adventurous soul. A trip to Capitol Reef is social distancing at its finest.
How To Get To Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is located in southern Utah’s desert, along with the other national parks. I know this doesn’t make much sense, but it feels both like the most central and most remote national park out of Utah’s Mighty Five. It’s only two hours away from both Moab and Bryce Canyon, but feels much more off the beaten path than any of the other national parks in Utah.
From Salt Lake City, it takes about 3.5 hours to get to Capitol Reef’s Visitor Center. If you’re coming from the other national parks, it is a bit closer. From Moab, it takes about two hours to get to Capitol Reef. From Bryce Canyon, it also takes a little over two hours to get to Capitol Reef.
Where To Stay In (and Around) Capitol Reef National Park
The closest town to Capitol Reef National Park is the small village of Torrey. It’s an old-fashioned, one road town that is absolutely cute as hell. I’ve been to Capitol Reef National Park twice, and have stayed in both the town of Torrey and the Fruita Campground within the park.
Capitol Reef’s Fruita Campground might be one of my favorite national park campgrounds. For $20 a night, you can camp in the shadows of Capitol Reef’s colossi, alongside lush orchards and gentle wildlife. The campgrounds have bathrooms, filtered water, and free all-you-can-pick fruit from the orchards. Well, as long as you eat it on-site. There’s a small fee if you want to take the fruit home with you. The only thing missing from Fruita Campground is cell signal. It’s only a short 5-minute drive over to Goosenecks viewpoint, where you can get a few patches of LTE.
In the town of Torrey, you’ll find a range of accommodation. I stayed at the Capitol Reef Inn a few years back. It was pretty barebones but I remember it being very cozy. The nice thing about Capitol Reef being relatively overlooked is that it is easy to find cheap accommodation. You can find private cabins for as low as $50 a night. Compare that to a week earlier when I was in Jackson, Wyoming where $50 a night barely got you a campsite.
Capitol Reef also has a wide variety of free campsites, although they will be much more difficult to get to for the average vehicle. Cathedral Valley, Elkhorn, Singletree, Pleasant Creek, Oak Creek, and Cedar Mesa are other campsites in the area. Fruita Campground has a reservation system. The others are primitive campsites and are first come first serve. Backcountry permits are free and allow you to camp outside of the campgrounds.
The Best Things To Do in Capitol Reef National Park
Hike Up To Cassidy Arch
Named after the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy, this arch is arguably Capitol Reef’s most iconic attraction. Rumor has it that this area used to be a hideout for Butch Cassidy and his gang. I totally believe the rumors. When you first lay eyes on the arch, it just screams “supervillain lair”. Like, could Butch have picked anywhere more obvious? I can just picture lawmen rolling up to Capitol Reef, seeing the arch, and arresting Cassidy while he wonders how the hell they knew where to look.
The hike up here is moderately challenging, but worth it for the views. This arch is one of my favorites of the many arches you’ll find in the American Southwest. Make sure to do this hike early in the day as it will be unbearably hot in the afternoon.
Drive Through Cathedral Valley
Alas, the sorrows of not having a high-clearance vehicle. Despite being high on my bucket list, I wasn’t able to visit the Cathedral Valley region of Capitol Reef National Park. Cathedral Valley is absolutely otherworldly, but more difficult for the average visitor to get to. It requires a lengthy drive through some difficult terrain that the average car won’t be able to navigate. If you’ve got a 4WD high clearance vehicle, then you might want to consider driving the Cathedral Valley loop. Make sure to set aside the entire day for this. The 60-mile loop is monstrous, especially when you’re unlikely to go faster than 20 miles per hour for many sections.
Just driving the loop will take several hours alone. But you’re going to want to get out of the car every once in a while. This remote section of the park is home to some of the most otherworldly views you’ll find at Capitol Reef. The highlights that I marked on my map were Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, and the Bentonite Hills. After paying $750 a few days prior to get my car fixed, I wasn’t entirely trusting of it to get me through the 60-mile loop where I’d be exposed to the elements and stranded without signal if anything were to happen. Please, go see it for me.
Here’s the best guide I’ve found online for doing the Cathedral Valley loop.
Wander Along The Grand Wash Trail
Think “The Narrows” in Zion National Park but without any water. It’s a beautiful hike where you’ll be surrounded by desert slot canyons and unique geological formations. It gets extremely hot, though, and it’ll be about a mile before you find some shade. Thankfully, once you reach the narrow canyons, you’ll have plenty of shelter from the blistering sun. The scenery here is otherworldly, to say the least.
Follow The Path of Pioneers at Capitol Gorge
This hike itself was pretty average if you’ve already done the Grand Wash trail. It’s more of the same, in terms of scenery. However, the real highlight of this hike is the Pioneer Register. About half a mile into the trail, you’ll find a wall where pioneers from the late 1800s and early 1900s etched their names into the wall. It’s really cool to see, and a surreal feeling being able to say that you walked the same paths that early pioneers did over a hundred years ago.
