38.0877° N, 111.1355° W
NOT ALL OF UTAH'S 5 NATIONAL PARKS ARE VISITED EQUALLY - AND FOR SOME REASON CAPITOL REEF NP HAS STAYED UNDER THE RADAR. HERE IS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL PARK.
Utah is full of incredible sites to see. From the mountains in the north, to the Great Salt Lake, to the red rocks of canyon country, the Beehive State sure knows how to pack a punch. The only downside? Millions of people know this, meaning many of the top places to visit are completely overrun with tourists during the busy season. Luckily, a few spots have avoided becoming a natural Disneyland - including one of our all-time favorite national parks, Capitol Reef.
This park, located in the middle of famed Canyon Country, is drop dead gorgeous: colorful striped rock walls, massive arches, wide open desert vistas, exciting canyons and even a historic pioneer town, which, if you come in the right season, even has fresh fruit and pies. So if you are looking for a real off-the-beaten-path Utah adventure, then follow our in-depth guide on Capitol Reef National Park.
\\ Fast Facts
Year Established: 1971
Size: 378 square miles
Number of Visitors: in 2020 981,038 people visited the national park
Cost to Enter: $20 for a private vehicle, $15 for a motorcycle, $10 for a bicyclist or pedestrian (all valid for 7 days)
\\ History of Capitol Reef National Park
The area of Capitol Reef National Park has been a homeland to people for thousands of years. The Fremont Culture went from being a food foraging group to farmers of corn, beans and squash around 500 CE. Eventually, explorers, Latter-Day-Saint (Mormon) pioneers, and others arrived in the 1800s, settling in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District. They planted and nurtured orchards of apples, pears, and peaches - which you can still see (and eat) today.
In 1933 a local man named Ephraim Portman Pectol, who had recently been elected to the Utah legislature, contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked for the creation of "Wayne Wonderland National Monument '' out of the federal lands that comprised the bulk of the Capitol Reef area. FDR signed a proclamation creating Capitol Reef National Monument on August 2, 1937, though it would take until 1943, when local historian Charles Kelly began his stint as a volunteer watchdog of the park, to have anyone staffing the area. Kelly worked as a volunteer until 1950, when the NPS finally offered him a civil-service appointment as the first superintendent of the park. The first official park ranger was Grant Clark, who had transferred over from neighboring Zion National Park. The year Clark arrived (1958), fifty-six thousand visitors came to the park. The first facilities were built in the 60s, including the Fruita campground and visitor center. The park eventually received national park status in 1971.
\\ When to Visit
The busiest times to visit are between March-June (spring) and September-October (fall). This is when the weather is the nicest (not too hot and not too cold). But because of that you will have to deal with other visitors, and while the park never gets crazy busy (it isn’t Zion National Park), it can still fill up, especially in the main valley/Fruita area.
Now if you are planning to do more off-the-beaten-path activities (like canyoneering) then this doesn’t really matter. But if you are planning to do some of the more popular hikes, then the amount of people could kind of be a drag. So instead, consider visiting in the off-season.
We have adventured in the park during November, and while the nights were cold (quite cold) during the day it was really nice. If you can bring a warm sleeping bag or sleep in a van/RV then November is a great time to explore the park. Or go the opposite way and visit during the end of summer (August), where you will just have to plan around the heat of the day (early morning or late evening adventures).
\\ How to Get to the Park
What makes Capitol Reef National Park so special is the feeling that you are way off in the middle of nowhere Utah desert. In fact, you really are. This park is not easy to get to, which in our books, only adds to its appeal.
The closest airports (with driving times) are Salt Lake City (3.5 hours), Denver (6.5 hours) and Las Vegas (5 hours). Your best option is probably to fly into one of those cities and then rent a car. Or if you have a car and are looking to road trip then you are quite central in Southern Utah: Moab is 2 hours away, Lake Powell is 4 hours away and Zion National Park/St. George is 3 hours away.
\\ What to See
While at first the park might seem entirely inhospitable and unable to sustain life, in truth, Capitol Reef is a haven for numerous animals, including over 200 types of birds, 50+ mammals, 6 species of snakes (including a midget rattlesnake), and 5 various amphibians.
