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The Ultimate Guide to Capitol Reef National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s so-called “Mighty 5” national parks and is located in the south-central part of the state. This park is the least-visited of Utah’s national parks, with about 1.2 million annual visitors, but it has so much to offer visitors.

The park has remarkable geological features, historic buildings, scenic drives, and abundant wildlife. Here’s a look at everything you need to know about this beautiful national park!

How To Get to Capitol Reef National Park

Where Is Capitol Reef National Park?

Capitol Reef National Park is located in the south-central region of Utah. It stretches north and south of Highway 24 at the Fremont River Canyon. This park is 100 miles long and very narrow. This park is not as accessible as other national parks in Utah — Zion, Arches, Bryce, and Canyonlands — so getting there can be quite a journey as there aren’t any rail or bus stations nearby.

Nearest Airports to Capitol Reef National Park

There are several airports visitors can utilize when visiting Capitol Reef National Park, though visitors can expect a bit of a journey to reach the park.

Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT)

The closest major airport to Capitol Reef National Park is Grand Junction Regional Airport. This airport is located in Grand Junction, Colorado, nearly 200 miles from the park. It takes a little under 3 hours to get to Capitol Reef National Park from this airport.

Grand Junction Regional Airport offers a wide variety of nonstop flights to and from major U.S. cities. This airport services 3 popular airlines, including Allegiant, American, and United.

Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)

Salt Lake City International Airport is located 222 miles from Capitol Reef National Park. It takes approximately 3.5 hours to drive from this airport to the park.

Salt Lake City International Airport provides hundreds of daily flights to a variety of cities around the world and services over a dozen major airlines, including Aeromexico, Air Canada, American, Delta, and Southwest. It serves as a hub for Delta.

Driving to Capitol Reef National Park

Driving to Capitol Reef National Park
Image Credit: Tracy Zhang via Unsplash

Driving is effectively the only way for visitors to arrive at Capitol Reef National Park, as there is no public transportation in the area to utilize. Visitors from the east or west will follow I-70 and take Utah State Route 24 to arrive at the park. Those from the north or south will use Interstate 15 and Utah State Route 24.

There is an alternate route that involves driving Utah State Route 12, a 123-mile highway that crosses Dixie National Forest, travels along Bryce Canyon National Park, and cuts through most of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Hot Tip: Using Utah State Route 12 is an excellent way to see some of the surrounding attractions en route to Capitol Reef National Park.

Getting Around Capitol Reef National Park

The best way to get around Capitol Reef National Park is by driving, hiking, or on foot. This national park has so much to discover and explore, so the best option is to drive your vehicle to the main areas and points of interest. The National Park Service has interactive, printable maps to help you easily plan your itinerary for visiting Capitol Reef National Park.

What To See and Do in Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is known for its mesmerizing geology, historic buildings, and rich cultural and natural history. There is much to explore and appreciate while visiting this incredible National Park. Let’s explore some of the most popular attractions.

Burr Trail Scenic Backway

The Burr Trail Scenic Backway is a 67-mile scenic drive between Boulder and Bullfrog. This trail travels through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The Burr Trail Scenic Backway trail provides visitors with stunning views of the Henry Mountains, Waterpocket Fold, Long Canyon, Circle Cliffs, and Pedestal Alley.

It’s named after John Burr, one of the early pioneers who settled and founded the town of Burrville, Utah. He was a cattle rancher and needed a way to move his cattle from range to range, so he developed this cattle trail around the Waterpocket Fold, Burr Canyon, and Muley Twist Canyon.

Capitol Reef Visitor Center

The Capitol Reef Visitor Center is a perfect starting point for a visit to this national park. This visitor center has much to offer, including informative exhibits that showcase the human history, plant life, and animal life of the park, as well as the notorious geology of the Waterpocket Fold.

A bookstore is available onsite where guests can purchase souvenirs and other informational material. Rangers are stationed at the visitor center to help guests plan their itineraries and answer questions about the park.

