Capitol Reef National Park: The Complete Guide for 2020

Amiee Maxwell

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

The name Capitol Reef evokes images of tropical coastlines and marine life, which may seem odd for the name of a national park smack dab in the middle of landlocked Utah. Early settlers thought the park’s seemingly impenetrable 87-mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust looked like a “reef,” and that its giant white Navajo Sandstone domes looked just like the dome of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. – hence its name, Capitol Reef.   

Visitors are often lured to the big name national parks in Utah like Arches National Park and Zion National Park, but visitors willing to venture into this remote part of the state will find an amazing wonderland of unique rock formations, dizzying slot canyons, ancient petroglyphs, and lush fruits orchards, without the crowds of Utah’s more-famous parks.

Where is Capitol Reef National Park?

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah in the heart of the Colorado Plateau. The park is about 115 miles northeast of Bryce Canyon National Park and 130 miles southwest of Arches National Park. The closest major airport is about 185 miles northeast, in Grand Junction, Colorado and the nearest major cities are Salt Lake City, 218 miles to the north, and Las Vegas, 330 miles southwest. 

Capitol Reef National Park Facts

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Originally named “Wayne Wonderland” in the 1920s by local businessmen who lobbied President Roosevelt for protection of this colorful land of buttes, domes, and canyons, Capitol Reef National Park was designated a national monument in 1937 and eventually a national park in 1971. You’ll find plenty of human presence in the park from the Freemont Culture Indians who lived in the area from 700 to 1,000 years ago and left behind a diversity of rock art images and ancient habitation sites to the Mormon pioneers who made this tiny, remote river valley their home in the late-1800s.  

Capitol Reef National Park Weather

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Due to its higher elevation, summers in Capitol Reef National Park are not as harsh as many of the other southwestern parks. Summer temperatures can be uncomfortably hot on the trail though so hit the trail early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. Flash floods are a risk in late summer and roads occasionally close to snow in winter. Fall is the best time to visit the orchards and the annual harvest festival typically takes place the third weekend in September. 

Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center & Hours

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Capitol Reef National Park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, although some roads may close due to snowy conditions or flash flood warnings. The visitor center is open daily from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, except for major holidays. Visitor center hours are extended to 6:00 pm during the summer. The Gifford House, famous for its pie, opens for the season appropriately on Pi Day (March 14) and closes around the end of October and is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Capitol Reef National Park is under limited operations due to COVID-19. Some facilities may not be available and staffing may be limited.

Capitol Reef National Park Entrance Fee

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Entrance into the park costs $20 per vehicle or $10 per individual on foot or bike and passes are valid for 7 days. Holders of the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass enjoy free entry into the park. Sites at the Fruita Campground are $20 a night and campsites at the more primitive Cathedral Valley Campground and Cedar Mesa Campground are free.  

Getting To Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

From Bryce Canyon National Park, take Scenic Byway 12 through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to its intersection with Utah 24 at the town of Torrey. Head east on Utah 24 and you’ll arrive at the park. From the east, take I-70 to the exit for Utah 24 and head west until you enter the park. 

Capitol Reef National Park Lodging

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Capitol Reef Airbnb

There are no Airbnbs within the borders of Capitol Reef National Park. Camping is the only option for lodging in the park. The small gateway town of Torrey is just 15 minutes west of the visitor center and that’s where you’ll find a variety of lodging options including Airbnbs. Torrey Airbnb options range from private rooms and tiny cabins to luxury homes and desert retreats. 

Capitol Reef Camping

Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds and campsites inside and outside of Capitol Reef National Park:

  1. Fruita Campground (Capitol Reef National Park)
  2. Cedar Mesa Campground (Capitol Reef National Park)
  3. Cathedral Valley Campground (Capitol Reef National Park)
  4. Singletree Campground
  5. Pleasant Creek Campground
  6. Oak Creek Campground
  7. Sunglow Campground
  8. Wonderland RV Park
  9. Sandcreek RV Park
  10. Thousand Lakes RV Park

Capitol Reef Resorts, Hotels and Hostels

If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within a quick drive of Capitol Reef. Here are some of our favorites:

  1. Capitol Reef Resort
  2. Rim Rock Inn
  3. Noor Hotel of Capitol Reef
  4. Broken Spur Inn
  5. Red Sands Hotel
  6. Austin’s Chuck Wagon Motel
  7. Capitol Reef Inn & Cafe
  8. Cowboy Homestead Cabins
  9. Skyride Inn Bed & Breakfast
  10.  The Lodge at Red River Ranch

Capitol Reef Tours

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

One of the most exhilarating ways to explore Capitol Reef National Park is with a guided canyoneering tour. Canyoneering involves climbing, rappelling, and squeezing through narrow and twisty slot canyons and there are canyons for all skill levels and abilities. For first timers, we like Capitol Reef Adventure Company.

