Capitol Reef National Park: The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated on: 23rd December 2023, 10:40 pm

Established in 1971, Capitol Reef National Park has a bit of all the things that Utah’s other parks are famous for – arches, hoodoos, canyons and stunning overlooks. But it’s easily the least crowded of Utah’s Mighty 5. In this Capitol Reef guide, we’ll be covering nearly all the hikes, historical landmarks and scenic vantage points that one can experience throughout the park.

Capitol Reef’s unusual name is derived from a combination of the Capitol Dome – a sandstone formation that reminded early settlers of the US Capitol building – and the long Waterpocket Fold, which reminded prospectors of a nautical reef.

Capitol Reef is very much a hiker’s park. In contrast to Bryce Canyon or Canyonlands, Capitol Reef’s best overlooks need to be hiked to. As such, the more active you’re willing to be, the more rewarding your visit.

With that said, there are still plenty of incredible places accessible with a car, such as the vast and mysterious Cathedral Valley.

At the end of this guide, you can find a suggested itinerary for Capitol Reef, along with info on park entry fees and where to stay in the area.

Navigating the Trails

Most of Capitol Reef lacks reception, so it’s vital to download trail maps in advance that you can later access offline. The two best apps for this are AllTrails and onX Backcountry, both of which require subscriptions that cost around $30 per year for offline access.

Just be sure to have everything downloaded on your phone in advance, as once you make it to the heart of the park, it will already be too late! These apps, along with the free app, are also very useful for navigating Cathedral Valley.

Utah State Route 24

Utah State Route 24 is the main road that cuts through the park, and it’s also how you’ll be entering or exiting. You’ll find plenty of hiking trails and attractions along this road, not to mention the Visitor Center.

We’ll start off this guide to Capitol Reef by covering UT-24’s main highlights from west to east. After that, you can find a list of hikes and attractions along the park’s other main road, the Scenic Drive.

If you have limited time in the park, don’t expect to be able to see everything. Be sure to check our recommended itinerary below to help you plan your trip.

Capitol Reef Guide Scenic Drive
The view while driving along Route 24

The Chimney Rock Trail

Most visitors to Capitol Reef National Park will be staying in the town of Torrey, Utah, which is conveniently just 15 minutes west of the park boundary.

Entering the park, the first trailhead you’ll pass is for Sulphur Creek, a 6.2-mile (10 km) point-to-point hike, meaning you’ll need to be picked up at the other end (or hike all the way back). As such, many visitors will be skipping Sulphur Creek.

But just nearby is the trailhead for Chimney Rock, a 3.6-mile loop hike which takes around two hours.

Capitol Reef Guide Chimney Rock Trail

The trail is named after Chimney Rock, a towering formation at the edge of the Waterpocket Fold. Beginning the hike, you’ll get to admire it from below, after which the trail gradually takes you uphill. The views during the ascent are outstanding.

Capitol Reef Guide Chimney Rock Trail

After the initial ascent, the hike is fairly easy. The trail takes you along the rim of the fold, allowing you to admire Chimney Rock from above. The trail eventually loops around and takes you further ‘inland.’

Capitol Reef Guide Chimney Rock Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Chimney Rock Trail

One section of the hike gives you a particularly impressive view of one of Capitol Reef’s most iconic formations: The Castle.

But all in all, the views from the second half of the hike aren’t particularly remarkable. As such, I would consider the Chimney Rock Trail to be of medium priority for those visiting Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef Guide Chimney Rock Trail

If you have more than one day to hike in the main part of the park, be sure to include Chimney Rock in your itinerary – either at the beginning or the end of the day.

But if you only have a single day to hike, prioritize other trails like the Rim Overlook/Navajo Knobs or Cassidy Arch (more below).

Capitol Reef Guide Chimney Rock Trail

The Viewpoints

Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Panorama Point

A little bit east of the trailhead for Chimney Rock is a turnoff for Panorama Pt Rd. And it’s down here that you can find a few different viewpoints. The closest to the main road is Panorama Point, which is easily reachable by car.

Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Goosenecks Overlook

According to Google Maps, the name of the road then changes to Goosenecks Rd, at the end of which is Goosenecks Overlook. While not terribly far from the parking lot, you will need to need to make a brief hike over some rocky terrain to get there.

