What a fun three days we had exploring Capitol Reef NP, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Utah.
Down below are our tips on things to do in Capitol Reef National Park including the best Capitol Reef hikes, top scenic drives, where to stay, how to get to the park, and much more.
In native language, the area known as Capitol Reef means “the land of the sleeping rainbow.”
There is probably no more accurate poetic reference than this colorful playground protected for the benefit of all who wish to walk amongst its beauty.
The colors of the massive domes, towering cliffs, twisting canyons, arches and bridges change with the light, moving from deep reds to pastel pinks, sunburnt orange, soft yellows and whites.
Early explorers described it as an impassable reef of rock which gave (in part) to its current name: Capitol Reef National Park.
It is argely defined by the Waterpocket Fold, an enormous wrinkle in the earth’s crust forming the 100-mile backbone of the park.
This happened during a collision of two plates about 65 million years ago, resulting in the rock layers folded over the fault line instead of cracking.
Since then water has become the dominant erosive force shaping the beauty of the canyons, arches, cliffs, domes and bridges of Capitol Reef National Park Utah
You can easily spend days here appreciating its beauty on its many hiking trails and scenic drives. It’s on our list of places to see in Utah that no one tells you about.
Where is Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef NP is located in Southern Utah. It is quite a large area and is divided into three regions.
The Fruita District is where most visitors come as it’s the easiest to get to and explore. The other two areas involve more of an adventurous off-roading experience.
Surprisingly, Capitol Reef Utah is one of the least visited US national parks and not as well known as Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, the three other Utah national parks!
Like Monument Valley, I was surprised by the lower number of visitors that you see here compared to other national parks. Although I was grateful to experience this treasure in a more quiet and unknown way.
The colors of Capitol Reef will fill you with an overwhelming sense of wonder and joy.
During our three days at Capitol Reef National Park we had some great adventures. You could make it happen in two days but those days would be long. And I could have easily stayed longer than three days.
Here’s what we think are the most incredibly beautiful and adventurous things to do in Capitol Reef National Park with kids (or without kids).
Best Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
Cassidy Arch Hike
- Distance: 3.4 miles return
- Elevation Gain: 670 ft
- Difficulty: Strenuous
Named after the famous outlaw, Butch Cassidy, who is said to have hidden here, hiking to Cassidy Arch is one of the best Capitol Reef National Park hikes!
The Cassidy Arch Trail follows the edge of the canyon over slick rock to a natural arch and gorgeous views of the rainbow rock.
This trail is marked as strenuous. But it’s totally dependent on what you are used to as to whether you will find this challenging.
The elevation gain of 670 ft certainly got my heart, lungs and legs working, but we didn’t find it as strenuous as other walks we’ve done like The Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend Texas
The youngest child in our group was six years old and she handled the walk like a superhero. All our kids did a fantastic job on this hike. I was most impressed with what great hikers they are.
There was a bit of whinging, but that is a normal day hiking with kids. They tend to complain but still have a great time.
Hickman Bridge Trail
- Distance: 1.8 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 400 ft
- Difficulty: Moderate
What a gorgeous trail Hickman Bridge is and easy for any kind of traveler.
As soon as you hit the trail, you can see why it’s one of the best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park. The landscape is colorful, unique and diverse.
Despite being the most popular hike, we only saw a couple of other hikers on it!
The Hickman Bridge trail begins at the river and climbs up (elevation gain of 400ft in total) a scrubby mountain, before dipping into a sandy ravine with trees offering shade and little caves and waterfold pockets to climb over.
You then scramble over rocky terrain to views of 133-foot natural Hickman Bridge.
A loop trail runs underneath the bridge with very beautiful views back over the canyon you walked through.
As you come round the loop and get ready to turn left be sure to veer off to the right (you won’t miss it), the scenery over the creek lined with green cottonwoods is spectacular and reminded me so much of Zion National Park.
You can see Capitol Dome on this trail. This Navajo sandstone feature was named for its resemblance to the US Capitol, which also inspired part of the park’s name.
One of the biggest treats came at the end of the hike as we were coming down the small hill.
Down below us next to the river were a herd of deer, an oddball bunch as their fur was molting and so very patchy.
Amongst them was a male with his short, furry antlers. They moved along the river eating grass and reaching up to the leaves to pull them down.
Grand Wash Trail
- Distance: 4.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 200ft
- Difficulty: Easy
The Grand Wash Capitol Reef was the longest of our hikes but the easiest of the Capitol Reef National Park hikes as it’s just a walk along the canyon floor.
Although it says the Grand Wash Trail has an elevation gain of 200 feet, we didn’t notice this at all.
You can hike 1.3 miles to The Narrows, which is the section where the canyon walls become sheer and close in on each other. I was expecting it to be like this the entire way, but it’s only narrow for a small section before opening up again
The trail takes you all the way to Highway 24. Unless someone is there to pick you up, you’ll have to hike back to your car at the trailhead.
This trailhead is the same spot as the Cassidy Arch. If you are fit and full of energy you could possibly do both hikes in the one day. But start early.