Cathedral Valley District

Cathedral Valley District
Image Credit: Nielson via NPS

The Cathedral Valley District is a rugged, remote area of Capitol Reef National Park with lots to offer visitors. There are several hiking trails, primitive campsites, and incredible geological features in the area. Popular features include Bentonite Hills, South Desert, Gypsum Sinkhole, and Glass Mountain.

Hot Tip: When visiting the Cathedral Valley District, it’s essential to plan ahead and check the weather as poor conditions can lead to significant issues with road conditions.

Fruita Historic District

The heart of Capitol Reef National Park is the Fruita Historic District. This valley has been home to many people for thousands of years. Today, visitors can tour the Fruita Historic District and learn about the area’s geology, human history, and landscape.

Fruita Historic District features a scenic drive that’s nearly 8 miles long. It showcases significant features of the park, including Grand Wash, Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Gorge, and the Navajo Formation. Fruita Historic District is an excellent place for hiking and camping, as well as visiting historic buildings in the park like Gifford Homestead and Fruita Schoolhouse.

Fruita Schoolhouse

Fruita Schoolhouse is a 1-room log schoolhouse that was built in 1896. This historic building allows visitors to step back in time to see what school was like long ago.

Fruita Schoolhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Park Service has restored the schoolroom to what it was like in the 1930s. Visitors can look through the windows to see what this furnished schoolroom looked like close to 100 years ago. There are desks, a large blackboard, and a wood-burning stove in the center of the room.

Gifford Homestead

Gifford Homestead
Image Credit: Nathan Gross via NPS

The Gifford Homestead is a 200-acre farmland located in the center of the Fruita valley. The Capitol Reef Natural History Association worked with the National Park Service to renovate and refurnish the Gifford farmhouse so visitors can explore the early Mormon settlement and step back in time to the early 1900s.

The homestead features a farmhouse with a front room and kitchen area and 2 small bedrooms. There was a ladder outside where the upstairs bedrooms could be accessed. Dewey Gifford and his wife moved into this home in 1923. The Giffords ended up occupying the home for 41 years. Eventually, the family added a kitchen, a bathroom, a utility room, and a carport.

The Giffords lived in this farmhouse from 1928 to 1969. In 1954 the Giffords built a small motel for Capitol Reef National Park visitors. Today, visitors can see what life was like on the farm. This homestead is located a mile from the visitor center on the scenic drive. This historic area is open from the middle of March to the end of October.

The kitchen has been transformed into a Natural History Association sales outlet where visitors can purchase utensils and household tools crafted to resemble those used by the Mormon pioneers.

Hot Tip: Local artisans and craftsmen also have their products available for purchase, including aprons, quilts, woven rugs, candles, toys, and soap. Further, you can buy fresh jams, locally-baked fruit pies, and homemade ice cream at the Gifford Homestead.

Historic Orchards

Capitol Reef National Park is home to historic orchards from the pioneer community of Fruita, who settled in the area in 1880. These orchards are within a mile or 2 of the visitor center.

The Historic Orchards were originally planted by the Latter-day Saints pioneers from the 1880s to the 1960s. There are over 1,900 fruit trees that grow apricots, cherries, apples, pears, peaches, and plums.

Today these orchards are preserved and protected as a part of the Fruita Rural Historic Landscape. These orchards are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can stroll through the orchards at any time of the year and pick fruits when they are ready to be harvested.

Petroglyph Panel

Petroglyph Panel
Image Credit: S. Cotrell via NPS

For nearly 1,000 years, the Fremont people lived in what is now Utah. Ancient rock art tells a remarkable history of the people who made this area their home from 300 to 1,300 C.E.

We can see clues to the past in their petroglyphs along Utah State Route 24. Two wooden boardwalks allow park visitors to see these ancient inscriptions, which include bighorn sheep, geometric designs, and human-like figures.