The 800 ft (244 m)-deep canyon was formed by Sulphur Creek, and its curves reminded me of the similarly-titled Goosenecks State Park in southeast Utah.

Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Sunset Point

Next, return to the parking lot and start heading to Sunset Point. The trail here is the longest of the bunch, and you’ll have to walk over some rocky areas. But it could still be considered more of a walk than a proper hike.

Sunset Point is arguably the most impressive overlook here, as it allows you to see both the nearby canyon and the formations of the Waterpocket Fold at once. Unfortunately, it was overcast at the time of my visit, but it was a beautiful view nonetheless.

Fruita Schoolhouse

In addition to its natural scenery, Capitol Reef National Park is home to a handful of historical structures. While the historical aspect of the park tends to be a bit overstated in many articles, the various structures are still worth checking out.

The first one you’ll encounter is the Fruita Schoolhouse, situated right beside Utah State Route 24.

Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita
Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita

Fruita was the name of the town that was established here by Mormon settlers. This building, which was constructed in 1896, served as both the local school and church meeting house. The last class ever taught here took place in 1941.

At the time of my visit, the structure could not be entered, though you can peer through the windows. Visitors can also enjoy listening to an audio recording by a teacher who used to teach here.

Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita

Petroglyphs Panel

The Mormon settlers were hardly the first to live in the area. These lands were Inhabited between 300-1300 AD by a group known as the Fremont People, who are believed to be the ancestors of modern native tribes such as the Hopi and Paiute.

The Fremont People settled here for the same reason Mormon settlers would centuries later: the Fremont River, which provided water and sustenance in this otherwise barren region.

Accordingly, visitors can observe numerous ancient petroglyphs that were carved high up on the cliffs that line the river.

You’ll find two main boardwalks from which you can observe various shapes and symbols. Many of them are quite high up and they also appear rather faint, so some effort and patience are required to spot them all.

Even if you have limited time in the park, the petroglyphs won’t take up much of your time and shouldn’t be skipped.

Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita
Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita

Hickman Bridge

Hickman Bridge, Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs all share a single parking lot. Largely due to the popularity of Hickman Bridge, the lot is often full in summer, so it’s best to arrive early in the morning.

If you’re doing the Rim Overlook/Navajo Knobs trail, you can add in an extra detour for the Hickman Bridge hike at the end. But if you have limited time or mobility, you may want to just stick to the Hickman Bridge trail on its own. It’s a fairly easy hike that takes about an hour to complete.

Learn more about it in our dedicated guide.

Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints

Rim Overlook / Navajo Knobs Trail

The Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs trails are actually the same trail. The only difference is whether you finish at the Rim Overlook or continue all the way to Navajo Knobs.

The whole out-and-back Navajo Knobs hike is 9.5 miles (15 km), with an elevation gain of about 2100 ft (650 m). The full hike could take you anywhere from 5-7 hours.

In relation to Navajo Knobs, the Rim Overlook is situated at roughly the halfway point of the complete trail. Hiking to the overlook alone takes most people about 2-3 hours roundtrip (not including the Hickman Bridge detour).

Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints
Capitol Reef Guide Viewpoints

As mentioned, the trail shares a parking lot with the Hickman Bridge Trail which can fill up fast. As such, you’ll want to arrive early to ensure you get a spot.

But you’ll also want to get an early start to beat the heat, as well as the crowds. But compared with the flagship hikes of other Utah parks, such as Angels Landing or Devil’s Garden, Navajo Knobs gets significantly fewer visitors.

From the Rim Overlook, you can enjoy views of the orchards of historic Fruita down below. And you’ll also get an excellent view of The Castle formation.

If you don’t feel like you can make it all the way to the end of Navajo Knobs, you’ll still be able to enjoy a rewarding and memorable hike by coming this far and turning around.

Hiking Navajo Knobs
Hiking Navajo Knobs

But those who do make it to Navajo Knobs are in for a real treat. Scrambling up to the top of the Navajo Knobs formation, you’ll get to enjoy a stunning and totally unobstructed 360° view.