Local outfitters also offer guided hiking, horseback, and jeep tours in Capitol Reef National Park. The park itself sponsors free geology talks, guided hikes, and dark sky tours and information can be found at the visitor center and campground bulletin boards.

Capitol Reef Landmarks

Driving Capitol Gorge Road at Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Gorge Road, Torrey
Capitol Gorge Road, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

If you only have a few hours, driving the Capitol Gorge Road will give you the most bang for your buck. Start at the visitor center for a quick primer on the unique geology of the area and then head out on the 25-mile roundtrip scenic drive stopping for a quick hike up Grand Wash and a wander through the orchards in Fruita. The Capitol Gorge Road begins at the end of the paved scenic drive and offers some of the best scenery in the park. 

Sample Every Flavor of Pie at the Gifford House at Capitol Reef National Park

Gifford House Museum
Gifford House, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

The Mormons settled near Capitol Reef in 1880 and planted orchards along the Fremont River. The park’s last remaining resident sold his house to the National Park Service in 1969 and it has since become a monument to the area’s Mormon homesteading days. Park visitors can tour the Gifford Homestead, purchase freshly baked pie and bread from the store, and enjoy a picnic under the fruit trees.   

Catch the Sunset at the Goosenecks Overlook in Capitol Reef National Park 

Goosenecks Overlook, Torrey
Goosenecks Overlook, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

The Goosenecks Overlook is a short and easy hike just off Utah 24 with amazing views into Sulphur Creek Canyon. The trail offers sweeping views of the Waterpocket Fold and dome formations and is especially dramatic at sunset. The Sunset Point Trail also begins from the Goosenecks Overlook parking area and follows the rim to a viewpoint perched on the edge of a cliff. 

Capitol Reef National Park Hikes

In Capitol Reef National Park, skies are blue and beautiful hikes are plentiful. If you’re ready to stretch your legs (but not sure where to start), here’s a list of 10 of our favorite hiking trails in Capitol Reef:

  1. Cassidy Arch Trail
  2. Chimney Rock Trail
  3. Capitol Gorge Trail
  4. Hickman Bridge Trail
  5. Cohab Canyon Trail
  6. Frying Pan Trail
  7. Grand Wash Trail
  8. Rim Overlook Trail
  9. Fremont Gorge Overlook Trail
  10. Halls Creek Narrows

Things to Do in Capitol Reef

View ancient Fremont petroglyphs and habitation sites along the Hickman Bridge Trail

Fremont Petroglyphs, Jensen
Fremont Petroglyphs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Enjoy spectacular views of Capitol Reef National Park at Panorama Point

Panorama Point, Torrey
Panorama Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Pick your own apples, cherries, peaches, and plums in the park’s historic orchards

Fruita, Fruita
Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Mountain Bike to the remote and seldom visited Cathedral Valley

Cathedral Valley, Valley
Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Take an overnight horseback trip into the park or go on a cattle roundup with a local outfitter

Capitol Reef National Park,
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Watch for deer, marmot, and antelope that frequent the Fruita orchards

Fruita, Fruita
Fruita Orchards, Fruita, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Stand on top of a gigantic natural stone arch named after Butch Cassidy who once hid out in these canyons – Cassidy Arch

Cassidy Arch, Torrey
Cassidy Arch, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Drive the spectacular Burr Trail, which connects Capitol Reef National Park to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lake Powell
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Cool off in the water along Sulfur Creek Canyon

Sulphur Creek, Sulphur Creek
Sulphur Creek Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.

Spy names of pioneers carved into the walls in Capitol Gorge, also known as the Pioneer Register hike

Capitol Gorge trailhead, Torrey
Pioneer Register, Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, US.