Capitol Gorge Trail
- Distance: 2 miles return
- Elevation Gain: 80 ft
- Difficulty: Easy
The Capitol Gorge Trail is another easy walk along the canyon floor, this time in the Capitol Gorge Wash area.
You can see petroglyphs along the way and at the end a short trail goes up to the see water pockets, called the Tanks. We kinda got lost and didn’t actually find them.
We were in an anxious hurry to walk back out as the rain started and you are advised to stay out of the washes if a thunderstorm is approaching due to flash flooding.
So with a bit more time and care you won’t get lost.
A vast majority of trails in most national parks, state parks, and federal reserves we’ve visited on our USA road trip have been very poorly marked.
Sunset Point and Chimney Rock Loop
If we were to return to this national park (and we’d like to), we would do these two Capitol Reef hikes which are meant to be great for sunset, we did not get time to do:
- Sunset Point is only 0.8 miles return
- Chimney Rock Loop is a 3.6 miles return and listed as strenuous due to its 590 ft elevation gain.
Scenic Drives in Capitol Reef National Park
8 Mile Scenic Drive
The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive (named simply that) winds through the heart of the park for 8 miles making allowing you to access many of the park’s top attractions and hiking trails making it one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park.
You will not get tired of the red rock views in every direction on the scenic drive. Sheer sandstone cliffs of every color and have been lifted, folded and carved into all kinds of shapes.
Let you and your kids imagination go wild in naming them.
Along this drive you can access the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge, and the Fruita Historic District.
Highway 24 Scenic Drive
We entered Capitol Reef National Park Utah from Moab in the East on Highway 24. Whilst Highway 12 starts just outside Capitol Reef NP and gets all the accolades as an All American Road, this highway also very good.
Take it slow, enjoy the views, and pull over for any of the many trails and attractions that begin off this highway.
It goes all the way through the national park and out to the nearest town of Torrey.
The landscape changes dramatically from one end to the other moving from mauve and white cliffs, to domes and towering peaks of yellow and pink, to deep red canyons walls.
The photos we saw of this area inspired us to visit. Monoliths and giant castle-like formations rise up from the desert floor.
Just a photograph of it seemed to hold the same spiritual and magnetic power that was present in the buttes and mesas during our visit to Monument Valley, our favorite place in the USA.
I overhead a woman telling her friend that it was her favorite of all the things to do in Utah!
We HAVE to do this. We discovered it was a 64 mile loop road only available for high clearance 4WD as there is a river crossing!
After our jeeping and 4WD adventures in Moab we felt more than confident to take the Beast (our F250) on this incredible adventure in Capitol Reef National Park.
The first part of the drive involves driving along a river and, unfortunately during our visit the area had experienced quite a bit of rain. This meant the adventure took on a higher risk we weren’t prepared to take on.
Utah is one of those states we’ll always return to for more adventures. You want to leave some activities to do on your return. Cathedral Valley is now at the top of our Utah bucket list!
Burr Trail Scenic Byway & Notom Bullfrog Road
The Burr Trail Road in the southern part of the park is spectacular!
This follows the Waterpocket fold and the colors as you look back on the rocks are extraordinary: pink, grey, chocolate, orange, yellow, and white
The Burr Trail Scenic Byway winds through a deep red slickrock canyon and rolling desert forest of orange and green. It goes through the eastern portion off Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument before reaching Capitol Reef National Park.
You’ll know when you’ve reached it you’ll see the jagged outcropping of bright rainbow colored rock that is so recognizable as the Waterpocket fold and the stunning Capitol Reef.
At the bottom of the switchbacks it meets with the Notom Road, which is a gravel road that runs from Highway 24 along the east side of Capitol Reef Utah.
You can follow it for as far as you like.
There are different hiking trails along the road. The Surprise Canyon was recommended to us but after our two massive hikes the previous days we decided to just have a resting scenic drive.
You can get into it coming from Highway 12 on the west and then go north on Notom Bullfrog road or come down from highway 24 in the north.
Both Highway 12 and Burr Trail Road were featured in our best USA scenic drives list.
Fruita Historic District
In the 1880’s Mormons established the settlement of Fruita at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek.
They quickly learned how to live a self sufficient life building irrigation systems for their orchard and pastures. They had a quiet and social life here with their communities.
The historic Fruita District and Griffith Homestead was one of my favorite places to visit in Capitol Reef park and just sit and relax.
After months in the American Southwest desert, it felt wonderful to finally be sitting under gigantic trees and green grass. This area makes Capitol Reef even more enticing and beautiful.
The Fruita Historic settlement includes the Fruita schoolhouse, blacksmith ship, the Gifford House store and museum and other buildings and features.
On of my favorite things to do in Capitol Reef National Park was to eat one of the gluten free raspberry cookies from the Gifford Store. It’s seriously one of the best cookies I’ve ever had.
It goes nicely with a cup of coffee and views of the horses grazing in the fields under the cottonwoods. And the pies are meant to be amazing too!
Down in the the valley, you’ll discover a verdant world of orchards and shady trees, horses and green grass.