Slickrock Divide

Slickrock Divide is an incredible feature found in Capitol Reef National Park. The divide separates 2 massive drainages and changes the direction of the water in the park flows.

Grand Wash is where the northern runoff collects, and Capitol Gorge is where the southern runoff collects. This area of the park is found on the park’s scenic drive. Many visitors overlook this park area, so be sure to pay close attention so you don’t miss it.

Sunset Point

Guests who enjoy watching the sunset will be in for a treat at Capitol Reef National Park. Sunset Point is the perfect place to watch the sun go down. This park area has sweeping views over the stunning rock formations of Capitol Reef National Park. The evening light enhances the red rock and creates a mesmerizing experience like no other.

There is a trail to Sunset Point that is relatively short and ideal for visitors of all ages. The hike is located just a few miles from the visitor center. You won’t want to miss this place when visiting Capitol Reef National Park. And don’t forget your camera!

Waterpocket Fold

Waterpocket Fold is an iconic feature of Capitol Reef National Park. This fold, or wrinkle in the earth, stretches for nearly 100 miles and creates incredible landscapes of cliffs, canyons, arches, and other mesmerizing features in the red rocks found in the area.

The Waterpocket Fold is a monocline, which is a vertical fold on one side of horizontal geologic layers. It’s about 7,000 feet higher on one side than the other. This incredible feature runs north to south from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. Highway 24 is a scenic drive that runs through the heart of the park and beautifully showcases the Waterpocket Fold.

Best Times To Visit Capitol Reef National Park

A trip to Capitol Reef National Park is incredible no matter what time of year you visit. However, some times of the year are better than others, depending on your desired experience.

Best Time To Visit Capitol Reef National Park in Winter

Visiting Capitol Reef National Park in December is ideal for those who enjoy a winter national park experience. December offers temperatures with lows of 20 degrees and highs in the 40s. You can expect snow or rain depending on the temperature on a given day.

It’s essential to be prepared with the proper gear for quickly changing weather. There are plenty of winter activities to participate in, including scenic drives, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and stargazing.

Best Time To Visit Capitol Reef National Park To Avoid Crowds

Capitol Reef’s least-busy season is the winter, so you can expect thin crowds if you visit then. The recommended winter month to visit is in December. The temperatures are bearable at this time, and there are various activities for guests to enjoy.

Best Time To Visit Capitol Reef National Park for Wildlife

Capitol Reef National Park Wildlife
Image Credit: Luis Müller via Unsplash

Wildlife thrives in Capitol Reef National Park. Visiting in the summer will be best if you want to get a great view of the animals in the park.

May is an excellent time to visit the park to see the animals. Some of the animals you may find include deer, marmots, chipmunks, white-tail Antelope squirrels, ring-tailed cats, bighorn sheep, and various lizards.

Cheapest Time To Visit Capitol Reef National Park

Visiting during the off-season is the best way to save money when traveling. The winter is the low season at Capitol Reef National Park, which allows for savings on your travels.

December is the best month to visit during the winter, as the temperatures aren’t frigid yet. Lodging rates and airline tickets are also reduced during this off-season month.

Annual Events in and Near Capitol Reef National Park

There are dozens of events that take place each year in and near Capitol Reef National Park — take a look at some of the popular events on offer!

Arts and the Park Light on the Reef

Each year at the end of May, artists and art enthusiasts gather at Capitol Reef National Park for Arts and the Park Light on the Reef.

During this 4-day event, over 30 artists are set up to paint in different locations throughout the park where visitors can stop and admire their work. There are also workshops, guest presentations, youth events, an art auction, and live music.

Bottom Line: If you are an appreciator of art, be sure to plan a visit to Capitol Reef National Park during this incredible event.

Boulder Mountain Half Marathon and 5K

The Boulder Mountain Half Marathon and 5K takes place annually in September near Capitol Reef National Park. This event starts in Torrey and traverses Capitol Reef Country. Runners can enjoy the incredible views and landscapes as they participate in the race.

