Millions of years of geological activity paired with erosion by water and wine resulted in extraordinary rock formations. Slot canyons, arches and bridges, tall pillars, domes and cliffs sweep across this vast desert landscape, its colors ever-changing as the sun arches its way across the sky.
Capitol Reef National Park is at its prime early in the morning and late in the evening, when the sun’s low angle casts long shadows across the desert floor. This is a hot and dry place, best explored just after sunrise or just before sunset. In summer, middays get almost unbearably hot.
Protecting the so-called Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile (160-kilometer) monocline and the main geological feature of the park, Capitol Reef is a large park. There’s one main tourist area, though, which makes visiting the park super-easy. Capitol Reef National Park is the middle one of the five national parks in Utah.
If you’re looking for those classic red rock formations and canyon landscapes of Utah, this where you’ll find them.
Route 24 runs through the heart of the park—it’s the park’s only main road, really—and passes by Fruita, a 19th-century Mormon village that’s now home to a campground, fruit orchards, the visitor center, picnic areas and historic barns and homesteads. I recommend starting your visit there. Pop into the visitor center, watch the short movie, and get a park map and newspaper.
Then, head out for some serious desert exploration. There are several great short hikes in Capitol Reef National Park, more than enough to fill a day or two. I’ll share a two-day itinerary for Capitol Reef National Park, as well as an overview of the park’s main attractions, in later blog posts. In this post, I want to focus on my personal favorite short hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.
Often Overlooked, Always Worth It
All of Utah’s national parks are phenomenal in their own right, but I have to say that I liked Capitol Reef National Park best. It’s possibly the most underrated of them all, often used simply as a passing-through park on the way between more famous ones like Zion and Arches National Park.
Take your time and spend at least two days and one night in Capitol Reef National Park. It deserves it.
The fact that most people just drive through the park on Route 24, maybe quickly stopping in Fruita, has one big benefit. It’s much less crowded than the other parks in Utah. Even on these short hikes in Capitol Reef National Park, you won’t find yourself among dozens of other visitors.
There’s still plenty of solitude, remoteness and quietness to be found here. Together with its uniquely spectacular landscapes, that’s really what sets it apart from all the other parks—not only those in Utah, but from all other U.S. national parks.
Best of Capitol Reef National Park
Top Attractions in Capitol Reef
Although this is a vast national park, many of the main attractions are scattered around Fruita, a historic Mormon village in the heart of the park. Route 24 passes right by this historic area, making it exceptionally easy to visit Capitol Reef National Park.
- Fruita (historic Mormon settlement with fruit orchards)
- Native American petroglyphs (ancient rock art)
- Scenic Drive (starting at the visitor center, it runs through spectacular desert landscapes)
- Hickman Bridge (natural rock arch)
- Chimney Rock (towering rock formation and great sunset hike)
- Grand Wash (long desert canyon lined by sheer rock walls)
- Cathedral Valley (4-wheel-drive trail to imposing formations, canyons and cliffs)
- Capitol Gorge (unpaved road to a rock wall inscribed with names of pioneers, miners and settlers)
The best times for hiking in Capitol Reef are the mornings and late afternoons or evenings. Depending on when you hike, bring a thermos of hot coffee or a can of cold beer and prepare for a memorable hiking experience. There’s nothing like cracking open a beer after a sweaty climb to a viewpoint and taking in the view. Add a glorious sunset and things couldn’t possibly get any better.
Also, bring plenty of water, of course. This is desert hiking and you’ll need lots of water. Even though the following are all pretty short hikes in Capitol Reef National Park, relatively speaking, do not forget to fill up your water bottle. The visitor center in Fruita has free potable water.
- Hickman Bridge Trail (1.8-mile (2.9-kilometer) out-and-back hike to a natural rock arch)
- Grand Wash Trail (4.4-mile (7.1-kilometer) there-and-back hike through a massive canyon)
- Cohab Canyon Trail (3.4-mile (5.5-kilometer) hike past slot canyons to a couple of overlooks)
- Chimney Rock Loop (3.6-mile (5.8-kilometer) circuit past a rock formation, great for sunsets)
Capitol Reef National Park Map
Location: South-central Utah, United States
Nearest Towns: Torrey and Teasdale
Area: 979 square miles (378 square kilometers)
Features: Steep cliffs, white sandstone domes, slot canyons, buttes, monoliths and other rock formations, petroglyphs
Main Attractions: Fruita, Scenic Drive, Cohab Canyon, Gifford Homestead, Hickman Bridge, Capitol Gorge Road, Cathedral Valley, Grand Wash, Chimney Rock
Main Activities: Hiking, stargazing, (4-wheel) driving, camping, historic exploration
Suggested Stay: 2 days
Further Information: National Park Service
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Capitol Reef National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Capitol Reef National Park.