Marvel at Hickman Bridge
You’d think I’d be over arches by this point of my Utah adventure. Well, luckily for me, this isn’t an arch but a bridge. I see absolutely no difference between the two. The hike to Hickman Bridge starts flat along a river before arriving at a steep incline. It flattens out once you become level with the arch, although the trail is easy to lose. Look for the numbered posts, if you happen to get lost. You’ll be exposed to the elements the entire way through, so it’s best to do this hike early in the morning or around sunset.
Catch a Sunset at Goosenecks and Sunset Point
These two viewpoints are right next to each other, so I’ll lump them together. Goosenecks is a short walk, barely a tenth of a mile. It’s called goosenecks because of the narrow, extremely curvy bends of the river below. They resemble a goose’s neck, although it may be hard to see from this high up.
The parking lot for Goosenecks and Sunset Point are the same. Sunset Point is a little more of a hike, although still pretty short. Round trip, it adds up to a little over half a mile. I recommend being here about an hour and a half before sunset. That’s when the rays of the sun start to bask the landscapes in a golden glow. Once it gets closer to sunset, the fiery landscapes start to lose their color. Capitol Reef is at its best when the sun amplifies its already vibrant colors.
See Thousand-Year-Old Petroglyphs
One of the coolest things you’ll see at Capitol Reef are petroglyphs from the Native Americans who settled here nearly 2000 years ago. Ancestors of the Hopi tribe left behind carvings dated as early as 300 C.E. that can still be seen on the canyon walls. It’s really fascinating to see and read about the history of the tribes that once made their home in this surreal region. The entire trail is on a wooded path and it’s not much of a hike, making it an easy activity for anyone.
Wander Through Historic Fruita Village
The Mormon settlement of Fruita is the hub of Capitol Reef National Park. From old schoolhouses to photogenic barns, the remnants of the Mormon settlers add a fascinating facet to this national park. Make sure to stop at the famous Gifford House for some pies. I had one pie in Capitol Reef four years ago that I still think about every day. Some of the highlights, aside from pie, include the schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and all of the orchards that you can roam through and pick fruit from.
Drive The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
A little bit past the Fruita campground, the famed scenic drive of Capitol Reef begins. You’ll be able to branch off towards some of Capitol Reef’s best hikes, but the drive itself is chock full of views. Plus, you get to stay in the car and out of the sizzling heat. While hiking is the best way to get on the ground and see Capitol Reef, sometimes, you just gotta stay where the air conditioning is. The scenic drive is eight miles long and completely paved, making it the most accessible activity in the park.
For a quick summary of the hiking trails in Capitol Reef National Park, I’ve compiled them below in terms of difficulty.
Easy Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
- Goosenecks and Sunset Point
- Capitol Gorge
- Grand Wash
Moderate Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
- Cassidy Arch
- Hickman Bridge
- Cohab Canyon
Harder Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
- Rim Overlook (extends into Navajo Knobs trail)
- Chimney Rock Loop
- Fremont Gorge Overlook
- Golden Throne
- Frying Pan
- Old Wagon Trail Loop
Safety Tips For Capitol Reef National Park
Bring Way More Water Than You Think You’ll Need
This is the desert. Temperatures in the summer reach well over 100 degrees and shade is hard to come by. My first day at Capitol Reef, I was feeling ambitious and decided to take on a couple of hikes shortly after arriving around noon. By the end of the second hike, I was feeling faint and sick from the constant exposure to the sun.
Sometimes, I feel like a camel. I’ve done plenty of long hikes hardly touching my water bottle. Not at Capitol Reef. I was going through my water like crazy. Combining the high altitude with extreme heat, it is easy to quickly run out of water. The National Park Service recommends at least one gallon per person per day, although I’d personally suggest bringing more. Since Capitol Reef is less developed than Utah’s other national parks, you’ll only find potable water at the campgrounds and visitor center. There won’t be any at trailheads or along the trails. Come prepared to survive.
Keep An Eye on the Weather, Steer Clear When It’s Storming
One of the craziest things about Capitol Reef is that no matter how dry it may seem, flash floods are quite common. Even a short rainstorm can result in washed out roads that may leave you stranded in the parking lot or on the trails. Slot canyons in particular are dangerous to be in during a storm. If you’ve seen 127 Hours starring James Franco, you know. Hopefully, you don’t have to cut your arm off, but you don’t want to be in the area when a flash flood rips through the canyon.
Keep Wildlife Wild
Staying in a campground surrounded by lush orchards, it was no surprise that animals would stop by frequently. I saw more deer at Capitol Reef than at any other national park. Since they’re used to being in close proximity to humans, many of them aren’t scared when humans get close. Even if the deer come up to you, that doesn’t justify interacting with them. Don’t feed them or pet them. Wild animals can be unpredictable, and even deer are more than capable of harming you when they get spooked.
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Where To Go After Capitol Reef National Park
Like I said earlier, Capitol Reef is a bit of a paradox. It feels super out of the way, yet centrally-located at the same time. It is definitely the most remote of Utah’s national parks, but a worthy detour if you’re already on a Utahn national parks trip. It borders Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. It is two hours each away from Moab and Bryce Canyon. The options are limitless for where to go next. Here are some suggestions based on where I’ve already visited in Utah.