Capitol Reef National Park: A Crowd-Free Desert Wonderland


Deep within Utah’s remote wilderness lies Capitol Reef National Park, a desert wonderland filled with natural bridges, arches, domes, slot canyons, and spires. The park’s rugged landscapes are an ideal destination for hikers, backpackers, bikers, and geology enthusiasts.

The park welcomes around one million visitors each year, making it less popular than most other national parks in Utah. As a result, Capitol Reef National Park offers the chance to experience Utah’s stunning desert scenery and unique geological features without the crowds you’ll find in places like Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park.

If you’re ready to start planning your Capitol Reef adventure, you’re in the right place. This guide covers everything you need to know to plan an incredible trip, including weather and climate data, the best times to visit, what to do while you’re there, the best hikes, and much more.

History

Capitol Reef has provided a home to various peoples over thousands of years. Nomadic hunters and gatherers migrated through the canyons from around 8,000-1,600 years ago. These Desert Archaic Indians hunted herds of animals and traveled through the desert landscape according to the availability of game, plants, and other resources.

From around 300 to 1300 C.E. (Common Era), the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people lived in the Capitol Reef area. They began to farm around 2,000 years ago, which allowed them to supplement their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and remain in the same place for more extended periods. The fertile soil along Capitol Reef’s waterways and floodplains provided a perfect setting to grow corn, beans, and squash. The Fremont and Ancestral Puebloans also gathered edible native plants and hunted wildlife like bighorn sheep, deer, rabbits, and rodents.

Over time, groups of Fremont people merged and dispersed in cycles that formed contemporary tribal groups of Paiute, Ute, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni. Visitors to Capitol Reef today can view archeological evidence of the Fremont Culture in the form of ancient petroglyphs and pictographs carved into and painted on the rock.

Some of these tribes lived there when Europeans and Americans first explored the Capitol Reef region. In 1776, two Franciscan priests (Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez) set out to find a route between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and missions in Monterey, California. They passed through Arizona, Colorado, and Utah and befriended Ute tribes in the Capitol Reef region. Although they only came within about 50 miles (80 km) of the park’s current boundaries, their descriptions of the challenging, rugged terrain likely discouraged further exploration in the region for nearly a century.

The first record of someone crossing the Waterpocket Fold is geographer Almon H. Thompson, who explored the area in 1872 with US Army Major John Wesley Powell. After the Civil War, Mormon pioneers began to establish missions in remote parts of the American West.

The Mormons arrived in the area that is now Capitol Reef in the 1880s and established various settlements in the Fremont River valley. They planted thousands of fruit trees in a fertile area where the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek meet (now known as the Fruita orchards) and began extracting lime and uranium. However, the area remained isolated, and by 1920, only about ten families lived there at any given time.

In the early 1900s, efforts were already underway to make Capitol Reef a national park. Local entrepreneur Ephraim Portman Pectol sought to protect the area and boost the local economy through tourism. Supported by his brother-in-law Joseph S. Hickman (a Utah Legislative Senator), Pectol worked to spread the word and generate interest in an area they called “Wayne Wonderland.”

Hickman, unfortunately, drowned in 1925, and support for the park’s creation stalled for some time after his death. Conservation efforts reemerged in the 1930s when Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Roger Toll visited Wayne County and said that “the area seems worthy of future investigation.”

After years of debate regarding the park’s boundaries and name, it was finally protected. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Capitol Reef a national monument, but it did not open to the public until 1950. Visitation significantly increased after the national monument got its first paved road in 1968, resulting in a debate about whether it should become a national park. Following recommendations from the Department of the Interior, Congress passed legislation upgrading Capitol Reef to a national park. President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law on December 18, 1971.

