Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Views from the Frying Pan trail

This is your go-to guide for visiting Capitol Reef National Park. As a Utah local, I have been visiting Capitol Reef multiple times a year for over 15 years. It is my favorite Utah park. You can find slot canyons, arches, petroglyphs, towering sandstone spires and monoliths, epic views, and so much more. To this day, I am still discovering new places in the park and revisiting favorites all without the insane crowds of the more renown parks like Zion and Arches.

This park deserve so much more than the quick drive-through some tourists give it. In this post, you will find all you need to know to have an incredible first-time visit or discover new places if you are returning because you fell in love just like I did.

Post Highlights

  1. Park overview
  2. Sample 3 day itinerary for a first time visit
  3. Where to eat and stay
  4. Useful links and Practical Information
The Golden Throne viewed from Capitol Gorge Trail

Overview

Located in south-central Utah just outside the town of Torrey, Capitol Reef National Park enjoys relative peace and quiet in comparison to the other Utah National Parks. Capitol Reef has something to do for every type of visitor.  Whether you enjoy scenic drives, photography, canyoneering, and everything from short walks to multi-day backpacking trips you will conclude your visit with happy, tired smiles and pondering when you can return. 

Tip: There is no fee to visit Capitol Reef except for the Scenic Drive. The fee is $20 or your America the Beautiful Pass. Use the self-pay tube at the entrance of the scenic drive.

The park is divided into three regions:

The Historic Fruita district is the main area of the park. It has heirloom fruit and nut tree orchards which have u-pick fruit and nuts summer through fall and beautiful blossoms in spring. The Gifford House, located near the Fruita Campground (reservations required), sells homemade ice cream and pies in addition to local artisan goods with pioneer roots. Enjoy hiking among the white and red sandstone canyon walls, domes, and arches along the many trails. After enjoying the orchards and hiking trails, drive down the scenic drive for more hiking and adventures through the narrows of Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge.

A visit to Cathedral Valley will treat you to towering spires and castle-like monoliths rising starkly out of the desert. This sixty mile loop is a photographer’s paradise. Enjoy the scenic backway route through the rock formations such as the Temples of the Sun and Moon, Factory Butte, and the Bentonite Hills with their rainbow colors. To visit this remote region of the park, high clearance is required and 4 x 4 is highly advised (No ATVs permitted). Visiting this area of the park requires a river-ford and in some places driving through deep sand. It is very remote and there is little to no cell service so always check with a ranger for current conditions.

Directions: Ford the Fremont river at Highway 24 and Hartnet Road then follow it until the Caineville Wash Road where you will circle back to Highway 24. Plan on 4 hours of drive time (more if you want to hike, take in the overlooks, and time for photography). There is backcountry camping at the Cathedral Valley Campground with 6 first-come, first-served sites.

The Waterpocket district is home to slot canyons, arches, and the stunning Strike Valley Overlook. In addition to hiking, one can drive the breath-taking  “Loop the Fold” tour to take in the geology, scenic vistas, and history of the area. To Loop the Fold pick up the information brochure at the Visitor’s Center listing mile markers so you don’t miss any of the sights. The tour is 124 miles and takes 4-6 hours but I suggest taking a day so you can hike and enjoy the area. Part of the route is gravel or dirt roads and any passenger car can drive it if dry. Begin the loop clockwise so you can enjoy cooler hiking temperatures in the morning and enjoy the sunset from the overlooks on Boulder Mountain. Always check with the ranger for current conditions before venturing out. There are five slot canyons long this routes including the short and kid-friendly Surprise and Headquarters canyons.

There is primitive camping available at the Cedar Mesa Campground with 5 first come-first served spots that include fire grate and picnic tables but no water, so make sure to bring your own.

Sample 3 Day Itinerary

Day 1 – Fruita District

9:00 Arrive at Capitol Reef Visitors Center

9:30 Hike Hickman Bridge or Cohab Canyon

11:00 Petroglyphs, Picnic, and Pie (oh my!)

