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 without the insane crowds of the more renowned parks like Zion and Arches.
This park deserves 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.
- Park overview
- Sample 3-day itinerary for a first-time visit
- Where to eat and stay
- Useful links and Practical Information
Located in south-central Utah just outside Torrey, Capitol Reef National Park enjoys relative peace and quiet compared to the other Utah National Parks. Capitol Reef has something to do with 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 in summer through fall and beautiful blossoms in spring. The Gifford House, located near the Fruita Campground (reservations required), sells homemade ice cream, pies, and 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. High clearance is required to visit this remote region of the park, 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 have time for photography). Backcountry camping at the Cathedral Valley Campground has 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 breathtaking “Loop the Fold” tour to take in the area’s geology, scenic vistas, and history. 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; 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. This route has five slot canyons, 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 a 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
9:00 Arrive at the Visitor’s Center. Enjoy the exhibits and get more information and brochures at the Visitor’s Center. Make sure to pick up a Cathedral Wash and a Loop the Fold Brochure for Days 2 and 3.
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.
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.
11:30 Picnic Lunch at the Gifford Homestead. You can enjoy your lunch surrounded by 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).
12:30 Head down the scenic drive (self-pay $20 or America the Beautiful Pass) to Grand Wash. This drive is stunning as you go through the narrow canyon with the sheer sandstone cliffs rising high above you on both sides (Never drive the road in a storm because of the risk of flash flooding). 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.
3:00 If you have time, you can continue down the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge. If you opted to skip the afternoon hike, make time to finish the drive. Once at the Gorge, you can go 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).
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.
7:00 Dinner in Torrey. My personal favorite in town is Hunt and Gather, with a seasonal menu with locally sourced ingredients. Capitol Burger has amazing and inventive burgers. Rim Rock has stunning views of the park, with lots of large picture windows.
Day 2 – Cathedral Valley
8:00 Breakfast at Wild Rabbit Cafe. Serving amazing breakfast with incredible options toasts, scrambles, and breakfast burritos. They have a fully stocked pastry case if you have a sweet tooth. Make sure to grab a sandwich for your day on the road.
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 ensure you have plenty of time to hike, take pictures, and explore the area. 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 your 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 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– These colorful banded hills are something out of 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 – Enjoy the monoliths and 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.
Temples of the Sun and Moon – These monoliths are the quintessential monoliths of the tour. Many chose to camp in this area (the area adjacent is BLM land) to 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 Before you start your tour hit the drive-thru at Dark Sky Coffee for your favorite morning beverage and eats. Enjoy in your car or at the picnic tables. 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 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 halfway.
From the visitors center on Hwy 24, at 9 miles, turn right (south) onto the Notom-Bullfrog road.
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 park’s more accessible but challenging slot canyons, 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 to 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).
At 18.1 miles is Cottonwood Wash (6.5 miles RT with 529 ft gain).
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).
At 25 miles the road turns to dirt.
At 31 miles you arrive 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 of elevation gain that ends in a beautiful box canyon. Although this hike is beautiful, 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 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 1/2 miles! It’s a fun ride. Make sure to stop at the top of the road. There is a picnic area to get that epic picture! Enjoy lunch if you haven’t already.
At 45 miles, you can turn right on the spur road towards Upper Muley Twist Canyon and the Strike Valley Overlook. If you have a 4WD drive vehicle, 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.
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 the 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.
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 any more 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 pies. 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 on 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.
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 try our Chak Balam for some excellent Mexican food in a dining room filled with handmade artisan masks from different regions of Mexico.
Where to Eat and Stay
I only recommend places that I have personally dined or stayed at more than once to ensure 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.
Capitol Burger Fast food truck with outdoor seating. All the food is fresh and handmade with lots of gourmet burger options.
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 from March through October. Dinner only.
Hunt and Gather, Our personal favorite in town, it 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.
Chak Balam has excellent Mexican food in a dining room filled with handmade artisan masks from different regions of Mexico.
Many bed and breakfasts, Airbnb/Vrbos, lodges, and budget motels are found in the area. I listed my favorites below:
Skyview has 14 rooms with art installations that highlight the park’s iconic features. Enjoy red cliff views from your private hot tub after a day on the trails.
The Lodge at Red River Ranch has 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 Airbnbs in the area and were happy with all of them. Many different budget options are available.
Useful Links and Practical Information
Capitol Reef is open 365 days a year/24 hours 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 from 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 are 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.
3 thoughts on “Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Capitol Reef National Park”
this looks like an amazing trip! I love all the details and tips…someday!
Thanks, Racquel! I have no doubt that you’ll love it. If you’d like any more advice on the park don’t hesitate to reach out.
Pingback: 26 Best Utah Hikes for Kids | Miriam Explores and Hikes