Key Facts about Capitol Reef National Park

Size: 378 square miles (979 km2)

Number of visitors: 1.2 million in 2019; 981,000 in 2020

Established on: August 2, 1937 (national monument); December 18, 1971 (national park)

Number of hiking trails: 50+ official trails

Highest point: 8,960 feet / 2,731 m near Billings Pass

Lowest point: 3,877 feet / 1,182 m at Hall’s Creek

Other interesting facts about Capitol Reef:

  • One of the park’s main geological features is the Waterpocket Fold. The fold is a type of wrinkle on the earth’s surface that formed around 50 to 70 million years ago, with further uplift occurring about 15 million years ago. The more recent geological event resulted in additional exposure and water erosion on the tilted sandstone rock layers. These processes contributed to the formation of the park’s stunning domes, cliffs, arches, monoliths, and canyons.
  • The Waterpocket Fold extends for around 100 miles (160 km) and made travel in the area very difficult up until the mid-1900s. There were no paved roads in Capitol Reef until 1962, when State Route 24 was built through the Fremont River Canyon. The lack of road infrastructure has resulted in minimal development in the area.
  • Capitol Reef is located in a very remote part of Utah. The nearest traffic light is around 78 miles (126 km) away.
  • Within the lower 48 states, the Waterpocket Fold Country was the last territory to be charted.
  • Of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef is one of the least visited. Only Canyonlands National Park receives fewer annual visitors.
  • In 1935, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Roger Toll and local park supporter Ephraim Portman Pectol named the area Capitol Reef before it received national protection.
  • The park got its name from its white Navajo Sandstone formations called domes, which look like the US Capitol Building.
  • According to local legends, early prospectors dubbed the area a reef based on their experiences at sea. The ridge of the Waterpocket Fold was called a reef because the steep cliffs impede land travel, just like coral reefs block ships from traveling in certain areas in the ocean.
  • The national park is an unusual shape and measures only 6 miles (9.7 km) wide, on average. Its north-south axis, meanwhile, is 60 miles (97 km) long.
  • Backpacking is a popular activity in the park. In 2019, over 4,000 people backpacked in Capitol Reef.
  • Most visitors to the desert do not expect to encounter an oasis of fruit orchards, but that’s exactly what you’ll find in Capitol Reef. Mormon settlers planted the Fruita orchards in the late 1800s. Although the orchards are protected, visitors can pick ripe, in-season fruit, including apricots, apples, cherries, pears, peaches, and plums.

Climate and Weather

The climate in Capitol Reef National Park is arid, with only 7.91 inches (20.1 cm) of annual precipitation. Most of this falls during the summer monsoon season, which typically runs from July to September.

At any given time, weather conditions can vary substantially within the park due to different elevations and landscapes. Make sure to check the weather ahead of your trip and pack a variety of layers to prepare for diverse weather conditions.

July and August are the hottest months, while January and December are the coldest. Snow is possible from October to May, with the heaviest snowfall typically occurring in December and January.

You can read more about what kinds of weather conditions to expect in each season below. Other than in July and August, actual daily high temperatures vary by about 10°F (5.5°C) compared to the average highs listed below. Between November and April, actual daily low temperatures vary by about 10°F (5.5°C) compared to the average low temperatures listed below and by about 5°F (2.8°C) between May and October.

Summer (June to September)

Summers in Capitol Reef are hot with occasional heavy rainstorms. The summer rains create beautiful waterfalls in the desert landscape but can also result in dangerous flash floods.

Average high temperatures reach 91°F/33°C in July and 88°F/31°C in August, but temperatures can soar to near 100°F/38°C between May and September. Average low temperatures are around 58°F/14°C in June, 65°F/18°C in July, 63°F/17°C in August, and 55°F/13°C in September.

Fall (October to November)

October brings milder daytime temperatures and chilly nights that occasionally dip below freezing. High temperatures average 66°F/19°C, while lows average 43°F/6°C. Although snow is possible in October, snowstorms don’t typically hit until November when the temperatures drop. November is marked by colder days and freezing nights. Average high temperatures hover around 51°F/11°C, while lows drop to about 31°F/-0.5°C overnight.

Winter (December to February)

Winters in Capitol Reef are relatively cold, but daytime highs still remain above freezing on average. Even in the coldest months of December and January, average highs are around 40°F/4°C. Nighttime lows are usually below freezing from December to February and average around 20°F/-7°C in December and January and 26°F/-3°C in February. Snowfall is most likely in December and January, especially at higher elevations.

