Utah’s Best Kept Secret: Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is by far the least visited national park out of Utah’s Mighty 5 (750k visitors in Capitol Reef vs. Zion’s 4.5 million in 2017).

The location on a scenic, rural highway makes it just too far off anyone’s path to be a convenient stop. It’s common to pair Utah’s national parks together (Arches/Canyonlands and Zion/Bryce) but Capitol Reef National Park is the lone ranger in this epic state.

Despite all of the drawbacks – being the adventure lovers we are, Berty and I made it a point to go out of our way to explore this wrinkle in the earth’s crust.

Beware though, one trip to this place could lead to many, many more trips in the future!


Utah’s Best Kept Secret: Capitol Reef National Park

For starters, here are some quick facts about Capitol Reef National Park:

  • A literal wrinkle in the earth’s crust (also called a water pocket fold) and years of erosion have caused the beautifully exposed rock (commonly referred to as “reefs” here) with all their colorful layers on display.
  • The park is just under 250,000 total acres, stretching in a long, skinny territory going from north to south.
  • Capitol Reef can be challenging to access. Many of the features off the main road (Highway 24) require driving on rock or dirt roads, which frequently require high clearance vehicles.

Read More National Parks: How To Spend 24 Hours In Arches National Park

Capitol Reef National Park - Scenic Byway

GRAND WASH HIKE

Our first stop at Capitol Reef National Park was the Grand Wash trail. Just south of the town of Fruita, this trail takes you through a winding canyon that features multi-colored sandstone, Cassidy Arch, and lots of side canyons to explore.

We wandered in for about an hour, chatting with friends and taking pictures. It was pretty incredible to see all the layers of red rocks!

This hike was very different from the Pacific Northwest thick-forested trails we are used to!

Like what we saw on this hike, our favorite part about visiting all of the Utah national parks was the sheer diversity in all the places we explored.

Arches has, well, arches; Zion has Angles Landing and epic canyon views; Bryce, the hoodoos; Canyonlands, the vast open space…so what makes Capitol Reef National Park worth visiting?

Read More: The Complete Guide To All 5 Utah National Parks

Capitol Reef National Park - Grand Wash Hike

Capitol Reef National Park - Grand Wash Hike

So What Can You See/Do At Capitol Reef National Park?

There are lots of things to do at Capitol Reef National Park, though they require a little bit more driving and a lot more time to fully experience the park.

Next time, Berty and I want to spend a week and camp here so we can dive deeper into this beautiful place!

Drive The Capitol Reef Scenic Byway – You won’t have to stray from the highway to see things like tilted/exposed rock layers, petroglyphs, and an exciting drive and hike through Capitol Gorge.

Read this guide created by the NPS for all the stops along this scenic drive.

See Cassidy Arch – A short series of switchbacks and steep trails will lead you to this natural arch next to the Grand Wash. This trail is in full sun during the summer months, so remember to wear sunscreen and carry water!

Hike To The Hickman Natural Bridge – Easily accessible from Highway 24, this is another natural arch worth seeing on your trip.

A short 2-mile round trip hike gives you the opportunity to see white sandstone, black volcanic boulders, and overlooks to other sections of the park.

Explore The Town of Fruita – Stop to pick some fruit in the late summer, take photos of the Gifford homestead, and visit the farmhouse for some homemade goodies.

More Hikes In Utah: 10 Amazing Hikes In Arches National Park

On Our Way To The Sun And Moon

Deep in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park lies an enchanting location – Temple of the Sun and Moon.

Literally off the beaten path, this place is significantly less visited than the rest of the park.

Mainly because it’s not “on the way” to anything in particular, but partly because getting there requires a high-clearance vehicle and a 15-mile dirt road drive through the vast Utah wilderness.

With our caravan of four cars, we decided to make our way out to see this place with our own eyes.

It took about an hour of careful pothole avoidance and maneuvering of the dirt roads to reach our final destination. When we did, it was truly incredible.

We’ve never seen such spectacular rock formations!