Some of the most common animals you will see include Peregrine Falcon, Common Raven (these guys will destroy your campsite if you aren’t careful), mule deer (especially in the Fruita area), yellow bellied marmots, and various lizards. While rattlesnakes do roam (slither) around the park, we have never seen one and we have heard from rangers that they are quite rare.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you are likely to see the landscape change from being rather bleak and dry, to lush and colorful. Capitol Reef, like many areas of Utah, comes alive in the spring. If visiting during the months of April and May, you will likely encounter various wildflowers; including, the Utah Penstemon (a vibrant red-pink flower), Indian Paintbrush (a bright orange-red flower), and Showy Milkweed (a white-purple flower) as well as many more.
Other common plants include various cacti, with the most observable being yucca, prickly pear and fishhook cactus.
Points of Interest
| Fruita: The Capitol Reef area wasn't charted by explorers until 1872, although people had lived in this region for thousands of years previously. Towards the last half of that decade, Latter Day Saints (Mormon) settlers moved into the region and set up a small town at the junction of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. While the first landholder was Nels Johnson, soon many others followed. Eventually a community sprang up and became known as Junction. Mail was even delivered to a central Fremont Cottonwood tree, known as the "Mail Tree" - which still stands in the picnic area today. In 1902 they changed the name of the town to Fruita - after the amount of orchards planted there (and which still stand today).
While it doesn’t take too long to explore what is left of Fruita, it is a fun option for people curious about the park’s history - or people who just want to pick some fruit and maybe buy a locally made pie.
| Petroglyphs: the Fremont Culture lived in the region for about a thousand years (300-1300 CE). One of the most visible aspects of their culture that remains in the park are walls of petroglyphs (images carved or pecked into stone). You can visit the walls along two boardwalks, both accessed from Highway 24.
\\ The Best Adventures
Capitol Reef National Park has a large number of hiking trails available, from the easy to the more difficult and all the way to multi-day backpacking trips. Some of the best trails to head out on include:
| Cassidy Arch (also see for canyoneering): 1.7 miles roundtrip, moderate difficulty, great views of a massive natural arch
| Chimney Rock Loop: 3.6 miles roundtrip, moderate difficulty, great views of Waterpocket Fold cliffs and excellent for sunset
| Hickman Bridge: 0.9 miles roundtrip (but there is an option to go farther), an overall easy hike with good views of Fruita below
| Halls Creek Narrows: 3.8 miles roundtrip, multi-day backpacking route that follows Halls Creek Drainage, a year-round stream of water. While the distance is not crazy long, there is a lot to explore in the area - so take your time. Learn about other backpacking routes here.
One thing to remember about hiking in Capitol Reef is to come prepared for the oftentimes intense heat. Make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat - for there is very little shade to be found out in the desert. We always try to hit the trails as early as possible, not only to avoid the heat of the day, but more so to avoid other people. Plus, during the early morning hours you are more likely to see wildlife.
We really fell in love with this park because of all the incredible canyoneering opportunities that can be found within its boundaries. For us, canyoneering is one of the best ways to get off-the-beaten-path and explore an area that is likely to be way more wild and untouched. Some of our favorite canyons are:
| Cassidy Arch: while it is a great hike on its own, what makes Cassidy Arch so special is the first rappel. You actually hike up to the very edge of the natural arch and then hook in and rappel along its edge. It is a free hang (meaning you don’t “walk” down the wall) and while it is a bit nerve wracking at first (it is a tall rappel) it is also just incredibly fun. Highly, highly recommend this one.
| Stegosaur Slot: What makes this canyon so fun, and 100% worth doing, is not the rappels, but the crazy tight slot canyon that doesn’t require a harness, but instead some grippy shoes, strong knees and a daring attitude.
| The Wives: consisting of 7 shorter canyons, all of which are side drainages of the larger Cohab Canyon, The Wives really only takes about an hour or so to do once the approach is made. The best one is Wife 5, though if you have the time Wife 3 is good as well. One thing to note about Wife 5 is that some of the downclimbs can be a bit tricky (higher jumps than you might feel comfortable with).
Learn about other canyoneering options, as well as more information on these three routes here.
GOOD TO KNOW: Permits are required for canyoneering. Free day-use permits can be obtained in person at the visitor center or via email. A separate permit is required for each canyoneering route.