Spring (March to May)

The spring months in Capitol Reef feature mild days and chilly nights. You should expect mostly sunny days with light and short-lived rain storms at times. Some snow usually falls in March and April, but snowfall is possible through May. Average low temperatures gradually warm up from 34°F/1°C in March to 48°F/9°C in May. Average high temperatures range from 58°F/14°C in March to 74°F/23°C in May.

When to Visit

Capitol Reef National Park is open year-round, and there’s no bad time to visit. However, you’ll have the widest range of activities available to you in the spring and fall. The most popular times to visit the park are March to June and September to October.

Sweltering heat and monsoon-induced flash floods can make hiking in the summer months dangerous and uncomfortable. As a result, many visitors find that spring and fall make for more pleasant hiking, camping, backpacking, and biking.

Spring is a great time to view blooming wildflowers and the Fruita orchards, with ideal conditions for activities like biking and hiking. March is generally not too crowded, but visitation increases by April and May. In the fall, visitors can enjoy harvesting fresh fruit in the Fruita orchards, and the weather is perfect for outdoor activities. Early fall is a very popular time to visit the park, so you may encounter some crowds at popular attractions and hiking trails.

Winters in the park are quiet and offer the chance to see a beautiful dusting of snow that contrasts with the red desert spires and cliffs. The winter months are an excellent chance to experience Capitol Reef without many other visitors. Some roads and hiking trails may be closed due to snowfall or inclement weather, but most of the park’s trails, roads, and facilities are open year-round.

Summers are also a great time to explore the park since the climate is not as sweltering as many other national parks in the American southwest. Still, you’ll need to exercise caution to avoid health issues like heat-related illnesses, dehydration, and sunburn, as well as weather hazards like monsoons, flash floods, and thunderstorms.

Recommended Gear

You don’t need any special or technical equipment to visit Capitol Reef National Park. Most visitors are fine with standard hiking gear and weather-appropriate clothing. The exact items you should bring will depend on what time of year you plan to visit and what activities you want to do while you’re there.

Check out our Day Hiking Checklist, Backpacking Checklist, and Desert Hiking posts to learn more about what to bring on your trip. If you’re visiting in the winter, you’ll also want to take a look at our Guide to Winter Hiking for additional gear recommendations and other tips.

What to Do in Capitol Reef National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking and backpacking are some of the most desirable activities among visitors to Capitol Reef National Park. The most popular time for hiking and backpacking is March through May and October. Day hiking does not require a permit, but backpackers in Capitol Reef must obtain a free backpacking permit. As of December 2021, there is no limit on the number of permits issued. While this makes it easy for backpackers to get a permit for their trip, it also means some popular trails may see more traffic during peak season.

Best Hikes in Capitol Reef

  • Hickman Bridge Trail: This easy to moderate 1.8-mile (2.9-km) trail features one of Capitol Reef’s most famous sights: Hickman Bridge. In addition to the beautiful natural bridge, hikers can enjoy views of the Fremont River and Capitol Dome, the white sandstone rock feature that inspired the park’s name. You can also see historic sites like the Fremont pit house ruin and a granary.
  • Chimney Rock Trail: The Chimney Rock Trail is a 3.5-mile (5.6-km) loop offering a bird’s-eye view of the Chimney Rock formation, several canyons, and petrified wood. The easy to moderate trail has some steep sections and is one of the park’s most popular hikes.
  • Golden Throne Trail: With spectacular views of Golden Throne Mountain and Capitol Gorge, the Golden Throne Trail is a great choice for hikers who want to explore some higher parts of the Waterpocket Fold. The moderate trail is 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long and has 778 feet (237 meters) of elevation gain. There is minimal shade on the trail, so don’t attempt it in the midday heat.
  • Goosenecks and Sunset Point: This easy 2.5-mile (4-km) out-and-back trail hits two of Capitol Reef’s most beautiful overlooks: Goosenecks and Sunset Point. You’ll have the chance to spot some of the area’s most iconic natural features, including Chimney Rock, the Waterpocket Fold, Boulder Mountain, and Sulphur Creek. You can combine this trail with a short walk to the Panorama Point overlook or shorten your hike to only 0.4 miles (0.6 km) by starting at the parking area for Goosenecks Overlook.
  • Grand Wash Trail: If you’re looking for a longer but still easy trail, Grand Wash is a fantastic choice. The 5-mile (8-km) trail takes you through wide and narrow canyons where you can see layers upon layers of Navajo sandstone. The hike is mostly flat and suitable for the whole family.
  • Cohab Canyon Trail: This 3-mile (4.8-km) out-and-back trail features gorgeous views of the Cohab Canyon, Fremont River Valley, and Fruita Historic District. The moderate trail has 793 feet (242 m) of elevation gain and has some steep sections.
  • Cassidy Arch Trail: Named after American train and bank robber Butch Cassidy, the trail to Cassidy Arch offers some of the most breathtaking views in Capitol Reef. Hikers can look out over Grand Wash and even walk atop Cassidy Arch for an unforgettable view and a perfect photo op. The moderate trail is 3.1 miles (5 km) long with 666 feet (203 m) of elevation gain.

