Article Overview: Best Things to Do at Capitol Reef National Park
If you love Utah’s parks but hate the crowds then let me tell you about all the amazing things to do at Capitol Reef National Park. Let’s start with the simple fact that Capitol Reef saw 3.5 million less visitors than Zion National Park last year.
If you’re digging that, then allow me to continue by saying Capitol Reef is also nearly double the size of every other Utah National Park except Canyonlands.
In sum, Capitol Reef is larger than most of the other Utah parks and there are way less crowds here.
That means lots of epic adventures to be had and incredible things to do in Capitol Reef National Park with just you and the park.
Shall we get started?
Table of Contents: Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
Best Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
- About My Travels to Capitol Reef National Park
- Things to Know Before You Visit Capitol Reef
- How much time do you need at Capitol Reef National Park?
- Where to Stay
- Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
- Top 15 Best Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
- Top 10 Capitol Reef National Park Activities
- Top 5 Best Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
- Map of Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
- Summary of Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
About My Travels to Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef has been my favorite Utah National Park long before the crowds overran places like Zion and Bryce Canyon. Ever since my first trip here when I was fresh out of high school I have felt at peace in this epic place.
The landscape is totally different from the other Utah national parks in an amazing way. The park got its name from frustrated travelers who likened it to coral reefs that impede ships from passing through.
From the overlooks in this park you can get otherworldly vistas that seem like something right out of star wars.
I’ve been back many times since my first trip here and am looking forward to heading back later this year.
Things to Know Before You Visit Capitol Reef
$30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
I usually pack a light windbreaker when visiting Capitol Reef as the high desert can get cold at night despite being hot during the day.
There are fuel options in Torrey right outside of the park so fueling up at Capitol Reef National Park is not as much of a concern.
The Best Guide Book
This is the guide book I like best for Capitol Reef National Park.
The Best Map
I like this map best for Capitol Reef National Park.
The Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park is during the fall to see all of the cottonwood trees turn a vibrant yellow. If you can’t make it during Autumn, try Spring as a second best time. Summer is extremely hot in Capitol Reef and in Winter is surprisingly cold (and snowy).
Restaurants & Food
Food options are limited but solid in the Capitol area with the charming town of Torrey, Utah located just outside of the park. My personal favorite is the Wild Rabbit Cafe which has delicious sandwiches and great coffee.
While here be sure to stop at Shooke Coffee next door. Their african beans make some of the best coffee I’ve ever had (which they serve at Wild Rabbit).
How much time do you need at Capitol Reef National Park?
The short answer is you need at least 1 day in Capitol Reef National Park. In that day hike the Hickman Bridge Trail, the Grand Wash Trail, drive the Scenic Road across the Slickrock Divide, see the Petroglyphs, and visit the Fruita area.
Personally, I recommend 2 days with one day spent in the Cathedral Valley area and one day in the Fruita area.
Where to Stay
We’ve listed all of the best places to stay near Capitol Reef National Park here.
Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
Top 15 Best Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
15. See the great Slickrock Divide
Slickrock Divide is an epic and often overlooked viewpoint that should be on every photographers list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park.
The divide itself separates the way water flows in the park with the northern runoff spilling into the Grand Wash and the southern runoff spilling into the Capitol Gorge. The effect of water is very apparent throughout the park but few places show it in such a grand fashion as the Slickrock Divide.
Note: This spot is very easy to overlook and pass by so keep a close eye. I blazed right by it my first time to the park and barely noticed it on my second trip. The small turnout is located on the park’s Scenic Drive and is marked by an easily missed road sign.
14. Soak in the views at Panorama Point
Panorama Point is one of the best places to catch a sunset and an easy addition to your list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park.
Personally, I prefer the aptly named Sunset Point for sunset (see below) but this is still a great spot that requires less of a hike to get to.
To get to Panorama Point simply follow the signs from Highway 24 inside the park. There will be a turn off onto Goosenecks Road you need to take and then it’s a quick left turn into the Panorama Point parking lot.
Getting to the Point itself requires just a .3 mile hike after parking your car.
13. View the Pioneer Register
For history buffs out there, seeing the pioneer register is something you’ll want to add to your list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park. I like to call this site an example of protected graffiti. If you deface a rock face like these folks did back then in modern times you get in trouble for it, and rightly so.
The names carved on to the rock face at the pioneer register give an interesting historical picture of the sorts of folks who lived in and passed through the area at the time. The earliest inscription I was able to find on the register was from 1871.
Please note that this site is protected now and it is a federal offense to mark or deface the register in any way.
12. Hike the Cohab Canyon Trail
For folks who love a good hike with some solid elevation gain hiking the Cohab Canyon Trail should be added to your list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park. There are two ways to hike the trail as it can be done as a point to point or out and back.
For most folks, the out and back is the best option unless you have a way of being picked up at the opposite end of where you start. If you’re doing the round trip then I recommend starting at the end point off of the Scenic Drive near Fruita Barn.