Capitol Reef National Park Southern Utah maintains one of the largest historic orchards in the National Park Service with almost 3,000 trees. The orchards still produce fruit, although not in a commercial capacity.
The orchards have apple, peach, cherry, pear, plum, apricot and almond trees. If you’re hungry and you spy a delicious piece of fruit on the tree, you’re welcome to pick it for a snack.
Fees will be charged if you wish to take any fruit home with you though.
I love how this area has been preserved in Capitol Reef. It reminded me a lot of Cades Cove in the great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Planning a Trip to Capitol Reef NP
One Day Itinerary for Capitol Reef NP
Wondering what to see in Capitol Reef National Park if you only have one day?
You’ll want to rise early to fit in the most spectacular parts of Capitol Reef and I suggest staying in the Fruita district.
- Cassidy Arch Trail (am)
- Scenic Drive down to Capitol Gorge
- Lunch at Fruita
- Hickman Bridge Trail
- Scenic Drive Hwy 24
Entrance Fees to Capitol Reef
There is no entry gate to pay your fee. It’s an honor system really.
It costs $20 per vehicle for a 7 day pass. Remember your fees go towards protecting and maintaining the park.
We have an annual national park’s pass, which allows us to access all federal lands without paying the entrance fee. It costs $80 for a year and is an absolute bargain if you intend on visiting a few parks within the year.
How long to visit Capitol Reef National Park?
The longer the better!
We stayed two and a half days. I could have stayed longer and done a few more Capitol Reef hikes. It’s a gentle, quiet national park so if that is what you want, stay as long as you can.
You could do the above-mentioned Capitol Reef National Park hikes in two days. They will probably be two long days though, but it can be done. I think three would be better.
If we had more time, we would have done Chimney Rock Hike at sunset and maybe one of the gentle river strolls.
Junior Ranger Program
A must do with kids is the Junior Ranger Program.
Be sure to pick up your books for the kids at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center, do the activities, and get your badges at the end. Part of the program requirement is to watch the 18-minute film in the visitor center to learn more about the par.
Stop in at the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center to learn more about the hikes at Capitol Reef National Park and other helpful information.
You can watch a short video on the history and geology of the park. It was quite interesting and the kids enjoyed it.
Here is where you want to pick up your Junior Ranger booklets and return them when finished to get the Junior Ranger badges.
Where to Stay in Capitol Reef NP
Camping in Capitol Reef
Right next to the Gifford House is the Fruita Campground. It is first come first served at the only Capitol Reef camping spot inside the park!
There are no hookups although they do have water and a dump station. It’s a very pretty campsite and one I would love to stay in.
For campgrounds near Capitol Reef National Park look here.
Boondocking (Free Camping)
For free RV camping near Capitol Reef National Park we found a lovely boondocking spot just outside the park’s west entrance and the town of Torrey.
For all other camping options look here.
Hotels Near Capitol Reef National Park
There are no Capitol Reef National Park hotels inside the park, so for Capitol Reef hotels near the park, the town of Torrey Utah will be the closest and offers a few restaurants and cafes.
For Torrey Utah camping spots look here.
Capitol Reef Resort
3 star hotel offering excellent views of the sandstone cliffs and offers wigwams and wagons to stay in. They have fire pits and serenity with a good location just outside the western entrance of the park
Check availability and prices for Capitol Reef Resort Utah here.
Red Sands Hotel
Mountain views and a hot tub just outside the entrance to the park makes this 3-star hotel one of the best budget hotels near Capitol Reef National Park
Check availability and prices for Capitol Reef Resort here.
Getting to Capitol Reef National Park
The closest city to Capitol Reef National Park is Moab. Consider stopping at Goblin Valley on the way in from Moab.
Moab to Capitol Reef:
- Distance: 137 miles
- Time: 2hrs, 10 mins
Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef:
- Distance: 112 miles
- Time: 2hrs, 05 mins
Canyonlands to Capitol Reef:
- Distance: 145 miles
- Time: 2hrs, 15 mins
Denver to Capitol Reef National Park:
- Distance: 428 miles
- Time: 6.5 hrs
Car Rental and RV Rental
- Check out prices for car rental from Las Vegas
- Consider renting an RV for your Utah and Southwest road trip. Check out the unique offerings on RVshare here.
Tours to Capitol Reef National Park
We did see a G Adventures tour while we were visiting Capitol Reef so there are options if you cannot get to the national park in Utah yourself.
G Adventures is a tour company we love to support and share with you.
Check out the following tours that will get you to Capitol Reef (and a few other awesome places in the nearby region.)
Other Things to Do in Utah
Looking for other places to visit in Utah? Start with these posts:
- 11 Amazing Things to do in Arches National Park
- 12 Incredible Things to do in Canyonlands National Park
- Ultimate Guide of Things To Do in Zion National Park
- The unique and magical Goblin Valley State Park
- 43 Fun things to do in Utah for your bucket list
- 2 week Southwest USA road trip itinerary
- 3 Week American Southwest road trip itinerary
- 4 week desert southwest road trip itinerary
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I hope our Capitol Reef National Park visitor guide helps you plan your own trip. If you have any questions, comment below.