Capitol Reef National Park is an extraordinary park in southeast Utah. Most people quickly drive through the Park on their way to Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks via Highway 24. Merely going through on National Scenic Byway 12 (Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon) may lead you to miss many of the Park’s desert gems! We put together this guide for visiting Capitol Reef National Park along with everything you need to know! Keep reading to find inspiration for all the things you must see in Capitol Reef National Park.
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From Moab, Utah, Capitol Reef is about two hours to the west, southwest. Hanksville is the nearest town to the east, though Torrey is located a few minutes west of the west entrance and considered Capitol Reef’s gateway.
From Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef is about two hours north, northeast.
This national treasure is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, making it an exciting desert location to explore. The towns mentioned above have mostly built up for tourism over the years.
Here is the NPS map for Capitol Reef National Park.
Yes, you can drive through Capitol Reef National Park! Since Scenic Byway 12 (HWY 24) goes right through the Park, people tend to drive straight through and do the main pull-offs along their way sightseeing “Utah’s Mighty Five.” Only road tripping through the Park on Utah Highway 24 and pulling off for a few quick photos takes about an hour to an hour and a half.
However, there is so much more to see! Keep reading, and don’t miss all these things to do in Capitol Reef.
The Capitol Reef National Park entrance fee is $20. Be sure to purchase the Annual National Park pass if you will be touring multiple National Parks in one year to save some money!
The Park does have a visitor center located next to the historic Fruita Orchards. There are restrooms, places to get fresh water, a bookstore and gift shop, along with historical information.
If you plan on doing any backcountry hikes requiring permits, the visitor center is where you’ll meet with Park Rangers to register.
Capitol Reef is one of our favorite National Parks in the U.S. In fact, we had our first camping date here, and it has a very special place in our hearts!
Besides driving through on Scenic Byway 12, Capitol Reef has so much to offer. Here are all of our favorite things to do and what to see in Capitol Reef National Park!
While you’re near the Visitor Center, stop and walk over to see the Petroglyphs. You will see a roadside attraction sign. The petroglyphs are on the north side of HWY 24.
Check out the Fruita District, orchards, and history. The trees have fruit in the summer!
Capitol Reef has fifteen day hikes to explore.
There are also epic backpacking routes in the backcountry.
Most of my hiking was in the backcountry when I did a summer internship after my senior year of college, doing plant surveys and biological soil crust surveys. Capitol Reef is insanely beautiful off the beaten path!
Add these epic scenic drives to your Utah road trip! Below are the main three:
South of Fruita, drive the paved 21-mile scenic drive (there and back). It will take about an hour to an hour and a half to check out all the shortstops and sights. Visit the Gifford Farmhouse, orchards, take in views of the Freemont River, Historic Fruita School, Grand Wash, Egyptian Temple, and Capitol Gorge. This scenic drive is one of the leading day trip attractions!
On the east side of the Park, head south onto Notam-Bullfrog Road. The road is well marked so you can’t miss it! This drive will take you to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Bullfrog Marina. Along the Notam Scenic Drive, you’ll find incredible geology and views of the Waterpocket Fold in Utah.
We used to love driving this road after a weekend camping at Lake Powell!
Another personal favorite and where we had our first camping date, explore the north side of Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold and South Desert. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to drive from Scenic Route 12 (HWY 24) into Cathedral Valley. There are two ways to access this area or the road loops. The first access point requires crossing the Freemont River (only recommended if you have a four-wheel-drive high clearance vehicle and weather conditions permit). The second access point is via Cathedral Road and it may not be marked. It is about 28 miles to the Cathedral Valley primitive campground, and Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook from Highway 24.
This northern area of Capitol Reef is a magical place where the Thousand Lake Mountains meet the desert. In Cathedral Valley, visit Capitol Reef’s famed desert monoliths Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon along with the Gypsum Sinkhole. Only go if you have a reliable vehicle and are comfortable and experienced in the backcountry.
The best time for visiting Capitol Reef National Park is in the Spring or Fall. Summers can be in the triple digits and get pretty hot if you plan to hike. If you don’t plan on hiking or getting off the beaten path, you can really enjoy the Park year-round.
Keep weather and soil moisture in mind… I know that is a weird comment, but the soils have a lot of clay, and when clay gets wet, it is not very fun to hike or drive-in, especially if you are backcountry and off the beaten path.
To avoid the crowds in Capitol Reef, visit during the middle of the week. Early spring and late fall have fewer crowds too. The winter is also quiet and tranquil.
Places to stay near Capitol Reef National Park include camping at Cedar Mesa or Cathedral Valley Campground. Visitors can also find lodging in Torrey, Utah. All of the hotels near Capitol Reef National Park are going to be in Torrey.
We have spent so much time in Capitol Reef! Along with our adventures, I worked here for a summer internship.
Below are some of our pro tips for having a great time visiting Capitol Reef National Park!
The pass is $80 and good for the year if you plan to visit at least four to five National Parks in a year.
Wear light wicking layers to protect your skin from the desert sun. The elevation of Capitol Reef National Park is around 5,000 feet, which means more sun exposure.
On less windy days, while hiking, brace yourself for potential gnats. Don’t worry, though; just get this desert gold sun salve and smear it where gnats like to bite (ears, corner of the eyes, sides of the mouth), and they won’t bite you in those places!
Don’t let this comment discourage you! We are just setting you up for epic success while hiking!
You can spend as little as an afternoon or as much as three days.
Spend an afternoon cruising the scenic drive, checking out Fruita as well as the roadside petroglyphs.
Or spend a few days camping, exploring the extended scenic, more backcountry drives, along with day hikes.
When visiting Capitol, pack lots of layers! Being in the intermountain desert means it could be cold in the morning, hot and sunny during the day, then rain (or snow) out of nowhere, especially in the spring. We recommend planning for all types of weather.
Here is a checklist of what we pack in our road trip waterproof duffle bags:
If you plan on camping and are curious about what to pack, check out our other post on what to bring for tent camping.
Capitol Reef is such an underrated National Park in Utah. It has so many desert gems tucked away off the beaten path! We hope this post inspires you to spend some quality time there! Have fun exploring the scenic routes and roads less traveled.
Have a great trip.
Ashlee & Pablo
Exploring Utah? Check out our posts to help you plan the best Utah road trip:
Are you planning on visiting Capitol Reef National Park? Feel free to ask us any questions. It is one of our favorite places.
Have you been to Capitol Reef? What was your favorite part?
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