Capitol Reef National Park is one of America’s most underrated National Parks. Its desert landscape features jagged red rocks, soaring cliffs, dramatic natural arches, and narrow slot canyons, making it a mecca for hikers, campers, and every other type of outdoor adventurer.
So if you’re ready to plan your trip to Capitol Reef National Park, look no further than this blog post!
In this Complete Guide to Capitol Reef National Park, I’ll share the top hikes, the best things to do, when to go, where to stay, and more!
Complete Guide to Capitol Reef National Park
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Quick Facts About Capitol Reef
- Location: Utah, USA
- Established: 1937 (National Monument), 1971 (National Park)
- Size: 241,904 acres
- Annual Visitors: 1,227,608 (2022)
- Fee: $20/vehicle for 7 days or free with an annual pass
- Visitor Center: Capitol Reef
Fun Facts About Capitol Reef
The lowest point in the park is Hall’s Creek at 3,880 feet, and the highest elevation is 8,960 feet at Thousand Lake Mountain.
Cassidy Arch was named after Butch Cassidy, who was the leader of the “Wild Bunch,” a group of outlaws. These canyons made for great hideouts for him and his group.
The Capitol Reef area was previously called “Wayne Wonderland.”
In 2015, Capitol Reef was designated an official International Dark Sky Park. Two-thirds of the U.S. population won’t ever be able to see the Milky Way from their home, so visitors love to flock to this park, and others in the Dark Sky Park list, to view the night sky without light or smog pollution.
Capitol Reef gets its name from the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes (capitol) and the rocky cliffs that create a travel barrier (reef).
The park is known for its defining geological feature, the Waterpocket Fold. This wrinkle in the Earth’s surface extends for nearly 100 miles, making it the epicenter in the red rock country.
Top Hikes in Capitol Reef
- Distance: 3.1 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 666 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
Cassidy Arch is a 3.1-mile out & back trail that is easily accessible from the park’s Scenic Drive. The trail begins at the Grand Wash trailhead.
The beginning of the trail is mild as it takes you through Grand Wash, a short and narrow canyon. Once the trail veers left off of Grand Wash and heads toward Cassidy Arch, it becomes quite a bit steeper.
The ascent is rigorous. The tight switchbacks wind up and out of the canyon, revealing the natural arch about a mile into the hike. Once you see the arch, it’s not over! The best part of the trail is the end; you will scope out scattered cairns as you navigate the giant slabs of sandstone. The trail is difficult to follow at some points, so we relied on our Gaia GPS app to navigate our route for us.
Cassidy Arch is the finale of the trail. You might miss it at first; it looks like a giant hole in the canyon!
The grandiose arch carved into the rock is slightly below eye level with the most spectacular backdrop of red rock and white sandstone. Aerial views of the road are visible from the edge of the cliff face. For the dare-devils, make your way to the top of the arch for the best photo opportunity on the trail.
There is no route to the base of the arch, so stick to the top of the sandstone.
- Distance: 1.7 miles
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 416 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
This 1.7-mile trail shouldn’t be missed! The trailhead to Hickman Bridge is off Highway 24.
A mild walk along the river yields a series of switchbacks. With some route-finding and cairn scouting, you will reach the bridge less than a mile from the trailhead. The bridge spans 133 feet above the path; you can even go underneath it!
When we hiked this trail in September 2021, there was a sign warning of aggressive wasps. We did encounter quite a few angry ones at the trailhead and around the bridge, so take caution as you make your way through the trail!
- Distance: 3.3 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 793 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
Chimney Rock is a 3.3-mile loop that yields some of the most incredible views of Capitol Reef in the shortest amount of time.
Within a half-mile, you can reach Chimney Rock, a pillar of red sandstone that stands majestically in front of the Scenic Drive.
If you choose to complete the entire trail, you will pass by spectacular vistas like badlands, cliffs, and canyons.
Points along this trail make for great sunset spots. Watch the sun descend the horizon while it casts a vibrant red and orange halo on all of the red rock.
Where to Stay in Capitol Reef
Lodging (In Park)
There is no lodging inside the park. Consider camping inside the park or staying outside of the park.
Lodging (Outside of Park)
Fruita Campground. This is the only developed campground in the park.
Cathedral Valley Campground. This is a primitive campground located halfway on the Cathedral Valley Loop Road in the Cathedral District.
