Is Capitol Reef National Park Utah’s Best Kept Secret?

As one of the five national parks in the beautiful state of Utah, it is easy for Capitol Reef to stay under the radar. But that is a mistake. And here's why.

By: Madalyne Staab + Save to a List

With way more popular neighbors like Bryce Canyon NP and Zion NP, the latter of which was the fourth most visited national park in 2019, it is easy to understand why Capitol Reef NP has stayed relatively unknown. In a beautiful state such as Utah, where two-thirds of the land is federally owned, it can be rather hard for a natural area to stand out.

But honestly, Capitol Reef NP might just be the best-kept secret in all of Utah. Why? Because of its location - smack dab in the middle of canyon country, and smushed between other, more popular outdoor recreation areas - it is not only beautiful, but also quiet. More often than not, you will have much of the park to yourself: no congested hiking trails, no loud campgrounds, no backed up traffic. In a time where many national parks are getting busier and busier, it is kind of refreshing to experience one that doesn’t feel like Disneyland.

But if you are looking to get even more off-the-beaten-path there are many options, including one of our favorite activities: canyoneering.

Some of the best canyoneering routes can be found in the park, including Cassidy Arch, Stegosaur Slot, and The Wives (all five of them). If you have any experience with canyoneering or are down to try it with a guide, then Capitol Reef is an amazing place to start and/or expand your repertoire and experience.

Even if canyoneering seems a bit too adventurous (totally fair - rappelling off a 50-meter cliff is not for everyone) there is still a lot to explore within the park’s boundary.

A couple of the best hikes, at least in the main area (more on that in a second) are the aforementioned Cassidy Arch (you don’t have to rappel off the arch), the Chimney Rock Loop, and the Sulphur Creek Trail. For more hikes in the Fruita area - the historic center of the park - check out this helpful list.

While the main historic area of Fruita, where you can still see the old schoolhouse, orchards, and cabins (and even buy fresh pie and cinnamon rolls in the summer) is worth visiting, to get a better idea of the uniqueness and beauty of Capitol Reef you need to hop in a car and go for a long drive (or two).

The first road you should check out is Cathedral Valley.

This district of the park is incredibly remote and rugged, meaning you should only try to explore it 100% prepared: full tank of gas, plenty of water and enough food to last a couple days (if you break down it might take a few days for help to arrive). While the roads aren’t very rough, it is a long drive to the valley itself. The loop, which many do clockwise, is 57.6 miles long and can take 6-8 hours. There is a campground in Cathedral Valley (quite primitive with no water) so if you want to make it a two-day adventure then you can plan on spending the night out there (and man the stars will be amazing). From Highway 24 it is 28.1 miles to camp. If you are wanting to do it in one day, then make sure to start early so you have enough time to explore the Cathedral Valley, including doing a hike or two. A couple of the biggest highlights are checking out the Walls of Jericho and the Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Stars - huge rock monoliths shooting up from the desert floor towards the heavens above. Get updates on the site.

The second road you should explore is the Waterpocket District.

Located in the southern region of the park (Cathedral Valley is up north) this route takes you through the famous Waterpocket Fold, which is notable for its great length of multiple layers of exposed and carved colorful sedimentary rock. This is also the region that gave the park its name: the Navajo Sandstone domes resemble the Capitol building, hence the name "Capitol,” while many early prospectors to the area were former sailors who likened the vertical cliffs of the Wingate Sandstone to a barrier common in nautical travel: a "Reef."

If planning on doing the whole loop, which is 124 miles total, we suggest starting early (the loop takes 4-6 hours depending on how much you want to explore). To get to it, head out on Highway 12 (a Scenic Byway, and once named the second prettiest drive in the WORLD) towards the town of Boulder. From there turn onto the Burr Trail Road (you will find it at the main intersection of town). You will stay on the Burr Trail Road for about half of the drive. It is dirt, but not too rough (there is one set of steep switchbacks but that is about it in terms of technicality). This dirt roads twists and turns through empty, red dirt, juniper-filled desert landscapes, and gives you an awesome up close view of the large rock walls and Waterpocket Fold. Eventually, you will get to a junction with Notom-Bullfrog Road. Here you have to make a decision: either head back north (left) towards the national park, or head south (right) towards the town of Bullfrog, which sits along the bank of Lake Powell. If you head north back to the park, you will finish the loop (with the second half of the road being quite washboard-y) and have one heck of an adventure checking out the Waterpocket Fold and the rugged southern region of Capitol Reef NP.

If you want to check out these two roads but want to up the ante a bit, consider exploring them on a mountain bike. Just as with a car, make sure you are 100% prepared for any and all issues.

Capitol Reef is beautiful. There is no questioning that. And the fact that it doesn’t see as many visitors as other national parks in Utah adds to its appeal. So if you are considering doing an adventurous Utah road trip (like this one here) definitely add Capitol Reef to the itinerary.

With marvelous scenery, a rich history, and lots of outdoor exploration - not to mention some of the darkest skies around - Capitol Reef might just be Utah’s best-kept secret. So grab your best hiking boots, a tent and a good amount of gumption and head out to one of the best national parks in the USA.

Want to learn more about canyoneering in Capitol Reef NP? Check out Road Trip Ryan’s in-depth information on the various routes and beta. This is what we use when we go and it is really thorough, plus it has information on a lot of other canyoneering areas, like Arches NP, Zion NP and the San Rafael Swell.

What area in Utah do you think is the best? Have you been to Capitol Reef NP before? If so, what did you think about it?

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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