Read More Utah Adventures: Delicate Arch Hike During Sunrise

Capitol Reef National Park - Highway 24

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

The Temple of the Sun and Moon were rightfully named for their cathedral-like presence and stature.

This area of the park is infrequently visited, so if you’re looking for solitude, you won’t have to look much farther than this.

Here in the Cathedral Valley, you’ll be surrounded by monoliths of spectacular color and pattern.

Other attractions here are the Gypsum Sinkhole, Walls of Jericho, and Glass Mountain.

Less trafficked places like this one mean there is a higher risk for humans to leave a negative impact. Please remember the Leave No Trace principles and help us preserve this place to enjoy for years to come!

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

We came out to this area of Capitol Reef National Park with a few people we connected with on Instagram.

These new friends (Jack, Bill, Elliot and Jake) were on the road as well, and we realized our paths would cross around Zion, Bryce, and ultimately here in Capitol Reef.

We decided to drive together and experience this part of the park.

It was an awesome time of creating new friendships, sharing meals together, and learning more about other travelers and their journeys.

Read More: 8 Vital Reasons To Travel With Your Friends

DINNER

Dinner on the road has always been a hodgepodge of whatever we could come up with.

The more Berty and I travel, the more creative our combinations get!

We’ve eaten everything from PB&J on tortillas, granola bars as full meals, and even cracked an egg in boiling water to make our cup of noodles more interesting.

For this particular meal at Capitol Reef National Park, we used one of our Mountain House backpacking meals.

Yes, we were far from a backcountry environment, but sometimes it’s nice to have a just-add-water kind of meal.

We like these freeze-dried backpacking meals because they require practically no cleanup. Just boil water (for us, that’s in our jetboil), add water, wait, and enjoy!

Read More: 10+ Easy Camping Meals To Make On The Road 

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley Dinner

Capitol Reef National Park - Dinner

 

SUNRISE BACK AT THE TEMPLE OF THE SUN

In the morning, we rose early to see these towering rocks illuminated with new light. We went on a short hike to capture this area of Cathedral Valley and the orange glow of the morning. While Berty is not typically a morning person, with views like this he can get up at any hour!

Important Note: Camping in Capitol Reef National Park requires a designated campsite or a backcountry permit. However, there is some good news! The Temple of the Sun and Moon area is on the edge of the park, with Utah’s BLM land just a half-mile away. Make sure to subscribe to The Dyrt Pro, because they are releasing their new BLM boundary map in Sept 2020, which will make finding free camping spots in Capitol Reef a breeze! Use the code MANDAGIES for 10% off your subscription!

 

Camping is permitted in the BLM land nearby, free of charge and year-round, so find yourself a place to park your car and set up camp. Read this post to know exactly what to bring when camping for free!

Remember the Leave No Trace practices, especially since there are no facilities or trash disposals anywhere nearby.

Read More: Car Camping 101: The Complete Guide To Sleeping In Your Car

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

Capitol Reef National Park - Cathedral Valley

 

FINAL THOUGHTS: Is it worth the drive?

Absolutely! As we were writing this post, we realized that we didn’t spend nearly enough time here as we would have liked.

If you are planning to visit Capitol Reef National park, give yourself a few good days to explore the park and venture out on some magnificent hikes like Cassidy Arch or the Hickman Natural Bridge.

On our next trip, Berty and I want to drive all the way through Cathedral Valley and find more hidden and beautiful spots in this park!

Have you ever visited Capitol Reef National Park? What is your favorite part of the park? Leave a comment below and let us know!

MORE UTAH ADVENTURES

Delicate Arch Hike During Sunrise (Beat The Crowds!)

10 Amazing Hikes In Arches National Park

How To Spend 24 Hours in Arches National Park

Experience Sunset At Canyonlands National Park

Conquer Zion’s Epic Angels Landing Hike

10 American Southwest Road Trip Destinations You Must See

The Best Sedona Hiking Trails To Take In Arizona

Take a Sunset Adventure At Cathedral Rock Trail

 

Want more southwest inspiration? Follow our Southwest Road Trip Board on Pinterest for more places like Capitol Reef National Park!

 

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