12:30 Scenic Drive and Hike Cassidy Arch or Grand Wash

3:00 Complete the Scenic Drive and stroll Capitol Gorge

5:00 Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook

7:00 Dinner in Torrey

Details:

9:00 Arrive at Visitors center. Enjoy the exhibits and get more information and brochures at the Visitors center. Make sure to pick up a Cathedral Wash and a Loop the Fold Brochure for Days 2 and 3.

Hickman Bridge

9:30 Hike Hickman Bridge (1.7 miles RT-roundtrip, with 416 ft gain). More avid hikers can continue on the Rim Overlook for 4 .7 miles or Cohab Canyon (3.2 miles RT with 794 ft. gain). If you are visiting Capitol Reef as part of a Utah National Parks tour, I recommend Cohab Canyon over Hickman Bridge because you’ll be seeing lots of Arches at Arches National Park and Cohab Canyon has some stellar overlooks over the park, hoodoos, and short side slot canyons.

Cohab Canyon

11:00 Head back towards the visitor’s center and stop to check out the Petroglyphs. They are excellent examples of Fremont culture rock art. You can easily see them but bring binoculars if you have them for a closer encounter.

Fremont Petroglyphs

11:30 Picnic Lunch at the Gifford Homestead. You can enjoy your lunch surrounded by the picturesque orchards, barn and other historic buildings. Keep your eye out for the deer and wild turkeys that frequent the orchards. After lunch pop into the Gifford house for some handmade ice cream or pies. If time allows and in season, the park allows a u-pick harvest of the fruits and nuts (Bring your own food as there are no eateries in the park and no one wants to waste time heading back into town for lunch).

View of Orchards from Cohab Canyon

12:30 Head down the scenic drive (self-pay $20 or America the Beautiful Pass) to the Grand Wash. This drive is stunning as you drive through the narrow canyon with the sheer sandstone cliffs rising high above you on both sides (Never drive the road in a storm as you are driving in the wash). Hike to Cassidy Arch (3.3 miles RT with 666 ft gain). This hike is worth it, even with the steep climb up the switchbacks. The view from the top of the canyon walls is stunning and nothing beats standing on top of the arch for a photo. If you have reluctant hikers in your group, hike the mellow Grand wash to the narrows. I also recommend hiking into the narrows after Cassidy Arch, if you have the time and inclination.

Cassidy Arch

3:00 If you have time, you can continue down the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge. If you opted to skip the afternoon hike, definitely make the time to finish the drive. Once at the Gorge you have the option for more hiking to some pioneer names carved in the sandstone and minor petroglyphs. This is a flat trail between tall canyon walls (1.5 miles RT minimal elevation change).

Views of the Golden Throne from Capitol Gorge Road

5:00 Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook. As the names indicate, you want to catch this area with the golden hour glow and sunset. Make sure to arrive about an hour before sunset, as much of the area falls into shadow right before the sun actually sets and you’ll miss the glowing red rock. So, if you’re visiting in the summer, have dinner in Torrey first, then head back to enjoy the sunset.

Sunset Point
Goosenecks Overlook

7:00 Dinner in Torrey. I recommend Slackers for some of the best burgers in Utah. Rim Rock has stunning views of the park, with lots of large picture windows. My personal Favorite in town is Hunt and Gather, with a seasonal menu with locally sourced ingredients.

Day 2 – Cathedral Valley

9:00 Leave Torrey for a day touring Cathedral Valley

Touring Cathedral Valley CAN be done in 4+ hours, but I recommend planning for a whole day in the area to assure you have plenty of time to hike, take pictures and explore the area. The cell service is almost non-existent in this area, so make sure you have plenty of gas, food, water and emergency supplies. Also, noteworthy, part of this route goes through BLM land where ATVs are permitted. HOWEVER, no ATVs are permitted in any part of the National Park itself.