You can learn all about the Rim Overlook/Navajo Knobs hike (as well as the Hickman Bridge Trail) in our dedicated guide. If you could only do one major hike at Capitol Reef National Park, make it this one.

Hiking Navajo Knobs

The Grand Wash

The easternmost trailhead featured in this Capitol Reef guide belongs to the Grand Wash. But it’s worth noting that the Gran Wash hike actually has two trailheads.

The first is located along Utah State Highway 24. But the other end lies at the end of E Grand Wash Rd, not far from the trailhead for Cassidy Arch. 

Therefore, you can either do this hike as an out-and-back hike or as a point-to-point hike, beginning at whichever end you like.

Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash
Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash

The entire wash goes on for 2.2 miles. But if you’re doing the out-and-back hike, simply stop and turn around whenever you feel like it.

As you walk along, you’ll get to enjoy fascinating sandstone formations, while the canyon walls get so high at points that you’ll feel as if you’ve shrunk.

Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash

Occasionally, you’ll also encounter little caves and alcoves. And while I didn’t see any during my visit, bighorn sheep sightings are common here as well.

Considering how you can hike the Grand Wash for as little or as long as you like, be sure not to leave it out of your Capitol Reef itinerary.

Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash
Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash
Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash

While this is an easy hike that anybody can do, flash floods are always a serious threat in canyons like these. 

I ended up turning around earlier than planned when some ominous-look dark clouds appeared in the sky above. But it ultimately never rained that day.

Capitol Reef Guide Grand Wash

The Scenic Drive

Just past the Visitor Center is the junction with the Scenic Drive, Capitol Reef’s other main road. As we’ll cover below, in addition to the landmarks and trailheads along the road itself, other destinations can only be reached by driving down unpaved side roads.

Historic Fruita

Thanks to the nearby Fremont River, Mormon pioneers were able to establish farms in the area since the 1880s. They maintained a completely self-sustainable society, growing everything themselves with little contact with the outside world.

In addition to the Fruita Schoolhouse mentioned above, you’ll find additional historic landmarks from this era along the Scenic Drive.

Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita

One such example is the Gifford House. Originally built in 1908, it was occupied by different families over the years, with the last being the Giffords.

The building now functions as a gift shop, while it’s also famous for its homemade pies and ice cream.

Just nearby, adjacent to the Fruita Campground, is the Pendelton Barn, which was also part of the original Gifford Homestead. Here the family raised various animals and grew a wide variety of crops.

The Giffords, in fact, were Fruita’s final residents, with the last descendants finally selling their property to the National Park Service in 1969.

Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita
Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita

Cohab Canyon Trail

The trailhead for this 3.4-mile hike is right by the Fruita Campground and Pendelton Barn. The core hike takes you to two main overlooks, with the whole journey taking a couple of hours.

Note that you can actually extend this hike and go all the way to the trailhead for the Hickman Bridge (and Navajo Knobs). But I think that saving Hickman Bridge for right after your Rim Overlook/Navajo Knobs hike is the better option (see above).

Capitol Reef Guide Historic Fruita

The hike begins with a fairly steep ascent, though you’ll be rewarded with an excellent view of Fruita down below. After the initial climb, things get a lot easier, and all in all, Cohab Canyon could be considered a moderate hike.

Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail

Along the way, you’ll pass by a large section where the rocks contain countless small holes resembling Swiss cheese. I also encountered some small slot canyons, though they didn’t seem to lead anywhere.

For those intending to enjoy the main overlooks (confusingly called the Fruita overlooks), you’ll have to turn at the junction and ultimately swing back around southwest. As mentioned above, you’ll definitely want an app like AllTrails or onX for your time at Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail

Unfortunately, it was overcast throughout the entirety of my hike, making the Cohab Canyon Trail difficult to judge. 

But after looking at photos and videos of the trail under clearer conditions, while impressive, this hike still can’t compete with others like Navajo Knobs or Cassidy Arch.

As such, I’d only include it in your itinerary if you can dedicate two full days to hiking.

Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail

Cassidy Arch Trail

The Cassidy Arch Trail is easily one of Capitol Reef’s top hikes. To get there, you’ll have to make a turn onto E Grand Wash Rd. It’s an unpaved but relatively smooth journey to reach the trailhead. 

As mentioned above, the Cassidy Arch Trail begins near the southern end of the Grand Wash Trail. From the parking area, you’ll have to partially walk north through the Grand Wash before taking a left at the fork.

The Cassidy Arch Trail will then have you loop back around heading south, with the hike immediately taking you uphill.

Capitol Reef Guide Cohab Canyon Trail

The hike is 3.4 miles in total and could be considered moderate to strenuous. There’s a lot of uphill climbing involved, but you certainly don’t need to be an experienced hiker to complete this one.

The views from the trail continually change and evolve, meaning you get constantly rewarded for your hard work.

Capitol Reef Guide Cassidy Arch

As you climb, you’ll overlook the canyon below while getting to see Capitol Dome – after which the park was named – in the distance. And eventually, you’ll spot Cassidy Arch itself from afar.

While the hike is far from over at this point, I found the initial view of the arch to be one of the scenic portions of the entire hike. Next, it’s time to continue onward towards it.

Capitol Reef Guide Cassidy Arch

Approaching the arch, you’ll be walking across a large, rocky plateau. You’ll also have to do some light scrambling in certain places, but footholders have been conveniently carved in some of the rocks.

Capitol Reef Guide Cassidy Arch
Capitol Reef Guide Cassidy Arch

Cassidy Arch was named after none other than Butch Cassidy, the notorious 19th-century train and bank robber. Supposedly, he had a hideout nearby in the Grand Wash.

In addition to admiring the arch from a distance, it’s also possible to walk on top of it, though the route there is far from obvious.

The scenery from atop the plateau, meanwhile, is absolutely stunning, and is arguably one of the most beautiful sections of the whole park.

Capitol Reef Guide Cassidy Arch

Considering how the Cassidy Arch Trail begins near the southern end of the Grand Wash Trail, you also have the option to explore the Grand Wash before or after this hike rather than entering it from Highway 24.

Capitol Gorge Trail

The Capitol Gorge Trail is similar to the Grand Wash, though I didn’t find it to be quite as scenic. Its main selling point, however, is its historical importance.

But first, getting to the trailhead is a journey in its own right. You’ll first have to drive to the very end of the Scenic Drive. As the name suggests, there are plenty of incredible geological formations to observe along the way.

Capitol Reef Guide Cassidy Arch

Reaching the very end of the Scenic Drive, you’ll have to turn onto Capitol Gorge Rd, which is unpaved yet not terribly difficult, even for smaller vehicles. After a long series of twists and turns, you’ll finally make it to the parking lot.

While the gorge itself goes on for quite a while, most people just walk to the Pioneer Register before turning around. The walk there and back takes a total of 40-50 minutes.

Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail

Fairly early on in the journey, you’ll pass ancient petroglyphs left by the Fremont People. And before long, you’ll encounter more recent carvings.

It was through this gorge that the early Mormon pioneers entered the Capitol Reef area, with many of them carving their names onto the side of the rock. Additionally, mineral prospectors and cowboys would leave their names here as well.

Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail

The first example of these carvings that you’ll encounter is surprisingly high up, with the names belonging to a group of surveyors. And according to legend, the man who carved them did so by dangling in a rope chair from the top of the cliff!

But why? Apparently, the entire thing was an elaborate prank. Carved in 1912, it was Quinby Stewart’s second journey through the gorge.

His goal for carving the names so high up, along with the year 1911, was to fool newcomers into thinking the gorge had undergone 40 ft of erosion in a single year!

Read the full story here.

Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail
Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail

Further along, you’ll arrive at the Mormon Pioneer Register, which, as the name suggests, consists of countless carvings left by early Mormon pioneers. It must’ve been a thrilling (albeit risky) adventure to enter Capitol Reef through this gorge before the construction of any roads.

Cathedral Valley

Finishing off this Capitol Reef guide is Cathedral Valley, located northeast of the main section of the park. It has an entirely different look and feel from the areas described above but is equally stunning.

While the area does have a few short hikes, exploring Cathedral Valley is more of a driving experience. And traversing the entire loop could take anywhere from 6-9 hours. 

