Top Things to See While Visiting Capitol Reef National Park
Are you planning on visiting Capitol Reef National Park? Capitol Reef is an extraordinary park in southeast Utah. Most people quickly drive through on their way to see Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks via Highway 24. However, merely driving through on National Scenic Byway 12 (Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon) may lead you to miss many of this park’s desert gems!
I worked as a summer intern for the National Park Service here years ago. We’re sharing the best things to do when you’re passing through! Keep reading to find inspiration for all the wonderful things you’ll want to see.
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Where is Capitol Reef?
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.
Capitol Reef National Park Map
Check out the National Park Service to get maps for Capitol Reef National Park.
Can You Drive Through Capitol Reef National Park?
Yes, you can drive through the park! Since Scenic Byway 12 (HWY 24) goes through the park, people tend to drive straight through and do the main pull-offs along their way sightseeing ‘Utah’s Mighty Five.’
If you simply want to road trip through the park on Utah Highway 24 and pull off for a few quick photos it takes about an hour to an hour and a half. However, there is so much more to see here!
How Much Does It Cost?
The Capitol Reef National Park entrance fee for a private vehicle is $20.
Be sure to purchase the annual America the Beautiful National Park pass if you will be touring multiple national parks in one year – the pass will save you money!
Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center
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.
Things to Do
Capitol Reef is one of our favorite national parks in the U.S. In fact, Pablo and I had our first camping date here. 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.
View the Petroglyphs
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 even 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. I did plant and biological soil crust surveys here. Capitol Reef is insanely beautiful off the beaten path.
Speaking of soil surveys, be sure to stay on the trails to not damage the precious biological soil crust.
Do the Scenic Drives
There are three main areas to drive throughout the park:
1. The Scenic Drive
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.
2. Notam-Bullfrog Road
On the east side of the park, head south onto Notam-Bullfrog Road. The road is well marked so you can’t miss it. The 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.
3. Cathedral Valley Road
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.
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.
Note: Only go here if you have a reliable vehicle and are comfortable and experienced in the backcountry.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Capitol Reef?
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. You can get stuck!
How to Avoid the Crowds
To avoid the crowds, visit during the middle of the week. Early spring and late fall have fewer crowds as well. The winter is also more quiet.
Where to Stay When Visiting Capitol Reef
Camping at Capitol Reef
Places to camp in Capitol Reef National Park include:
- Fruita Campground
- Cedar Mesa Campground – primitive camping
- Cathedral Valley Campground – primitive camping
Hotels Near Capitol Reef
Visitors can also find lodging in Torrey, Utah. All of the hotels near Capitol Reef National Park are going to be in Torrey. Hanksville is really small and you basically just drive through.
If we are not camping, we like to book hotels through booking.com. You can find awesome deals and see what is available in the area with one easy search.
Tips Visiting Capitol Reef
Below are some of our tips for having a great time visiting.
Purchase the Annual National Park Pass
The pass is $80 and good for the year if you plan to visit at least four to five national parks in a year.
Summers Can Be Really Hot
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.
There are Gnats
In the late spring and summer, on less windy days, while hiking, brace yourself for gnats. Don’t let this comment discourage you. We are just setting you up for success while hiking. If you are doing a long backcountry hike, you might even want to get a bug net for your head.
How Many Days Do You Need to Explore?
You can spend as little as an afternoon or as much as three days. Spend an afternoon cruising the scenic drive, checking out Fruita, and the roadside petroglyphs. Or spend a few days camping, exploring the backcountry drives, and day hikes.
What to Pack
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 I pack:
- Duffel bag
- Light down jacket
- Rain and windproof jacket
- Synthetic long sleeve sun shirt or base layer
- Short sleeve shirt
- Long pants for cooler nights
- Hiking pants
- Wool socks
- Hiking shoes
- Hiking sandals – depending on what you plan on doing
- Brimmed hat
- Water – at least one gallon per person per day
- Hiking bag
- Personal toilet tries
- Yeti road trip cooler
If you plan on camping and are curious about what to pack, check out our other post on what to bring for tent camping.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Capitol Reef
We have spent so much time here. Along with our adventures, I worked here for a summer internship. It is one of our favorite national parks in the U.S.
Capitol Reef is an amazing place and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves the outdoors. The park is huge and has something for everyone to enjoy, from strenuous hikes to easy scenic drives. If you’re looking for a great park to visit while enjoying all Utah has to offer, be sure to add Capitol Reef to your list.
Have fun exploring the scenic routes and roads less traveled.
Please practice Leave No Trace.
Ashlee & Pablo
Discover More Outdoor Adventures!
Exploring Utah and the Southwest? Check out these popular posts to help you plan the best road trip:
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- Moab: Moab Summer Road Trip Ultimate 3-5 Day Guide
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- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Best Shoreline Camping Spots at Lake Powell
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- Utah Camping: How to Camp for FREE on BLM Land
- Camping Gear: 25 Best Amazon Camping Gear Must-Haves
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