9:30 Begin tour of Cathedral Valley

I won’t provide time stamps beyond this point so you can spend time at the different points of interest at your own pace.

Ford the Fremont River at the Hartnet Road, located at mile marker 91 off Highway 24. Always check with the park ranger for current water levels and road conditions. You can do this in person at the visitors center or by calling 435-425-3791. This is for your safety and to protect your pocketbook. No one wants to pay hundreds of dollars for a tow if you get stuck, or worse be forced to spend a night or two in the wilderness if you weren’t planning on it.

Bentonite Hills

Bentonite Hills– These colorful banded hills are something out an alien landscape. If wet, they are impassable in any vehicle.

Lower South Desert Overlook – Enjoy views of Thousand Lake mountain, Jailhouse, and Temple Rocks after a 1/4 mile walk.

Upper South Desert Overlook – Another short hike/walk to the cliff edge for unobstructed valley views.

Cathedral Valley Campground. this is the halfway point of your tour. This is the only toilet (pit) available on the tour. The is no water at the campground.

Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook – Enjoy the monoliths, sandstone cliffs contrasting with the verdant P and J (piñon and juniper).

Gypsum Sinkhole – This massive wonder is 50 feet wide and 200 feet deep! Stay away from the edges.

Temple of the Sun

Temples of the Sun and Moon – These monoliths are the quintessential monoliths of the tour. Many chose to camp in this area (this part is BLM land), so they can catch the sunset and sunrise on these beauties.

Glass Mountain – This landmark is made of selenite gypsum crystals

At this point, continue for 17 more miles to return to Highway 24.

Pro Tip: Make sure to stop and collect, or at least check out, the Devil’s Toenails are your way back into town before dinner. What are the Devil’s Toenails? These are fossilized oysters from the Triassic and Jurassic period. To find these, turn left on the OLD Notom Road (Not to be confused with the Notom-Bullfrog Road) and go .2 miles. Pull over and they are everywhere on the right side of the road. You may collect these as they are outside the park’s boundaries.

Day 3 – Loop the Fold

8:00 Start your tour from the Visitor Center. The center opens at 8:00 am, so you can pick up a brochure if you haven’t already. The tour takes 4-6 hours but you want to plan extra time for hiking or side trips. Start the tour clockwise so you can enjoy the hiking in the cooler hours of the day and enjoy the golden hour/sunset light from the overlooks on Boulder Mountain. As with Cathedral Valley, I will not include drive times so you can select to spend more time in the areas that most interest you. The brochure will include additional sites that I don’t include here. It is a great resource for the history, flora, and fauna and excludes the hikes which I will include. Make sure to pack a picnic lunch to enjoy out on the trail or at the overlook at the top of the Burr Trail switchbacks about half way.

From the visitors center on Hwy 24, at 9 miles, turn right (south) onto the Notom-Bullfrog road.

Navajo and Page Sandstone of the Golden Throne and other formations

As you come up over the rise you will see one of my favorite views of the park. These rounded formations just fascinate me. You’re actually looking at the back of part of the scenic drive from day one.

At approximately 16.5 miles, you’ll approach the first of three of the more accessible but challenging slot canyons of the park, Burrow Wash. If you are an avid hiker, definitely choose one of these to be on today’s itinerary! It will be a highlight of the trip. If you’re new slot canyons or not interested in a longer hike, there are other slot canyons to explore further down the road that will be fun to explore without taking hours to visit.

Pro Tip: All three of these slot canyons have around a mile of hiking in a wash before reaching the canyons, but well worth the effort. As with all slot canyons, never enter if there is a chance of storms, even in the distance as there is a chance of flash floods. Always consult the weather report and the rangers for current conditions. I also advise checking on AllTrails in the comments for current trail conditions. Conditions in a slot canyon can change after each storm creating new obstacles to maneuver around and even deep pools that may require swimming in cold water.