Cedar Mesa Campground. This is a primitive campground located 23 miles south of Utah State Highway 24.
Getting Around Capitol Reef
There is no shuttle service in Capitol Reef, so all vehicles are allowed on the park roads at most times.
Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive are both suitable for all types of vehicles, but if you have a high clearance or 4×4 vehicle, consider driving along South Draw Road or Cathedral Road.
Entering the park from Torrey, you can continue straight on the highway or turn right toward the Visitor Center. Turning right will lead you through the park’s Scenic Drive.
On this route, you will pass the Visitor Center, campground, and many trailheads. This road is paved, but the spur roads to the trailheads are unpaved dirt paths suitable for most vehicles. In rainy, inclement weather, these spur roads can be impassible. The Scenic Drive has no outlet, so you must come back out the same way that you entered. Most people who visit this park find that this route is the best way to see the park, especially if you are short on time or just passing through.
Continuing straight on the Utah State Route 24 highway, you will pass Fruita Schoolhouse, petroglyphs, and more trailhead access points before spilling off into the town of Hanksville.
When to Visit
Capitol Reef is open year-round, so when is a good time to visit?
Overall, the best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park is spring and fall.
That being said, here are the perks of visiting in each season.
Summer. Crowds are heavy, and temperatures can reach into the 90s, but all trails and roads are easily accessible.
Fall. The weather is mild, and the crowds are minimal. All roads and trails should be accessible. Popular hikes like Cassidy Arch and Hickman Bridge shouldn’t be as busy.
Winter. Nightly temperatures dip below freezing, and snow is possible, but you will probably have the entire park to yourself. The desert and red rock take on a new and beautiful glow in the snow.
Spring. The weather is mild, and the crowds are minimal. All roads and trails should be accessible, but everything might not be open. Gifford Homestead doesn’t open its doors until mid-March, and snowfall is possible through April.
Best Non-Hiking Activities in Capitol Reef
Eat a Pie at Gifford Homestead
Gifford Homestead is located just past the Visitor Center on Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive. It is a historical farmhouse and museum that sells handmade items such as quilts, candles, and soap, and foods such as coffee, ice cream, bread, pastries, and their famous pie.
Beginning on March 14th (Pi Day), the Homestead begins selling pies. These pies are so popular that they are often sold out by midday, so if you’re interested in one of these delicacies, arrive early!
Drive Along Highway 24
Highway 24 often gets overlooked when visitors come to Capitol Reef. Though the Scenic Drive is quite beautiful and does offer camping, hiking, and picnicking options, I’d highly recommend driving along Highway 24.
Trailheads are frequent along this highway, and though it is technically part of Capitol Reef National Park, there is no fee to access this road! Make stops at Hickman Bridge and Grand Wash trailheads and see the ancient petroglyph panels.
If you don’t have the annual pass, don’t want to pay a fee, or are short on time, drive along Highway 24 and make some pitstops on your way to your next destination.
Drive Along the Scenic Drive
I can’t mention Highway 24 without also encouraging you to cruise the Scenic Drive. Though the pay station is on this road, it is the highlight of the National Park and shouldn’t be missed.
Bring along your annual pass or pay the $20 entrance fee and meander through the twisty, paved road with stunning views. There are many unpaved gravel spurs that take you to trailheads, as well. Stop along all of the viewpoints, pull-offs, and trailheads to soak up the full experience.
In 2015, Capitol Reef became the newest addition to the small list of International Dark Sky Parks in the U.S. This means that the park offers some of the clearest and darkest skies for unbeatable stargazing opportunities. With its high elevation and minimal light pollution, thousands of twinkling stars are easily visible in the vast velvet sky.
A few spots I’d recommend to stargaze in the park:
- Panoramic Point
- Slickrock Divide
- End of Scenic Drive
- Halls Creek Overlook
Rock Climbing and Bouldering
Though rock climbing hasn’t always been a tradition at Capitol Reef, the park’s sandstone walls have beckoned climbers over the last few decades. Zones like Capitol Gorge, Chimney Rock Canyon, Grand Wash, and Cohab Canyon all offer incredible climbing experiences.
You will need permits to climb in the park, and you must stick to the designated zones.
What to Explore Around Capitol Reef
If you’re visiting Capitol Reef, I’d highly recommend stopping by the other four National Parks in southern Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands. Aside from these Mighty Five parks, here are some other beautiful places to visit around Capitol Reef:
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area