Arches has the highest concentration of sandstone arches in the world, Zion is famous for its towering sandstone cliffs, and Canyonlands offers breathtaking views and incredible backpacking. Not to mention Zion and Bryce often come as a package deal, and the town of Moab offers the quintessential basecamp for checking both Arches and Canyonlands off your parks bucket list.
But one of Utah’s Mighty Five that often gets overlooked is home to some of the most stunning scenery you’ll find, without the crowds of the other parks.
Capitol Reef National Park is indisputably Utah’s most underrated park, and one of our favorites. Here’s why, in our comprehensive Capitol Reef Travel Guide!
Capitol Reef gets its name from the distinct geologic features found within the park.
The first are the massive sandstone domes which, from a distance, reminded early explorers and settlers of the Capitol buildings in Washington D.C. These domes are part of a larger feature known as the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust that’s over 100 miles long, and whose warped surface provides mesmerizing landscapes found within the park.
Planning a Trip To Capitol Reef Travel Guide
With over 377 square miles of dramatic desert landscapes, Capitol Reef has much to offer. Whether you have one day or several, you’ll wish you had more time to explore the myriad of canyons, cliffs, bluffs, and monoliths that make up the park’s rugged landscape.
Capitol Reef offers a range of options for those with varying fitness levels, from the scenic drive that meanders through the landscape and offers spectacular views from your car, to the challenging hikes through canyons, across ridges, and everything in between.
The park is also a backpackers dream: unlike other parks, permits are easy to acquire. Those desiring an overnight expedition can pick up a backcountry permit from the ranger station the day of their trip.
As of October 2023, the park has not placed any limits on the number of backcountry permits available. Just be sure to check the station hours, as they do vary from season to season.
For tourists wanting to camp in an established campground, there are three campgrounds within the park: Cathedral Valley, Cedar Mesa, and Fruita Campgrounds.
Cathedral Valley is a primitive site with no water and no restrooms, whereas Cedar Mesa does have a pit toilet, but does not have water. The Fruita Campground, located just up the road from the visitor center, has RV access to a dump station, potable water, and restrooms, but no eclectic hookups.
Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa campgrounds are first come first serve, no-fee year-round sites; Fruita is $20 per night for a site, with sites reservable March 1st-October 31st, and first come first serve November through February.
When to Visit Capitol Reef
The best time to visit Capitol Reef is in the fall, when daytime temperatures are cooler and nights are brisk without reaching freezing. Late summer and early fall are also ideal times of year for wandering the historic Fruita orchards, where you can gather apricots, mulberries, apples, and more throughout the harvest season.
Each season, however, offers a unique exploration within the park. During the winter, the stark contrast of snowfall against the red sandstone lends itself to majestic photography.
In the spring and early summer, wildflowers, such as globemallow and indian paintbrush, can be seen. And in the summer, when the weather is hottest, tourists can find respite in the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek Trail that winds its way through a series of canyons, encountering three waterfalls along the trail.
Capitol Reef is rich in both indigenous and settler histories alike. While touring the park, you can stop at several historic buildings, such as the one-room schoolhouse or the Gifford Homestead, where you can also find homemade pies with fruit harvested from the orchard.
Capitol Reef Travel Guide: Best Hikes
If you only have a day in Capitol Reef, the hikes that’ll offer the biggest bang for your buck are located in the Fruita District, closest to the main road and visitors center.
For families with small children, or for those who don’t want to hike a long distance, the Goosenecks Overlook Trail offers panoramic views, especially at sunset. It’s only 0.6 miles round trip, tends to be less crowded, and has incredible views.
One of the best hiking trails with close proximity to the main road is the Hickman Bridge Trail that winds its way along the bluff and ends at a natural sandstone bridge. The trail is 1.8 miles round and gains 416 feet in elevation.
Looking for another fascinating trail? There’s Cassidy Arch, named after famous outlaw Butch Cassidy whose adventures took him all across the desert areas of southwest Utah. You can hike for views of the arch itself, or walk on top of the arch for picturesque sunset views. This trail is 3.4 miles out-and-back, and gains about 845 feet in elevation.
For incredible canyon views, consider hiking the Grand Wash Trail, a 4.7 mile out-and-back that’s actually a streambed leading you through winding canyon walls. Be sure to check trail conditions before hiking this trail, as rain and risk of flash floods can be dangerous.
Another trail that often gets overlooked is the Upper Muley Twist Canyon Trail, which offers canyon and ridge hiking to provide the best of both worlds. Located in the Waterpocket District, this takes an additional hour of driving to get to from the ranger station. The trail is 8 miles long, but may require additional walking if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle to reach the parking lot.
Take caution; getting to the trailhead requires a 4WD vehicle with high clearance. Always check road conditions before attempting to drive up the Burr switchbacks.
The third district of the park, Cathedral Valley, is best seen via the 58 mile scenic drive that meanders through the landscape. This road includes a river crossing and requires 4WD and high clearance vehicles, so check the road conditions before driving.
This area of the park is the most remote, and subsequently the least visited. If you’re looking for off-the-beaten-path adventures, this is the route for you. From the scenic route, you can access the trailheads for the Temple of the Sun and Moon, as well as the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook, Upper South Desert Overlook, Cathedrals Trail, and Jailhouse Rock.
For the best Cathedral Valley experience, consider spending at least one overnight at the Cathedral Valley Campground.
Top Photo Spots in Capitol Reef
There’s no such thing as a bad photo spot in Capitol Reef! No matter where you find yourself, you’ll be within sight of incredible vistas, whether it’s a slot canyon, a sweeping overlook, or an interesting rock formation. That being said, there are certain areas of the park that are well suited for the photography enthusiast.
The Temples of the Sun and Moon, located in the Cathedral Valley area of the park, offer otherworldly freestanding sandstone formations that tower above the surrounding sagebrush. These gorgeous formations are stunning at any hour – whether contrasted against a bright blue sky or captured amidst amazing sunset hues.
Chimney Rock is another beautiful destination to take pictures, which includes a 3.5 mile round trip hike to this unique formation.
Lastly, any of the historic Fruita buildings or orchards are a must-visit for those with a photographer’s eye. There is no hiking required to capture shots of these historic structures, since they’re located on the main road between the visitor center and the Fruita campground.
Whether you’re looking for a hidden gem of an adventure, a day hike in desert paradise, or searching for the perfect photo, Capitol Reef is sure to surpass your expectations.
Join Us for Your Capitol Reef Adventure
Want to explore Capitol Reef alongside an expert, naturalist guide? Learn more about the park’s fascinating human and geological history by joining us for an incredible journey through these awe-inspiring lands, where every step is a brushstroke of wonder.
Our experienced guides are eager to share their expertise and lead you on an adventure that promises unforgettable memories and breathtaking vistas!