At 16.7 miles is Burrow Wash (7.7 miles RT with 565 ft elevation gain).

Burro Wash

At 18.1 miles is Cottonwood Wash (6.5 miles RT with 529 ft gain).

Cottonwood Wash in February

At 21.5 miles you arrive at the Sheets Gulch trailhead. This is the longest of the three slots, but I feel the most family friendly of the strenuous slots. Go as far as you desire (13.8 miles RT with 757 feet elevation gain).

Sheets Gulch

At 25 miles the road turns to dirt.

At 31 miles you arrive the at the turn-off for the Cedar Mesa Campground and Red Canyon hike. This primitive campground has 5 first-come, first-served campsites. The Red Canyon trail is an easy trail that is 4.5 miles long with 440 feet elevation gain that ends in a beautiful box canyon. Although this hike is worth, I would choose one of the 5 slot canyons in this region of the park if you only have time for one hike.

From here, enjoy the scenic drive with excellent vistas of Entrada Sandstone, another Oyster shell reef like yesterday (no collecting this time because you’re in the National Park), and the Striped Morrison Formation of pink and gray banded clay hillsides until your reach the Burr Trail road junction at 41.5 miles. If you have already hiked a slot for today, turn right to head up the Burr Trail Road. If not, continue straight for some kid-friendly slots.

1 mile (from road junction) is the trailhead for Surprise Canyon (2.2 miles RT with 400 feet gain).

Headquarters Canyon is 2.4 miles from the junction (2.5 miles RT with 410 feet gain. This is the better of the two canyons so if you have to choose, do this one).

You can continue further down this road all the way to Lake Powell, but it requires high clearance 4WD and is not included in today’s tour. Return to the road junction, turn left to head up the Burr Trail road switchbacks where you climb over 800 feet in a 1/2 miles! It’s a fun ride. Make sure to stop at the top at the picnic area to get that epic picture! Enjoy lunch if you haven’t already.

View of Peekaboo Arch from the Upper Muley Twist Spur Road

At 45 miles, you can turn right on the spur road towards Upper Muley Twist Canyon and the Strike Valley Overlook. IF you have 4WD drive you can drive the three miles through the canyon to the Strike Valley Overlook and Upper Muley Twist Canyon Trailhead. I would also advise high clearance as we almost took the bumper off our Hyundai Sante Fe on our last excursion down this road.

Views of the Waterpocket Fold, Henry Mountains, Tarantula, and Swap Mesas from the Strike Valley Overlook

If you haven’t done a hike yet, do the Upper Muley Twist (10 miles with 1,355 feet gain) and Strike Valley Overlook (1 mile RT with 400 ft from trailhead or 6.2 miles RT if you need to hike in from the Burr Trail road). The Strike Valley is just incredible, and you don’t want to miss it. As you come up the canyon, either by foot or car, watch out for the three arches. There are a few more arches along the Upper Muley Twist trail, and it eventually comes to a short slot section. Plan on about an hour plus RT for this side trip.

Unnamed Arch in Upper Muley Twist Canyon

Back on the main, paved road, at 61 miles, you will come to a viewpoint of Long Canyon. At this point you are actually in Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. Take in the views of the Circle Cliff and the Henry Mountains in the distance. Just when you think the tour couldn’t deliver anymore wow factor, you enter the towering, red cliff walls of Long Canyon with huge arch alcoves and of course the iconic Singing Canyon at 66 miles. Make sure to pull over and do the short walk into this baby slot. Make sure to sing your favorite tune. You won’t be disappointed! As the road climbs out of the canyon, be sure to pull over once again to take in the views looking back into the canyon. Stunning!

Shortly after the road turns back to pavement, you reach Boulder Town at mile 78. This remote hamlet was one of the last places to have its mail delivered by horse. Enjoy the views of the bird sanctuary by the Boulder Mountain Lodge and Boulder’s bucolic fields and barns.

