38.0877° N, 111.1355° W
IF YOU ARE LOOKING TO AVOID CROWDS AND HAVE A TRULY OFF THE BEATEN PATH ADVENTURE ON YOUR NEXT TRIP TO UTAH, THEN WE CANNOT RECOMMEND CHECKING OUT CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK ENOUGH. LEARN WHY BELOW.
With way more popular neighbors like Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park (the latter of which usually ranks as one of the 5 most visited national parks in the whole USA), it is easy to understand why Capitol Reef National Park has somehow stayed under-the-radar. It seems that in such a beautiful state as Utah - where two-thirds of the land is federally owned - it can be rather hard for one natural area to stand out. Seriously, Capitol Reef National Park might just be one of the best-kept secrets in all of Utah.
Because of the national park's location - smack dab in the middle of canyon country and smushed between other, more popular outdoor recreation areas - it is not only beautiful, but also pretty quiet. More often than not when visiting you will have much of the park to yourself: no congested hiking trails, no loud campgrounds, no backed up traffic. In a time where many national parks are getting busier and busier, it is kind of refreshing to experience one that doesn’t feel like Disneyland.
So if you are an adventurer looking to get a bit more off-the-beaten-path, then we highly recommend adding Capitol Reef National Park to your travel bucket list (and definitely if you are planning a southern Utah road trip, like this one).
Below you will find our top tips to help you have an absolutely amazing trip to Capitol Reef.
ADVENTURING IN CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK | WHAT TO KNOW
There are a lot of outdoor adventure options in Capitol Reef National Park - from the rather chill to the extreme, we are sure you will find something to do during your visit. In our opinion, one of the best things to do is go canyoneering.
We believe that some of the best canyoneering routes in Utah (a state teeming with amazing canyons), can be found in this desert national park, including Cassidy Arch, Stegosaur Slot, and The Wives (all five of them). If you have any experience with canyoneering or are down to try it with a guide, then Capitol Reef is an amazing place to start and/or expand your repertoire and experience.
Now, don't worry if canyoneering seems a bit too adventurous for you (totally fair - rappelling off a 50-meter cliff is not for everyone). There are still a lot of other adventures to be had within the park's boundaries, including hiking, biking and scenic driving.
A couple of the best hikes in the park are the aforementioned Cassidy Arch (you don’t have to rappel off the arch if you don't want too), the Chimney Rock Loop, and the Sulphur Creek Trail. For more hikes in the Fruita area - the historic center of the park - check out this helpful list.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: while the main historic area of Fruita - where you can still see the old schoolhouse, orchards, and cabins (and even buy fresh pie and cinnamon rolls in the summer) - is worth visiting, we instead suggest heading to the farther reaches of Capitol Reef to get a better idea of the park's uniqueness and beauty.
If hiking isn't your cup of tea, then consider hopping in your car and driving out to explore some of the park's more rugged areas - including the famous Cathedral Valley. Below is an outline of two of the best off-road routes.
\\ Top Scenic Drives in Capitol Reef National Park
This district of the park is incredibly remote and rugged, meaning you should only try to explore it when you are 100% prepared: you have a full tank of gas, plenty of water, and enough food to last a couple days (for if you break down it might take a few days for help to arrive).
While the roads out to Cathedral Valley aren’t too rough, it is a long drive (around 57 miles). The loop, which many do clockwise, usually takes 6-8 hours to complete. While some people do it in a single day, we instead recommend breaking it up into two (more time to sightsee) and spending the night in the Cathedral Valley campground (do know that it is quite primitive and there is NO water).
A couple of the top highlights in Cathedral Valley are checking out the Walls of Jericho and the Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Stars (huge rock monoliths that shoot up from the desert floor towards the heavens above).
THE WATERPOCKET FOLD
Located in the southern region of the park (Cathedral Valley is up in the north), this driving route takes you through the famous Waterpocket Fold, which is notable for its great length of multiple layers of colorful exposed sedimentary rock.
This is also the region that gave the park its name: the Navajo Sandstone domes resemble the Capitol building, hence the name "Capitol,” while many early prospectors to the area were former sailors who likened the vertical cliffs of the Wingate Sandstone to a barrier common in nautical travel, aka a "Reef."
If planning on doing the whole Waterpocket Fold loop - which is 124 miles total - then we suggest starting really early in the morning (the loop usually takes 4-6 hours to complete). To start the scenic drive, first head out on Highway 12 (a Scenic Byway, and once named the second prettiest drive in the WORLD) towards the town of Boulder. From there turn onto the Burr Trail Road (you will find it at the main intersection of town). You will stay on the Burr Trail Road for about half of the drive. It is dirt, but not too rough (there is one set of steep switchbacks but that is about it in terms of technicality). This dirt roads twists and turns through empty, red dirt and juniper-filled desert landscapes, and gives you an awesome up close view of the large rock walls that is the Waterpocket Fold.
Eventually, you will get to a junction with Notom-Bullfrog Road. Here you have to make a decision: either head back north (left) towards the national park, or head south (right) towards the town of Bullfrog, which sits along the bank of Lake Powell.
💬 INSIDER TIP: If you want to check out these two roads but want to up the ante a bit, then consider exploring them on a mountain bike. Just as with a car, make sure you are 100% prepared for any and all issues.
Capitol Reef is an absolutely beautiful national park. With marvelous scenery, rich history, and lots of outdoor exploration - not to mention some of the darkest skies around - Capitol Reef might just be Utah’s best-kept secret. So grab your best hiking boots, a tent and a good amount of gumption and head out to one of the best national parks in the USA.
If you have any questions about visiting Capitol Reef National Park - or any of the other Mighty 5 National Parks - then please leave a comment below or reach out to us directly.