Favorite things to do in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is a remote and often overlooked splendor! The park has a variety of impressive natural features, hikes for all levels, and jeep roads galore. It is worth spending a night or two at one of the park campgrounds to truly appreciate it. If you have a high-clearance vehicle and looking for solitude, you'll find endless options in this park.
Below is a list of our favorite things to do and see in Capitol Reef National Park.
Things to know about visiting Capitol Reef National park
Here are the most important things to know about visiting Capitol Reef National Park:
Stock up on groceries prior to your trip. The nearest town to Capitol Reef National Park is Torrey, about 20 minutes away. It has hotels and restaurants, but the trading post, which has limited provisions, is only open limited hours. If you're on the Mighty 5 road trip, you won't find reliable supermarkets between St George and Moab, so plan ahead!
It takes a long time to get here, but it's a beautiful drive from all directions! It takes just under 4 hours to drive there directly from Salt Lake City or 6 hours from Las Vegas. However, most people pass through this park on their road trip through Utah's Mighty 5 National Parks. It's only 2 hours on Scenic Byway 12 from Bryce Canyon National Park.
Get a high-clearance vehicle, preferably 4WD, and add a few days to your journey. Capitol Reef covers a huge area, but only a small section of it is accessible to regular passenger cars. There are dirt roads galore, for instance, in Cathedral Valley, the impressively scenic northern part of the park. And there's a cool dirt road that approaches the park from the south, along the Waterpocket Fold. This is the infamous geology that justifies the existence of the park.
There's no cell phone service in the park. Even at the visitor center, cell service is spotty.
Highway 24 cuts through the main part of the park. There's no entrance station and no fee to drive through the park on this highway that connects Scenic Byway 12 with Interstate 70. This is the only paved road through the park.
Pay entrance fee or show your park pass at the visitor center if you want to drive the short scenic road beyond the campground. Personally, I prefer the other roads in the park.
Short stops in Capitol Reef National Park
If you're just driving through without spending the night, I hope you still take the time to stop at all of the following stops:
A big panel of petroglyphs on the side of the road, remnants from the Fremont Culture that lived in the area over 1000 years ago.
This viewpoint is especially great during sunsets and sunrises, but you'll get great views from here any time of day.
In season, you can pick fruit from historic orchards in the park. You'll find apples, pears, peaches, apricot, and more! The park maintains these orchards from pioneer days in the late 1800's.
Best day hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
You can download trail maps from this link, but please also pick up physical trail maps at the visitor center. In order of difficulty:
This is a short, moderate hike that loops under a large natural bridge. It's only 1.8 miles roundtrip and takes about an hour to complete. Though this is a very popular hike, I think it's worth doing!
This is a short, yet difficult hike to visit a hidden arch where Butch Cassidy is said to have taken refuge sometimes. It's only 3.4 miles roundtrip, with 670 ft elevation change, and takes about 2 hours to complete. The final section to the arch requires some trail finding and walking on sandstone slabs that may feel vertiginous to inexperienced desert hikers. Know your limits and turn around if you do not feel comfortable!
Frying Pan Trail
This is possibly my favorite hike in the entire Southwest! But you have to make friends in order to get here because this is a one-way trail. If you're staying in the campground, offer your neighbors to drive you to the Grand Wash trailhead. From there, hike the short detour to Cassidy Arch, then return to the main Frying Pan Trail and follow it to Cohab Canyon. This will lead you back to the campground.
The total distance of this hike is either 6 miles or 7.5 miles, depending which Grand Wash trailhead you choose. At the end of the day, it's a bit over 1000 ft of total elevation change and takes 3-4 hours to complete.
It sounds simple enough, but I have hiked this trail in nearly 100F weather in July and it really merits the name Frying Pan - there is no shade! I've also hiked this trail in a snow blizzard in April - NO JOKE - and I'm glad I knew where I was going.
Note: This hike could be strenuous depending on the weather and it requires trail finding skills! DO NOT HIKE THIS IF THUNDERSTORMS THREATEN.
Navajo Knobs via Rim Overlook
If you're in shape and you have the time, follow the trail to Navajo Knobs. You'll get amazing views of the Capitol Reef topography from all directions. Keep in mind that this trail will take you at least 5-7 hours, as it is nearly 10 miles roundtrip with 1620 ft of elevation change.
Other bucket list places to visit near Capitol Reef
The more you read about this area, the more days you'll want to add to your trip. Between Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and the San Rafael Swell, there's plenty to add to your bucket list!
Dirt roads in and around Capitol Reef
If you have a high-clearance vehicle, here's a list of dirt roads that you should add to your bucket list. Always check the weather and road conditions before setting out on dirt roads. Make sure you have extra food, water, and gas for emergencies. Plan to spend at least two days on each road.
Boulder Mountain - Byway 12
Visit Boulder Mountain along Scenic Byway 12 in summer for tons of high-elevation hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, and scenic 4WD roads. This road often closes in winter due to snow, so check road conditions prior to heading this way.
Fishlake Scenic Byway 25
A popular place for locals to visit in summer, Fish Lake offers tons of high-elevation hiking, mountain biking, fishing, camping, and scenic 4WD roads. On the way, you'll pass through Pando, believed to be the largest living organism in the world. This is actually an aspen grove, and it's wonderful to come here for its fall foliage. Due to its high elevation, this road is only open in summer.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
We'll cover this region in a separate post since this is such a big park with tons of things to do and see! Grand Staircase is a year-round destination that's great for winter backpacking and refreshing summer hikes, as well as countless 4WD roads. Closest to Capitol Reef, however, you should look into hiking and camping at Lower Calf Creek Falls.
San Rafael Swell
I-70 cuts right through a huge desert called San Rafael Swell. To the south, along Rt 24 between Hanksville and the interstate, you should detour toward Goblin Valley State Park (just a 15-minute stop) and continue to hike Little Wild Horse Canyon. To the north of I-70, check out Buckhorn Wash and the Wedge.
Horseshoe Canyon - Canyonlands National Park
Horseshoe Canyon is technically in the San Rafael Swell, but it's administered by Canyonlands National Park. If you time it just right, you should join a ranger-guided hike to truly appreciate what the canyon has to offer. Best to hike here in winter, the canyon leads to amazing pictograph panels.
Capitol Reef National Park is a year-round destination with breathtaking geology, panoramic views, and endless remote wide open desert spaces. If you'd like more information on any of the destinations mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.