This takes you up a series of switchbacks to start which means you go back down them on your way back. When you get toward the end of the trail you’ll start to descend down toward highway 24.
I recommend looping it back when the trail starts to descend toward the highway so you don’t have to hike up that portion again.
The entire trail is about 1.7 miles each way according to the NPS and should take about 2 hours or so to complete.
11. See the Petroglyphs
If you’re a sucker for petroglyphs (*raises hand*) then adding these to your list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park is an absolute must.
I had actually seen photos of these petroglyphs prior to my visit to the park as they are relatively famous to us petroglyph nerds out there so seeing them in person was especially cool.
The Capitol Reef petroglyphs date back to between 600 – 1300 AD and were left by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited this region.
They appear to depict a variety of things like hunting activities, stories, and mythologies of the time.
Getting to these petroglyphs is very easy and wheelchair accessible. Located just off of highway 24 near the Fruita Barn, the turnout for the petroglyphs is hard to miss.
Once parked, a short .15 mile boardwalk leads visitors to the viewpoint where the petroglyphs can be seen from about 50 yards away.
Note: I recommend bringing a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens to see them well.
Top 10 Capitol Reef National Park Activities
10. Explore the Capitol Gorge
The Capitol Gorge is a deep and beautiful canyon located within the Waterpocket Fold that holds many of the best things to see and do in Capitol Reef National Park.
For starters, the hike through the Capitol Gorge is one of the most beautiful in the park as it leads you through the massive canyon similar to Zion but with a greater variety of colors.
Located within the Capitol Gorge itself are the Pioneer Register, Golden Throne Trailhead, and Water Tanks.
Getting to the Capitol Gorge is very straightforward and the drive one of the most scenic in the park. To get to the Capitol Gorge simply follow the park’s Scenic Drive to the end, then turn left and you’re in.
Follow the road to the end and you’ll find a parking area and trailhead for the Capitol Gorge hike.
9. Admire Pectols Pyramid
One can’t help but to notice this iconic landmark when visiting Capitol Reef National Park and wonder “what is that?” The answer is Pectols Pyramid – more specifically it’s a roughly 180 million year old natural monument comprised of Navajo sandstone.
I decided getting a great photo of Pectols Pyramid was something I wanted to add to my list of things to do in Capitol Reef and believe I finally did.
If you’re looking to snag a photo like the one I’ve got here or simply get the best view of this impressive landmark then I recommend hiking up the Hickman Bridge Trail (more on that below) about a quarter mile or so.
From here the view of the Pectols Pyramid is the best you’ll find in Capitol Reef. If you think you’ve found a superior one then drop me a comment below!
8. Catch a sunset at Sunset Point
If you’re looking for to add a great sunset to your list of things to do in Capitol Reef then look no further than the aptly named Sunset Point. It’s not always that these points are perfectly named, I must say.
A quick example of this is Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon. Nice sunrise? Yeah. The best in the park? Certainly not. That title goes to Inspiration Point.
Back to Sunset Point. This is a really nice spot that I almost didn’t make it to on my last trip to Capitol Reef National Park. I was running a bit behind when I reached the trailhead where there is a viewpoint of the Goosenecks (more on that below).
I decided to risk it and dash to the .3 miles to Sunset Point not knowing if the light would still be there. It was and so were some rather foolish folks who lowered themselves down onto the point featured in the image below for a thrill. Do not attempt to do that as they almost lost their lives in the process.
7. See the panoramas from Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
Upper Cathedral Valley has long been on my list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park. I finally made it out here last year and was not disappointed.
Folks visiting Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook should know that a high-clearance vehicle is required to get here. Going beyond the overlook and into the valley itself should not be attempted without a 4 wheel drive vehicle.
The viewpoint itself looks out into the stunning landscape of Cathedral Valley where the famous Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon are located (more on that below).
I recommend this overlook for sunrise although I’m sure sunsets here would be beautiful as well.
Getting to Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook requires a 90 minute drive from the Fruita area of Capitol Reef through Torrey and parts of the Fishlake National Forest (also worth a visit while you’re in the area). I’ve pinned the exact location where this photo was taken.
6. Watch the sunset at Fruita Barn
For photographers out there, getting *the shot* of the Fruita Barn is near the top of the list of things to do in Capitol Reef National Park. The picturesque setting of this barn hearkens back to a time long past and makes for beautiful photos. It’s the Moulton Barn of Capitol Reef.
The best time to photograph the Barn is about 30 minutes to an hour before sunset when there is still light on the cliff face behind the barn.
I missed this time my first night in the park the last time I visited but was ready the second time around.
There is a small parking lot just off the frame in the photo below on the right hand side withing 200 feet of the barn.
Top 5 Best Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
5. Hike through the Grand Wash
The Grand Wash is similar to Capitol Gorge but if you can only add one to your things to do in Capitol Reef National Park list then I recommend Grand Wash.