Heritage StarFest

Heritage StarFest takes place each year in September in Capitol Reef National Park. This event is an excellent opportunity for visitors to observe and experience the park’s night skies.

Heritage StarFest features discussions, presentations, and activities pertaining to astronomy and how the night sky is vital to the health of all living things. Visitors of all ages can participate in Heritage StarFest, and it’s an event that will create memories to last a lifetime.

Where To Stay in Capitol Reef National Park

There are plenty of options for lodging in and near Capitol Reef National Park. Depending on your needs, you can find the perfect lodging option for you and your family. Whether you decide to camp inside the park’s boundaries or stay in more traditional lodging, you can rest assured that there are excellent options.

Inside the Park

The only option for lodging inside Capitol Reef National Park is to camp within the park’s boundaries. This national park has something for every camper — from backcountry camping to developed campsites. Let’s look at the different campgrounds in Capitol Reef National Park.

Fruita Campground

Fruita Campground
Image Credit: Ann Huston via NPS

Fruita Campground is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef National Park. This campground has 71 campsites and is commonly called an oasis in the desert.

Fruita Campground can be found next to the Fremont River and has historic orchards surrounding it. Each campsite at this campground features fire pits or an above-ground grill, showers, and picnic tables. There are no showers or hookups for water or waste, though there is a water and dump station in the campground.

Fruita Campground can be reserved from March to the end of October. The rest of the year it is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Cathedral Valley Campground

Cathedral Valley Campground is one of the 2 primitive campgrounds at Capitol Reef National Park. This campground is found at the halfway mark on Cathedral Valley Loop Road about 36 miles from the visitor center. High-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles are typically necessary for accessing this campground.

There’s no fee to camp here, and there are 6 sites with picnic tables and fire grates available. There’s a pit toilet, but water is not available.

It’s essential for those staying at this campground to check the weather and road conditions before an overnight stay. It sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet and is in the foothills of Thousand Lake Mountain. The campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Cedar Mesa Campground

Cedar Mesa Campground is a primitive campground at Capitol Reef National Park. This campground is 23 miles south of Utah State Route 24 on Notom-Bullfrog Road.

The elevation of Cedar Mesa Campground is 5,500 feet. Typically you can access the campground with a 2-wheel-drive vehicle, but sometimes high clearance is required on the road. It’s essential for visitors planning a stay at Cedar Mesa Campground to check the road conditions before making the trip to this remote area.

There are no fees for camping at Cedar Mesa Campground, and it offers 5 sites with a picnic table and fire grate at each. There is no water at this campground, but there is a pit toilet. This campground is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Towns Near Capitol Reef National Park

There are several towns near Capitol Reef National Park. Each city has lots to offer visitors looking for a place to stay near the park — let’s take a look!

Boulder, Utah

Boulder, Utah, is located 39 miles from Capitol Reef National Park. This town is brimming with opportunities for lodging, dining, and recreation. It makes an excellent home away from home during your national park vacation.

Some popular places to stay in Boulder include guest ranches, lodges in the mountains, luxury tents and tepees, and rustic cabins. There’s no shortage of places to stay, and you can easily find exactly what you’re looking for in your national park vacation.

Adventure is everywhere in Boulder. Most guests enjoy visiting the ancient Native American villages, hiking the incredible trails, and seeing the remarkable landmarks, including the Anasazi State Park Museum and the notorious Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The food scene is hopping in Boulder, too. There are various restaurants, including charming diners, themed restaurants, street food, and vegetarian restaurants galore.

Escalante, Utah

Escalante Utah
Image Credit: Aleksandr Mironyuk via Visit Utah

Escalante, Utah, is an excellent town for staying near Capitol Reef National Park. This town is approximately 67 miles from the park, which takes about an hour and a half drive. Escalante is tiny with only 850 residents, though it’s filled with charm and hospitality.

