Despite being a massive 971 km², Capitol Reef National Park has really managed to keep a low profile. Unlike Grand Canyon, you’ll find uncrowded trails and plenty of solitary things to do in Capitol Reef. The line of cars entering Zion piles up, while there’s not even an entrance gate here. Campsites are filled up by hardcore photographers slipping into their retirement years and the kind of people who use RVs as a lifestyle rather than a method of travel. The park is a bit less developed than the rest of the Utah Parks so many visitors only pass through on a day trip. But for those who choose to stay?
The park will reveal itself to be a pretty damn fantastic stop on a Utah road trip. There’s so much to see in Capitol Reef and it’s definitely underrated.
Highway 24 snakes the length of Capitol Reef, winding carefully past sedimentary rock in every shade of red; some of it is 200 million years old. The park is mostly arid desert, yet extraordinarily, the more than 3,000 trees planted by early settlers still produce fruits and nuts each year. There’s more slickrock, slot canyons, and Navajo sandstone formations than you can really even imagine. But if you really want to see what makes Capitol Reef so special, you’ll have to go up. Up high enough to see the 160 km Waterpocket Fold, abend in the earth’s crust, supposedly so massive it’s visible from space.
Ready to check out Capitol Reef? From best hikes to campsites to things to do in Capitol Reef, here’s everything you need to know.
AT A GLANCE
Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah. It was established as a park in 1971 to protect a big stretch of desert and the Waterpocket Fold. Inside the park’s bounds, you’ll find Fruita Rural Historic District, a settlement long inhabited by Mormon settlers. It is remarkably well preserved, so some of the more novel things to do in Capitol Reef are to visit the homestead or pick fruit in one of the orchards. There are also more than 200 miles of trails ranging from easy day hikes to hardcore backpacking routes and a handful of scenic drives.
Entrance to Capitol Reef costs $20 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, or $10 per individual (by foot, bicycle), but if you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands. The park relies on a self-service kiosk rather than a ranger station, so be sure to keep your receipt on display while you’re visiting the park.
When to visit: Capitol Reef is open year-round, but campsites are only available from May to October. The park gets cold in the winter and hot in summer, so travel outside of the extreme months for the most comfortable trip.
Planning ahead? Campsites for May through October are bookable six months in advance. You’re required to get a backcountry permit for backcountry camping, but permits are free and available on a walk-up basis at the Visitor Center.
REASONS TO DIG CAPITOL REEF
The park may be enormous, but most of the things to do are just off of Highway 24. Capitol Reef doesn’t suffer from overcrowding as much as the other Utah parks, and the people who visit are generally more courteous. Here are some of the highlights.
The Waterpocket Fold
Everyone talks about it, but what the hell is a waterpocket fold? Basically, it’s a 160km bend in the otherwise stable Colorado Plateau that runs from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. The layers of rock are upended which creates a sloping effect from the highest point in the west all the way to the east some 2,100m below.
The fold is super impressive to look at, either from above or on a backpacking trip through the canyons. If you go backpacking within the fold, you’ll find canyons intersected by side canyons; they’re best explored north and south as east to west travel can be quite difficult.
Scenic drives always seemed lazy to me, but Utah made me believe.
There are two major scenic drives in Capitol Reef. Highway 24 winds in from Torrey and takes you past some of Capitol Reef’s most iconic formations. But even when you’re not eyeing The Castle or Chimney Rock, the drive is full of beautiful desert landscapes, red rocks, and a surprising amount of green.
The other drive in Capitol Reef is simply named Scenic Drive. It runs 8 miles north to south from the Visitor Center to Capitol Gorge. It’s super unusual scenery and looks a bit like a mined area with heaps of red dirt and gargantuan rocks slipping down from towering cliffs.
Capitol Reef is the only national park I’ve ever heard of that offers fruit picking. From June to October, the park’s some 3,000 fruit and nut trees in Fruita Rural Historic District are ripe and free for the picking. The area was occupied by Mormon homesteaders up until 1969 and their well-preserved legacy is a desert oasis.
Visiting outside of harvest? Stop by Gifford Homestead for a fruit pie that at least offers a taste of what you’re missing.
HIKES IN CAPITOL REEF
Capitol Reef has quite diverse hiking opportunities, though the fifteen trails off of Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive see the majority of the foot traffic. You can choose to hike upward for sweeping views of the park or into narrow gorges to get a sense of what millions of years of erosion look like. Here are a couple of the best hikes in Capitol Reef.
Upper Muley Twist Canyon (23.8 km)
The Upper Mulley Twist Canyon is an overnight backpacking trip that runs along the spine of the Waterpocket Fold. Park at the trailhead and it’s an easy hike to Saddle Arch. From there, it’s a rim loop that can be hiked in either direction (counterclockwise is recommended if you want to knock out the hard part!). The Upper Muley Twist Canyon is a good showcase of all of Capitol Reef’s geographical features ranging from narrows to canyons to stretches of slickrock. It’s also got stellar views!
Keep in mind that the Upper Muley Twist Canyon is a rugged trail marked only by rock cairns in some places. It’s important you make adequate preparations and navigate carefully. Also, be sure to get a permit and check current conditions at the Visitor Center before you begin; slot canyons are a bad place to be in a flash flood!
Rim Overlook & Navajo Knobs (15 km)
The Rim Overlook Trail starts from the same trailhead as the popular Hickman Bridge hike, but don’t let the crowds throw you. After just .5km, the trail splits right and you’ll start your climb along yellow-gray slickrock to the Hickman Bridge Overlook.
After the overlook, the climb gets a lot more scenic. You’ll follow rock cairns indicating the trail until you get to the ledge that overlooks Highway 24 and the obviously named formation “The Castle”. Continue to hike along the rim until you make your final ascent to the sandstone Navajo Knobs. You’ll hike down the same way you came. While rangers warned that highway views and car noises might distract from our experience, we found it was still really excellent.
HOW TO GET TO CAPITOL REEF
The nearest airports for Capitol Reef are Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT), Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), or McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas. It’s another 3-3.5 hours from the airport to Capitol Reef if you fly into Grand Junction or Salt Lake City, or a full 5.5 hours if you’re coming in from Las Vegas.
While there are a couple of bus routes that will get you near the park, all of them are very long and inconvenient. I’m confident in saying you really need a private vehicle to visit Capitol Reef.
GETTING AROUND THE PARK
There’s also no shuttle service in Capitol Reef meaning you’ll need your own vehicle to get around.
Fruita Campground | Want to sleep in a desert oasis? With 71-sites, Fruita is the only developed campsite in Capitol Reef and it is surrounded by fruit tree orchards. Each site has a firepit and picnic table, and you’ll have access to restrooms with a flush toilet. Sites from $20 per night.
Cathedral Valley Campground | Cathedral Valley is a six-site primitive campground in the foothills of Thousand Lake Mountain. Sites are basic with a picnic table and fire pit. You’ll have access to a pit toilet, but no running water. Open year-round but check with the Visitors Center to understand conditions. Free, available on a first-come-first-served basis.
Cedar Mesa Campground | Accessible on the Notom-Bullfrog Road, Cedar Mesa Campground is a five-site primitive campground. Sites are basic with a picnic table and fire pit. You’ll have access to a pit toilet, but no running water. Open year-round but check with the Visitors Center to understand conditions. Free, available on a first-come-first-served basis.
Airbnb | Want something a bit more interesting? There are a couple of cabins and even a wagon for overnight stays in Torrey. New to Airbnb? Get $40 off your first stay or explore other properties from $50.