The reason for this is the canyon is just breathtaking with the narrows section reminiscent of the Zion Narrows just with less water and a tiny fraction of the humans. The canyon walls in the Grand Wash are impossibly tall and make you feel like you’re living out a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.
The hike is 6.25 miles round trip or can be done as a point to point with termini at Hwy 24 & Scenic Drive.
Also of note is the Cassidy Arch Trailhead (more on that below) which is located in the Grand Wash close to the Scenic Drive side.
4. See the twisted overlook at the Goosenecks
I must admit I didn’t know what to expect when I first visited the Goosenecks in Capitol Reef but was really surprised by the scale and grandeur of the scenery. Photos cannot do this impressive landscape justice which is one of the reasons I ranked it so high on my list of things to do in Capitol Reef.
Getting to the Goosenecks Overlook is easy as you can park within a very short walk of the overlook itself. I recommend walking around the overlook area a bit to see the different vantages that are available here but don’t get too close to the edge!
3. Drive out to Cathedral Valley
This was at the very top of my things to do in Capitol Reef list for many, many years. Finally, last year, I was able to make it out to the famed Cathedral Valley and my oh my was the scenery stunning.
Some parts of the trek out there were unexpected, however. Like the drive out there which we performed at night (do not recommend).
In retrospect, I recommend driving from the top down and back up the same way, which means starting your drive on the Torrey side and Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook before descending into the valley itself.
We, of course, attempted it in reverse, and despite driving a new 4WD Chevy Tahoe, nearly got stuck in the *DEEP* sand drifts multiple times.
In wet conditions this is not a drive I would recommend as it is almost sure that you’d get stuck.
NOTE: From the Fruita Barn to Temple of the Sun takes about 2.5 hours so plan accordingly.
Visiting Temple of the Sun & Temple of the Moon
The main attractions in Cathedral Valley are the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. The more spectacular one, in my opinion is the Temple of the Sun.
In the caption of the photo below I’ve indicated which is which.
Sunrise is the best time to photograph these impressive monuments as the colors that hit them are really beautiful. Sunset can be good as well but not nearly as beautiful as sunrise.
2. Hike to Hickman Bridge
Of all things to do at Capitol Reef National Park, only one hike surprised me more than Hickman Bridge (keep scrolling for that one).
I had not seen many photos of the bridge itself prior to making the trek and was blown away by the grandeur of this bridge. It’s massive!
Hickman Bridge is 125 feet tall and spans 133 feet across. In person it’s a site to behold.
Getting to Hickman Bridge requires a nearly 2 mile round trip hike with just 400 feet of elevation gain.
The views from the bridge and the trail leading to it are impressive as well given the relatively high vantage point of the rest of the park.
1. Hike the Cassidy Arch Trail
My personal favorite thing to do in Capitol Reef National Park is hiking the Cassidy Arch Trail. Now, did I get lost, take quite a tumble, and smash up my foot pretty badly the last time I did this hike? Maybe.
But even still, the hike is so worthwhile.
A note of caution: There is a “lower hike” that is now closed but not marked the best. When I hiked this trail last year I did not realize this and ended up hiking this closed portion which ended up being *very* dangerous. If you’re on this trail and think you might have gone the wrong way then odds are you have.
This was not the only time I got turned around on this trail so when signs do appear read them carefully and really pay attention to the arrows which are not always easy to translate.
All that aside the Cassidy Arch is spectacular and the trail is even quite scenic, perhaps especially so if you get lost. The last portion of the hike across the exposed rock is most folks favorite part.
One cool thing about Cassidy Arch is that you can walk across it! It looks somewhat intimidating from afar but it’s actually quite wide once you’re on it. Add that one to your Capitol Reef things to do list.
When we visited the arch last year we were taking a time lapse and admiring it when a woman (we later found out it was her birthday) proceeded to walk out onto the arch itself and strip naked! Maybe this hike should be rated PG-13?
Map of Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
Where to Stay at Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef happens to be one of those blessed national parks located right next to a charming little town, in this case we’re talking about Torrey, Utah.
In Torrey there are a number of great hotel options including:
- Capitol Reef Resort
- Rim Rock Inn
- Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel
- Red Sands Hotel
- Days Inn
- & more
Camping at Capitol Reef National Park
There is also a single campground located within the park, Fruita Campground. Fruita campground has 71 sites available for $25 / night. Sadly the campground is 100% reservation based which I feel is wrong. In my opinion, at least a small portion should always be kept available on a first come – first served basis.
You can book reservations in advance through recreation.gov.
Summary of Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
- Cassidy Arch
- Hickman Bridge
- Cathedral Valley
- Grand Wash
- Fruita Barn
- Upper Cathedral Valley
- Sunset Point
- Pectols Pyramid
- Capitol Gorge
- Cohab Canyon
- Pioneer Register
- Panorama Point
- Slickrock Divide
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