Note that a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle is highly recommended, though you could also take a tour.

Capitol Reef Guide Capitol Gorge Trail

Among the many highlights are the Bentonite Hills (which are technically right outside the park boundaries). These hills almost appear painted in stripes of red, blue, pink and other colors. 

Bentonite clay easily absorbs other minerals, while the complete lack of vegetation in these badlands keeps the unique array of colors constantly exposed.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Cathedral Valley is also known for its numerous sandstone monoliths. And throughout the area, you’ll encounter various overlooks from which to view them. 

Highlights include the South Desert Overlook, from which you can see Jailhouse Rock, and the area surrounding the ‘Walls of Jericho.’

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

But Cathedral Valley’s most well-known formations are two particular monoliths known as the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

Nearby, meanwhile, are two smaller monoliths known as the Temples of the Stars, while you can also find a fascinating mound of crystals known as Glass Mountain.

For those without enough time or without a proper vehicle, it’s also possible to drive directly to the Temples of the Sun and Moon instead of carrying out the entire long loop. 

Be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to Cathedral Valley to learn everything you need to know about planning a visit.

Additional Info

Ideally, you should set aside three days for Capitol Reef: two full days for hiking the various trails of the main part of the park, and one for driving through Cathedral Valley. That way, you could do everything featured in the Capitol Reef guide above.

But if you only have two days, the essential hikes to focus on would be Rim Overlook/Navajo Knobs, Cassidy Arch and the Grand Wash.

All of these combined would be a bit much to fit into a single day. But you could also shorten Cathedral Valley to half a day by driving directly to the Temples of the Sun and Moon instead of doing the whole loop. You could then do any of the hikes you’ve missed later in the day.

And if you only have one day? A lot depends on how much of a hiker you are, but if you’re more active, I’d focus on the essential hikes mentioned above.

Or, if you’re not able to do strenuous hikes, you could string together a few of the shorter and easier hikes (Grand Wash, Hickman Bridge, Capitol Gorge, etc.) while driving to the various overlooks and historical sites.

During your time in the area, consider setting additional time aside to see some of the incredible landmarks nearby, such as Factory Butte (located on Bureau of Land Management land) and Goblin Valley State Park.

Other than this canyoneering tour, there don’t seem to be any private tours focusing on the main section of the park.

But there are plenty of private tours available that take you through the Cathedral Valley region. I took this tour run by Meridian Photography Tours which I highly recommend. While the tour lasted a whole day, Meridian also offers shorter tours which focus on the Bentonite Hills as well as the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

Capitol Reef National Park is one of the easier Utah parks to plan for in regards to accommodation and transport. The park is just a 15-20 minute drive from the town of Torrey, and that’s pretty much where everyone stays.

Despite being a small town, Torrey thrives on tourism, so there are plenty of options in the area.

While not exactly budget options, Capitol Reef Resort and The Noor Hotel are as close to the park as you can get, being just a 7-minute drive to the Chimney Rock Trailhead.

While I didn’t stay there, I did eat a few times at the Rim Rock restaurant across the street, at the views were fantastic.

Closer to the quaint and charming town center, meanwhile, are the Red Sands Hotel and the Broken Spur Inn, both of which are highly rated. Of course, there are a number of good Airbnb options to choose from as well.

For those interested in camping, the main developed campsite within the park is the Fruita Campground which offers picnic tables, fire pits and a few restrooms.

It’s possible to camp there with either a tent or RV (if you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy). You can learn more about camping at Capitol Reef here.

Given its remote location, most people will be visiting Capitol Reef National Park after seeing other parks in Utah.

For those coming directly from Bryce Canyon National Park, the drive to your accommodation in Torrey should take a little over two hours. But also be sure to check out Kodachrome Basin State Park during the journey.

The drive to or from Moab (the base for both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks), meanwhile, takes around 2.5 hours. But there are plenty of places to stop along the way, such as Goblin Valley State Park, which is about an hour and forty minutes from Torrey.

At the time of writing, Capitol Reef National Park costs $20 to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $10, while those on motorcycles will be charged $15.

Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

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