At the intersection of Highway 12 and the Burr Trail road, you will turn right to head back to Torrey. This intersection has a lovely little coffee/gift shop, the Burr Trail Outpost . This is not your typical tourist trap. You’ll find treasures and artwork from local artisans and artists. The Burr Trail Grill has excellent burgers, trout, and pie. This is NOT your typical greasy spoon. If time allows, so you won’t miss golden hour on Boulder Mountain, stop for dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill (named for the local dirt road Hell’s Backbone) for AMAZING food. This restaurant has won numerous awards, including the James Beard award for Excellence. Enjoy farm-to-table cuisine in its beautiful and laid-back setting. We have been known to drive 45 minutes multiple times in the same trip to eat there. It is that good!

At 75 miles,you’ll see the Anasazi State Park Museum. It has excellent indoor and outdoor exhibits and bathrooms ($10 day-use fee or Utah State Parks Pass).

Continue east on Highway 12 over Boulder Mountain. Take in the overlooks at Homestead Overlook at 91 miles and Larb Hollow at 100 miles. Larb Hollow is our favorite. The views stretch forever over Capitol Reef National Park, Brown’s Reservoir, the Henry Mountains, and the San Rafael Swell. Golden hour has the best light for photography as the desert topography of multicolor sandstone glows in the evening light.

Views from Larb Hollow Overlook

After you’ve had your fill, continue down the mountain, heading east towards Torrey. If you haven’t had dinner, enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants listed for day one or the Pioneer Kitchen located at the Capitol Reef resort which has solid food.

Where to Eat and Stay

I only recommend places that I have personally dined or stayed at more than once to insure the quality of the establishment:

Pioneer Kitchen Country Southwestern cuisine in a laid back environment located at the Capitol Reef Resort. Great vegetarian options. Open year-round.

Slackers Fast food joint with some of the best burgers in the state. The menu has expanded in recent years to include chicken and other sandwiches, salad, vegetarian options and of course their signature milkshakes.

Rim Rock This restaurant serves western fare with incredible views of Capitol Reef. They also have the Rim Rock Patio for more casual fare, like pizza. Both open March through October. Dinner only.

Hunt and Gather, Our personal favorite in town has a seasonal menu with locally sourced ingredients. Dinner only. Open March through mid-October.

Wild Rabbit Coffee and Cafe Breakfast and Sandwiches from 8-2 Thursday through Sunday. Don’t miss this gem for breakfast.

There are many bed and breakfasts, airbnb/vrbos, lodges, and budget motels found in the area. I listed my favorites below:

The Lodge at Red River Ranch Luxury accommodations with 15 unique rooms decorated with antiques and art. We’ve been staying here for over 15 years. It’s one of the best lodges in the West. If you’re fortunate to book a room make sure to say hello to Dave and Charlene from me.

Capitol Reef Resort Many lodging options – rooms, suites, and cabins or choose the “glamp” in a teepee or conestoga wagon.

Airbnb We’ve stayed in three different airbnb’s in the area and were happy with all of them. Many different budget options available.

Useful Links and Practical Information

Capitol Reef is open 365 days a year/24 hour a day.

Visitor Center hours vary seasonally but is open daily except for some major holidays. Call 435-425-3791 for the most up to date information.

The Park is free to visitors, with the exception of the scenic drive which is $20 (self-pay) or the America the Beautiful pass.

The Gifford House Store and Museum is open March 14 (Pi Day) to October 31 daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with extended hours in the summer.

The best seasons to visit the park is spring and fall for ideal temperatures and dryer conditions. Winter is cold and sometimes snowy. A great time to visit for solitude, but some amenities in town are closed for the season. Summer is hot and is prone to flash flooding.

Are you inspired to travel to Capitol Reef National Park? You have everything you need to know for an incredible visit. What are you the most excited to see or do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. As always, please reach out with any questions. I would love to help you plan your adventure.

Looking for water adventures? Try the Ultimate Orcas Island Adventure Itinerary.

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