This town is known for its slot canyon and has plenty of opportunities for excitement and entertainment. Visitors to this town enjoy sightseeing at the Historic Escalante Showhouse and museums, guided tours through the desert, and visiting the nearby parks.

Escalante has plenty of lodging options that include primitive yurts, spacious lodges, bed and breakfasts, cabins, and RV parks. Whatever experience you prefer, you’ll find it in Escalante.

You’ll find something for everyone’s tastebuds in Escalante — it has abundant top-notch restaurants, from gourmet cafes to multicultural coffee houses. Other exciting dining options include outdoor cafes, bakeries, and pubs.

Bottom Line: A stay in Escalante is well worth the 90-minute drive to the park as there’s something for every visitor in this quaint town.

Torrey, Utah

Torrey, Utah, is the closest town to Capitol Reef National Park, only 8 miles away from the park’s west entrance. It’s a great place to set up a base camp for a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.

There is a wide variety of lodging facilities, including motels, hotels, and even some luxury resorts. Other options for lodging include cabins, lodges, and charming bed and breakfasts scattered throughout the town.

Torrey offers visitors an abundance of opportunities for entertainment, including outdoor adventures like fishing and exploring the nearby canyons, trails, and parks. There are art galleries, historic landmarks, and quaint trading posts for those who like sightseeing and shopping. Each year major events like the Annual Cowboy Music and Poetry Festival and the Big Apple Outdoor Dance Hall draw visitors to town.

The area has various restaurants for food enthusiasts to enjoy, from steakhouses to authentic Mexican restaurants.

Where To Eat in Capitol Reef National Park

There are no places to dine within Capitol Reef National Park, but plenty of incredible restaurants are nearby. Whether you’re in the mood for a juicy steak or authentic Mexican cuisine, you can find exactly what you’re craving near the park.

Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse

Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse is approximately 8 miles from Capitol Reef National Park. This well-loved restaurant serves a menu of top-quality steaks, burgers, and salads. Its menu also features plenty of items for those who are vegetarian or need gluten-free options. The steakhouse is open for breakfast and dinner daily.

The restaurant is located on a hilltop and provides stunning views, which add to its ambiance. Popular menu items include pistachio-crusted salmon, gourmet pasta dishes, and country cordon bleu.

Capitol Burger

If you’re craving a burger during your national park adventure, take a quick detour to Capitol Burger. This food truck is located just 7 minutes from Capitol Reef National Park in Torrey.

Capitol Burger serves unforgettable burgers, tasty sides, and one-of-a-kind specialties for lunch and dinner. This top-rated burger joint is highly recommended by locals and visitors alike.

The Chuckwagon Deli

The Chuckwagon Deli is less than 9 miles from Capitol Reef National Park. This is an excellent place to pick up a quick meal before, during, or after your park adventures.

The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and early bird dinners. It serves Western-style breakfasts, gourmet burgers, and sandwiches loaded with piles of meat and fresh veggies. Whether dining in or grabbing a meal to go, you can rest assured that The Chuckwagon Deli will satisfy your craving and give you energy for more park adventures.

Hunt and Gather Restaurant

Hunt and Gather Restaurant is a fantastic seasonal restaurant near Capitol Reef National Park. This restaurant is located in Torrey, less than 10 miles from the park.

The restaurant features slow-cooked meals using local ingredients such as wild game, organic vegetables, and fresh fish. You’ll find a full bar menu, 2 heated patios outside, and a lovely dining room inside.

Rim Rock Restaurant

Rim Rock Restaurant is located in Torrey on the edge of Capitol Reef National Park. If you’re looking for a fine-dining experience during your national park vacation, Rim Rock Restaurant is the place for you.

This restaurant is located in a lovely inn and is open seasonally for dinner each night. The menu features Western cuisine with locally sourced ingredients. Favorite menu items include the pan-seared trout, the hand-cut steaks, and the wood-smoked ribs.

