Capitol Reef National Park: The Complete Guide

Capitol Reef National Park formations

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Capitol Reef National Park

Address
Utah, USA
Phone +1 435-425-3791

The sweeping vistas of towering red mountains and shocking blue sky, slot canyons, gnarled sandstone rock bridges and arches, and fruit orchards of Capitol Reef National Park explain why its one of the top-visited national parks in the U.S.

Roughly 60 miles long, Capitol Reef—named in part after the park's whitish sandstone cliffs, whose dome formations mimic the architectural features of capitol buildings—is open year-round. However, March to June and September to October are the busiest seasons in the park because the weather is perfect for hiking and camping.

This complete guide to the beautiful and secluded desert landscape covers must-see points of interest, must-do activities like stargazing, best hiking trails, campgrounds, how to get there, and logistics like park fees and accessibility.

History

From approximately 800 to 1250 A.D., a northern corner of the region was home to the indigenous Fremont. They abandoned their fields and settlements suddenly, likely due to drought. Many years later, the Paiutes moved into the area for a spell. The same access to water from the Fremont River, the natural shelter from the elements provided by steep canyon walls, and the fertile valley soil also attracted Mormon pioneers in the 1880s. They settled Junction, which became known as Fruita. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated 37,711 acres of land as a national monument, and the park grew in popularity after nearby Utah Highway 24 was built in 1962. The National Parks Service (NPS) began purchasing private land at Fruita and Pleasant Creek in the late '60s, and officially declared Capitol Reef as a national park in 1971. Today, the NPS protects its 241,904 acres of land, including a big portion of the Waterpocket Fold, a spiny geologic monocline (AKA a wrinkle in the earth) almost 100 miles long.

Fremont River

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Things to Do

First-time explorers should start at the visitor center at the intersection of Highway 24 and Scenic Drive. Although the park film, "Watermark," is currently online only and the exhibits are under construction, the park bookstore, ranger desk, and passport stamp station are available. You can also purchase backpacking permits or grab junior ranger booklets (available in 14 languages) here. The Ripple Rock Nature Center is also worth a visit. It hosts free activities, mostly aimed at children, such as nature talks, pioneer games, and a junior geologist program. It’s typically only open in the summer months.

Historic orchards containing more than 3,000 fruit and nut trees grow a couple of miles from the visitor center, and during peak harvest season, there are u-pick opportunities. The Gifford Homestead, a relic of pioneer settlement, is now a museum and store. Open from March 14 to October 31, it’s known across the Beehive State for its fresh fruit pies, ice cream, and cinnamon rolls. History buffs should also make a point to visit the one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith’s shop, and the large and pristine Fremont petroglyph panel (1.5 miles from the center and a short boardwalk hike) left by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people. 

Outdoor activities aplenty can be done in this park, such as hiking, canyoneering, rock climbing, biking, and horseback riding. Visitors can also tour several main areas of the park using their car. Auto touring routes include Scenic Drive (which winds through the middle of the park into Capitol Gorge), Notom-Bullfrog Road (which takes you to the eastern side of the Waterpocket Fold), and Cathedral Road, an unpaved road that passes the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

Ranger program availability differs throughout the year. There are daily geology talks and an evening program around sunset daily from May to October. From late June to October, guided hikes, full-moon walks, and star talks are held frequently. 

Hickman Bridge

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Best Hikes & Trails

Capitol Reef has trails to please every level of hiker, from easy strolls under arches to steep climbs near cliff edges. Day treks, most of which can be found in the Fruita section, range from 0.25 miles to 10 miles. Backcountry trails, on the other hand, are longer and minimally marked.

Before picking a hike, remember to consider the elevation and how it compares to the altitude where you live—if you aren’t used to it, even easy paths can become more taxing. Many trails have little or no shade and summer temperatures can soar into the 90s, so it might behoove you to hike in the early morning.

Some favorites include:

  • Morrell Cabin Trail: This is a good choice for families as it is less than a half-mile long, rated easy, and takes about 30 minutes to complete. It also passes by a historic and educational cowboy cabin used from the 1930s to 1970.
  • Hickman Bridge: The trail’s namesake is a 133-foot natural bridge with canyon views. Although it’s less than a mile long, its rating is moderate.
  • Capitol Gorge: An easy mile through a deep canyon past historic inscriptions. From there, it’s a short climb to natural water pockets/tanks. 
  • Cassidy Arch Trail: This challenging 1.7-mile trek leads to a spectacular natural arch.
  • Fremont Gorge: A steep 2.3-mile climb deposits hikers on the mesa top, ending with a viewpoint along the gorge rim.
  • Chimney Rock Loop: A strenuous 3.6-mile loop with an elevation gain of 590 feet, this trail is fantastic around sunset thanks to its panoramas of the Waterpocket Fold cliffs.
  • Red Canyon Trail: Located in the Waterpocket District, the easy-to-moderate 5.6-mile route is surrounded by sagebrush flats, a low ridge with views of the Henry Mountains, an old dugway into Red Canyon, a sandy wash flanked by Cottonwoods, and an amphitheater of high sandstone walls.
  • Frying Pan: In the Fruta section, use this trail to connect Cassidy Arch, Grand Wash, and Cohab Canyon for an 8.8-mile round trip. The Cohab section is rated moderate, but Cassidy and Frying Pan are strenuous.
  • Halls Creek Narrows: This 22-mile trail is demanding and best done over three or four days, but those who stick to it will be rewarded with cottonwood groves and steep-walled slot canyons. The narrows are always filled with some water, and can even be deep enough to require wading or swimming. It’s located in the remote southern tip of the park. Other popular backcountry trails include Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyon and the Jailhouse and Temple Rock route in Cathedral Valley.