Camping

The main campground in Capitol Reef National Park is the Fruita Campground, with 71 developed campsites. The Fruita Campground is located next to the Fremont River and Fruita orchards and offers sites by reservation only between March 1 and October 31. The sites are usually completely booked between mid-March and the end of October and fill up several months in advance. Make sure to reserve your spot well ahead of your trip.

There are also two small primitive campgrounds: Cathedral Valley (6 sites) and Cedar Mesa (5 sites). These sites operate on a first-come, first-served basis and often fill up on the weekends.

If the sites are full during your planned visit, there are many public lands around the park that allow dispersed camping. You can read more about camping alternatives suggested by the National Park Service here.

Biking

Biking is a fantastic way to explore Capitol Reef National Park. While it’s possible any time of year, biking in the park is best in the spring and fall. Bikes are only allowed on designated trails. Here are some of the top bike touring routes recommended by the National Park Service.

Winter Sports

While many parts of Capitol Reef only receive a light dusting of snow, higher elevations see enough snowfall in some years to enjoy snow-based activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. These are all great ways to explore the park’s backcountry and enjoy the tranquility a winter visit provides.

Canyoneering

Utah is famous worldwide for its stunning canyons, and Capitol Reef National Park is an ideal spot to enjoy them. There are many slot canyons within the park. Some of these are accessible to hikers, while others require specialized equipment and canyoneering expertise.

Where to Stay

There is no lodging within Capitol Reef National Park, other than the park’s few campgrounds. If you don’t want to camp, you’ll need to find accommodation somewhere around the park. The most convenient options are Torrey, Utah (10 miles/16 km west of the visitor center), Teasdale, Utah (15 miles/24 km west of the visitor center), and Bicknell, Utah (19 miles/31 km west of the visitor center). On the east side of the park, you’ll find various lodging and camping options around Caineville, Utah (19 miles/31 km away) and Hanksville, Utah (37 miles/60 km away).

How to Get There and Getting Around

Due to the remote location and lack of public transportation, you’ll need a vehicle to visit Capitol Reef National Park. It’s best to have a sturdy vehicle with four-wheel drive since many of the park’s roads are remote and unpaved.

If you’re flying into the area, the closest major airports are:

  • Grand Junction Regional Airport in Grand Junction, Colorado – about a 3-hour drive to the park
  • Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah – about a 3.5-hour drive to the park

You can rent a car at either airport. Some visitors prefer to fly into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (about 5.5 hours away) and connect their visit to Capitol Reef with other Utah national parks or the Grand Canyon.

Conclusion

As one of Utah’s lesser-known and less popular national parks, Capitol Reef is an ideal destination for travelers who want to experience the region’s stunning landscapes without the crowds. From picking fruit in the historic Fruita orchards to exploring the park’s slot canyons, Capitol Reef is full of exciting and unique experiences.

Did you enjoy our guide to Capitol Reef National Park? Check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure.

 


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