The restaurant has a cozy atmosphere with 2 stone fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, and massive picture windows for enjoying the stunning views of the landscape. Rim Rock Restaurant is the perfect place to take a break from outdoor adventures and enjoy a gourmet culinary experience.

Capitol Reef National Park Facts

Capitol Reef National Park Torrey UT USA
Image Credit: Backroad Packers via Unsplash

1. A New Park Is Born

Bills were introduced to Congress in 1970 in hopes that the area would be a national park in order to protect and conserve the land. President Richard Nixon declared Capitol Reef a national park on December 18, 1971.

2. A Celebrity Lookalike

Capitol Reef got its name because white dome formations look a lot like the dome on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

3. Reason for the Reef

Capitol Reef has “reef” in its name because the high cliffs that stretch across the area look like a coral reef in the ocean and block travel across the land, just like a coral reef blocks travel across the sea.

4. Original Explorers

Several nomadic tribes first explored the park, including the Paiute, the Ute, and the Navajo. These tribes lived in the area for hundreds of years. Today, 32 tribes are associated with Capitol Reef National Park.

5. First Settlers

The Fremont People were the first to settle in the Capitol Reef area. This Native American tribe was known for hunting and farming. They successfully grew many crops in the region, including maize, squash, and lentils.

6. Abundance of Animals

Many animals make their home in Capitol Reef National Park. Over 230 bird species, 5 types of amphibians, 58 types of mammals, and various reptilian and fish species are found in the park. Some of the most famous animals that can be seen in the park include the desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, mountain lions, ringtails, beavers, and foxes. This park is an excellent place for wildlife viewing.

7. International Dark Sky Park

Capitol Reef National Park was declared an International Dark Sky Park in 2015. There are countless opportunities for sky viewing and stargazing at this park. Special discussions and events center around the amazing night sky at Capitol Reef National Park.

8. Bordering Parks

Two other parks border Capitol Reef National Park: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This region is phenomenal for outdoor adventures like hiking, picnicking, and exploring natural beauty.

9. Natural Bridge

Hickman Natural Bridge is located in Capitol Reef National Park. This park area features a trail that takes tourists up to the incredible arch. This bridge towers 300 feet over the Fremont River and Highway 24.

10. Highs and Lows

The highest elevation at Capitol Reef National Park is found at the Golden Throne, which is 7,042 feet in height. The lowest elevation is at Hall’s Creek, which measures 3,877 feet.

11. Mormon Pioneers

Mormons were some of the earliest settlers in the Capitol Reef National Park area. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established nearby, in Salt Lake City, and many missions were founded in this area. Today, Capitol Reef National Park is one of the top stops in the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area.

12. Living Soil

Capitol Reef National Park is home to biological soil crusts. This type of soil is living and is found in many areas of the park. Keeping off this living soil is vital to help the park’s ecosystems thrive.

Final Thoughts

Capitol Reef National Park is an incredible place to visit for a national park vacation. This park is brimming with opportunities to explore, discover, and learn about cultural and natural history. A trip to Capitol Reef is one that will be remembered for a lifetime.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many days should I plan to visit Capitol Reef National Park?

Many visitors recommend a 3-day trip to Capitol Reef National Park. This allows visitors to complete several hikes, visit the historical buildings and orchards, and view the impressive geological features in the park without rushing or missing anything.

How much does it cost to enter Capitol Reef National Park?

Entrance fees are $20 per vehicle or $10 per individual that enters on foot or by bicycle. Entrance fees purchase a 7-day pass which allows guests to come and go to the park during those days.

Can I bring my dog to Capitol Reef National Park?

Pets are allowed in several Capitol Reef National Park areas, including the trail from the visitor center to Fruita Campground. Pets must be on a 6-foot leash and monitored at all times. Dog owners are expected to clean up after their dogs.

When is the best weather at Capitol Reef National Park?

The best weather is from March to June and September to October. The weather is ideal for outdoor adventures and has little chance of heavy rains or snow.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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