Rock Climbing, Bouldering, and Canyoneering

In recent years, there’s been an upswing in climbing and canyoneering interest in the park. But it isn’t for the inexperienced as the rock type varies wildly between super crumbly entrada to hard Wingate. You must obtain a day-use permit for each climbing zone for each day. Permits are free and can be obtained in person at the visitor center or by email. Climbing zones of note include Capitol Gorge, Chimney Rock Canyon, Cohab Canyon, Basketball Wall, and Ephraim Hanks Tower. 

Canyoneering trips often involve some combination of navigating tight canyons, scrambling over boulders, scaling rock faces, hiking, swimming, rappelling, and technical rope work. Like climbing, permits are required, and each canyoneering route needs a separate permit; these can be obtained the same aforementioned ways. 

Horseback Riding

The recommended routes for horseback riding include Halls Creek, South Desert, and South Draw Road. Horses may only be kept overnight in the Post Corral equestrian staging area in the South (Waterpocket) District. To ride in the park, you must obtain a backcountry permit in person from the visitor center.

Stargazing

Thanks to its secluded location and clean air, Capitol Reef is a great place for stargazing. It has been a certified International Dark Sky Park since 2015. The annual Heritage Starfest features guest speakers, telescope viewing, and more. It is typically held near a new moon in September or early October. The best places to stargaze include Panorama Point, at the top of the Burr Trail switchbacks, and Slickrock Divide.

Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef NP

John McAnulty / Getty Images

Where to Camp

There are several places to set up camp within the park’s borders. 

  • Fruita Campground: Open March 1 through Oct. 31, the 71-site Fruita Campground is the main option. Surrounded by historic orchards and sitting next to the Fremont River, it’s also gorgeous. Each site has a picnic table, and a fire pit or grill. None have individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups. Restrooms have running water and flush toilets, note that there are no showers. An RV dump and potable water filling station are also available. Sites must be reserved through Recreation.gov; it costs $25 a night as of March 2022.
  • Capital Reef NP Group Campsite: This group camping area near Fruita can accommodate up to 40 people and costs $125 a night. It can be reserved up to a year from the arrival date. 
  • Cedar Mesa Campground: This free primitive campground is at 5,500 feet in elevation and is located 24 miles from SR-24. It has five spots with a picnic table and fire grate, no water, and a pit toilet.
  • Cathedral Valley Campground: Located 36 miles from the visitor center and at 7,000 feet above sea level, Cathedral Valley Campground has six sites with the same limited amenities as Cedar Mesa. Sites are free.

You can also get a little more adventurous by camping on one of the six main backpacking routes. Any camping done outside of official campgrounds requires a permit, which you can get for free at the visitor center. Privately owned camping and RV parks are also available in Torrey, Caineville, and Hanksville. Nearby BLM land also runs campgrounds in the Boulder Mountain area on SR-12.

Where to Stay

There are no accommodations inside the park. If you prefer not to rough it, Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef, has lodging, restaurants, and tourist services. A few hotels to look into are the Red Sands Hotel, Cougar Ridge Lodge, and Capitol Reef Resort. The latter also offers glamping in covered wagons.  

Gifford Homestead, Capitol Reef NP

Miroslav_1 / Getty Images

How to Get There

The park is located off of SR-24, 11 miles from the town of Torrey. It’s 218 miles from Salt Lake City and takes 3.5 hours to drive between the two. The regional airport in Grand Junction, Colo., is closer than SLC International—only 187 miles from the park—but has fewer flights. SkyWest also offers limited flights into Moab’s Canyonlands Regional Airport, which is only a two-hour drive from Capitol Reef. 

For a great scenic drive, take the 123-mile SR-12, which crosses the Dixie National Forest, goes by Bryce Canyon National Park, and cuts through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. You’ll need three hours to drive between Bryce to Capitol Reef.

Accessibility

Much of the park can be explored without leaving your vehicle. It also has several features making it more accessible including:

  • The visitor center has an entrance ramp, reserved parking, and accessible restrooms. The movie is closed captioned. 
  • Five accessible sites are located near the restrooms at Fruita Campground. 
  • The picnic area on Scenic Drive has designated parking and restrooms. 
  • The Fremont Culture petroglyphs are accessible by a boardwalk. A few other trails, Fruita Schoolhouse, and Merin-Smith Implement Shed are also accessible.
  • Service animals are allowed.

Tips for Your Visit

  • CRNP charges a fee for traveling the Scenic Drive beyond the Fruita Campground. Seven-day passes are $10 per pedestrian or bicyclist, $20 per car, and $15 per motorcycle. There is an annual pass for $35. Guests can also use the system-wide annual America The Beautiful passes. Purchase passes online in advance, or pay at the self-service tube at the beginning of the scenic drive. 
  • The park is open 24 hours a day year-round. However, the visitor center's hours are reduced in the winter, and it is closed on major holidays. 
  • Snow or inclement weather can make some roads impassable, and narrow canyons should be avoided if it has been raining or there is a threat of rain because of potential dangerous flash flooding. Capitol Reef averages 7.91 inches of rain annually, with much of that falling during the summer monsoon season (July to September).
  • Pets are allowed on leash in developed areas of the park, such as campgrounds, unfenced orchards, picnic areas, and the Fremont River Trail. They are not allowed in buildings, the backcountry, or on other trails. 
Article Sources
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  1. International Dark-Sky Association. "Capitol Reef National Park (U.S.)" Retrieved on February 18, 2022.

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Capitol Reef National Park: The Complete Guide