Top Things to See & Do 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 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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Capitol Reef National Park Cathedral Valley

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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?

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Road through 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.’

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! Keep reading…

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

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The Monoliths

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.

Explore Fruita

Check out the Fruita District, orchards, and history. The trees even have fruit in the summer!

Go Hiking

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! 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.

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?

Cathedral Valley Gypsum Sinkhole

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:

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 Capitol Reef National Park!

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Capitol Reef geology

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.

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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 and wear:

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, from strenuous hikes to easy scenic drives. If you’re looking for a great National Park to visit, 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 our posts to help you plan the best road trip:

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We want to hear from you!

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 here? Tell us your favorite part.

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation writer and founder of The Happiness Function based in Oklahoma. Her goal is to help inspire people to build a life they love by sharing how simple and fun it is to travel locally, connect with nature, and explore off-the-beaten-path. You don't have to spend a lot of money or use a ton of vacation time to explore close to home. Ashlee holds a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability and has a passion for the outdoors. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo! They camp in their Aliner often and love road trips and hiking.

22 Comments

  1. Cristina Sala on February 16, 2021 at 8:16 am

    Ashlee quede encantada con el Parque Capitol Reef, las vistas , descrpciones que haces son muy buenas.
    Indudablemente esta muy bueno las indicaciones que das para su recorrido.
    Es una guia perfecta tu relato.



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 19, 2021 at 8:06 am

      ¡Hola Cristina! Gracias por leer. El Parque Nacional Capitol Reef es uno de nuestros parques nacionales favoritos en los EE. UU. Abrazos



  2. Bozena on February 20, 2021 at 12:55 pm

    very nice post! beautiful photos and lots of useful information! great!



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:19 pm

      Hi Bozena – thanks for reading!



  3. Charlotte on February 20, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    I’m gutted I missed this place when I was in Utah it looks incredible! Hopefully I can see it again soon!



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:20 pm

      Hi Charlotte! Yes, you’ll have to visit Capitol Reef next time 🙂



  4. Hannah on February 20, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    Wow, I’d love to drive through Capitol Reef National Park and take in those stunning views! The landscape looks breath-taking! What an incredible place to go hiking! I hope I get an opportunity to visit! Thanks for the great guide!



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:20 pm

      Hi Hannah – thanks for reading. You’d love visiting Capitol Reef National Park!



  5. Catherine on February 20, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    I often prefer to hang out in the less popular parks, so Capitol Reef NP looks right up my alley. The desert hikes look gorgeous! Can’t wait to visit.



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Catherine – we do too! That is part of what makes Capitol Reef so special. Thanks for stopping by!



  6. Megan on February 20, 2021 at 3:58 pm

    I haven’t been to Capitol Reef but it looks amazing! And that is so sweet that it was your first camp-date together. Perhaps that’s why it’s become your favorite 😉



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:22 pm

      Hi Megan! Awww.. haha, probably… so many great memories!



  7. Nora on February 20, 2021 at 8:57 pm

    I missed this when planning a road trip a couple of years ago. I would love to go back and drive through Capitol Reef National Park, it looks amazing!



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:22 pm

      Hi Nora – I hope you can visit Capitol Reef someday. It is amazing!



  8. Krista on February 21, 2021 at 6:39 am

    I haven’t heard of this national park before but it looks amazing with its unique landscape. Definitely one for my bucket list now.



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:22 pm

      Hi Krista! Awesome on adding Capitol Reef National Park to your bucket list!



  9. Tiffany on February 21, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    I can’t wait to start exploring out west! Such beautiful hikes. Thanks for the tips! I love knowing how long I should plan for a park so I don’t miss anything! LOL



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 21, 2021 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Tiffany!! You will love exploring the West. Message me before you go for tips! We used to live in Western Colorado near the Utah border.



  10. Jamie Sharpe on February 21, 2021 at 5:30 pm

    This is great, I’m looking for things to do while international travel is shut down.



    • Ashlee Fechino on February 22, 2021 at 6:03 am

      Awesome Jamie! Have fun exploring the Southwest.



  11. Burt Randall on February 28, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    Capitol Reef National Park sounds fun !! Reminds me of trips to the Grand Canyon !!



    • Ashlee Fechino on March 1, 2021 at 9:15 am

      Hi Uncle Burt! Thanks for reading!!