Getting out on your bike is a great way to explore the park at a much quicker speed. While you can ride along the trails that crisscross the Fruita area, we suggest instead heading out on the two dirt scenic roads: the Cathedral Valley Loop and Notom/Bullfrog Road.
| Cathedral Valley Loop: measuring 57.6 miles long, this loop explores the most rugged area of the park. What makes this area so special are the insane rock formations, including massive monoliths with epic names like Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. In Upper Cathedral Valley, columns of spire-like formations dominate the landscape, making you feel as if you have been transported to another world. If you don’t feel like doing the whole loop in a day, you can camp halfway at the primitive first-come campground (see below).
| Notom-Bullfrog Road: running parallel to the eastern slope of the Waterpocket Fold, this dirt road offers great views of the Golden Throne and other “muffin” or “biscuit”-shaped formations in the sandstones. You can do just the Notom-Bullfrog Road - which measures between 30-41 miles (depending on where you start) or do the full Loop the Fold route, which measures 123.7 miles.
\\ Where to Stay?
Camping Inside the Park
There is only one developed campground within the park, the Fruita Campground. Consisting of 71 sites, this is the most central camping option for the park. Each site has a picnic table and firepit and/or above ground grill, but there is no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups available. It costs $20 per night.
Another option are the two undeveloped campgrounds in the park, both of which are much less central - but (maybe) more beautiful. One is the Cathedral Valley Campground, which consists of 6 primitive, no-fee sites, each with its own picnic table and fire grate. There is a pit toilet, but no water available. To reach this campground you head out on Cathedral Valley Road (see above on more information) for 28 miles (halfway). The second option is the Cedar Mesa Campground, located along Notom-Bullfrog Road (23 miles from Highway 24). This campground has the same amenities as Cathedral Valley, though only 5 sites instead of 6.
Camping Outside the Park (BLM Land)
One amazing thing about Utah, and this region of the state in particular, is the incredible amount of BLM and National Forest land available. For people who might not know, camping is free (about 99% of the time) on BLM and National Forest lands. Capitol Reef National Park is surrounded by both, most notably Dixie National Forest.
There are a couple of rules and things to know before setting up camp anywhere though. Including, making sure to follow ALL Leave No Trace Principles, camping in already established spots (including not building a new fire ring), following current fire restrictions, and not camping more than 150 from an already established road or route. Also, for the most part these sites will not have any services (water, bathrooms, etc.) so make sure to bring everything you might need.
Staying in Torrey
The closest town to the park is the small town of Torrey, located 11 miles to the west. Here you can find various RV parks, campgrounds and 2-3 star hotels. This is also some spots to fuel up on gas, grab some groceries or stop at one of the small, locally run restaurants.
Staying in Hanksville
Another option is to drive to Hanksville, located along Highway 24 to the east about 37 miles. About the same size as Torrey, Hanksville is a pretty funky little town. Stop in at the Hollow Mountain gas station - which as the name suggests - is a gas station inside a large hollowed out mountain. There are a couple of hotels available, and a campground on the edge of town. Tip: get your caffeine fix at Outlaw’s Roost, where they serve up some tasty cold brew coffee.
\\ Must-See Spots Nearby
Goblin Valley State Park
Located just over an hour away to the east, this state park is another must-see spot on any Utah road trip itinerary. Stop in to see the world-renowned hoodoos, large rock structures that resemble mushrooms. You can camp, hike, canyoneer and even play disc golf.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
If you are looking to head more south, then consider planning to spend a bit of time in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, one of the largest federally preserved lands in the state. One of the best ways to understand why this part of Utah's Canyon Country is so special, is to take the scenic byway between the towns of Boulder and Escalante - which some people call the prettiest drive in the USA.
Or you can head towards the small town of Bullfrog, which sits on the shores of Lake Powell - otherwise known as Glen Canyon Recreation Area. You can either drive 2 hours on the highway, or if you want another desert adventure, put aside about 4 hours and take backcountry roads - including the beautiful Notom-Bullfrog Road.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Finally you have the option to head out and visit one of the other four national parks in Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park. This scenic spot is just over 2 hours away, and is another great area to get a bit lost in. From there you can continue on to Zion National Park.