Of all the wonderful, jaw-dropping vistas in the West, I think one of the most criminally underrated is Capitol Reef National Park. This isn’t just some Utah-native bias talking, either. Capitol Reef National Park is a gorgeous area that doesn’t get the love it deserves.
It’s larger than Zion National Park, which is a few hours further south. Zion, of course, gets all the attention for its sheer cliffs, the Narrows, and the canyoneering opportunities. But 3.6 million people visited Zion in 2020, per the National Park Service, and if you value solitude the way I do, then places like Zion aren’t all that appealing, especially in the height of tourist season.
Capitol Reef on the other hand, is a relatively undisturbed gem.
At 378 square miles in size, Capitol Reef has more elbow room than Zion, which clocks in at 229 square miles. With only 1.2 million visitors in 2019, compared to Zion’s 3.6 million during the pandemic, you’ll definitely have more of Capitol Reef to yourself.
And, Capitol Reef has things to do and see that Zion just doesn’t.
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Where Is Capitol Reef National Park?
The park is located in south-central Utah, near the town of Torrey. Highway 12 puts you right outside the park entrance, and Highway 12 consistently ranks high on lists of the best scenic drives in America. It’s neck-and-neck with drives in Hawaii, Florida, and California, and for good reason. Few, if any, other highways take you through such dramatic, dichotomous scenery.
Drive south of the park on Highway 12, and you’ll have lush alpine forests on your right, and a vast expanse of red rock desert to your left. I’m not aware of anywhere else in the country that offers the stark contrast in landscapes that Highway 12 does.
I apologize for the tangent – but Highway 12 is really worth driving, if you’re in the area.
The easiest way to get to Capitol Reef is to take Highway 12 to the town of Torrey. From there, you’ll head northeast on Highway 24 to the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center. This is one of the best starting points for your adventures throughout the park.
You’ll find lodging in Torrey or Hanksville, both of which are relatively close to the Visitor Center.
What’s In The Park?
Zion National Park is famous for its slot canyons and huge monoliths. Bryce has its hoodoos, and Arches and Canyonlands are named for what’s in their boundaries.
Capitol Reef is home to a large portion of the Waterpocket Fold, a unique geologic feature that extends from the park nearly 100 miles south to Lake Powell. The Waterpocket Fold is a large shelf that’s essentially a water-warped portion of the earth’s crust. During mountain formation millions of years ago, portions of the western side of the rock layer were lifted higher than the eastern portions.
This created some of the most stunning scenery in all of the American West.
Inside Capitol Reef, you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of exploring.
Capitol Reef derives its name from two geologic features. “Reef” refers to the Waterpocket Fold, and “Capitol” to the dome-like sandstone monoliths that resemble the same domes placed on the U.S. Capitol, and other state buildings.
These domes make for fantastic photography, and they create a stunning horizon for sunsets. If you’re ever down in Capitol Reef on a full moon, face east while the sun sets and the moon rises. The moonlight makes the domes shine, and the whole landscape lights up with a natural ambience that’s just magical.
A few years ago, I got really big into canyoneering. My mom and dad decided to take up a semi-dangerous sport in their 40s, and I was pulled along for the ride. I wasn’t too happy about it at the start, but up until they got older and started working more than a person ought to, we’d explore the slot canyons of Southern Utah on a regular basis.
Capitol Reef isn’t home to the variety of canyons you’ll find elsewhere, but it does have some of the best – and uncrowded – routes in the West. Halls Crossing is a popular one, and it’s long and tough enough you’ll want 3-4 days to do it justice.
I always wanted to be a better climber than I ever was. Fishing and hunting distracted me from dedicating time to rock climbing, though. If you’re a climber looking for a great challenge, though, Capitol Reef is the place for you. It hasn’t historically been a climbing hotspot, so there’s potential for new routes to be found every day. The only caveat is that the rock is mostly sandstone, and isn’t terribly stable.
Yep, you read that right. Capitol Reef National Park is also home to fruit orchards. When this area was first settled by pioneers in the 1800s, they planted thousands of fruit trees in the fertile river valleys around Capitol Reef.
Since the creation of the park, the Park Service has maintained the fruit orchards. You can still go and see the descendants of trees planted almost 200 years ago. The orchards contain plum, apple, apricot, cherry, peach, and pear trees.
Of course, with any national park in the West, you’d expect to find a wealth of day hiking opportunities, and Capitol Reef doesn’t disappoint. One of the most popular is the Hickman Bridge – a 133-foot-long natural bridge located in a remote canyon.
Other hikes offer views of the Golden Throne, Sunset Point, and Cassidy Arch. Yes, there’s an arch in Capitol Reef. They’re fairly common all throughout Southwest Utah.
Visiting The Park
My favorite time of the year at Capitol Reef is late fall through early spring. It’s cold, it snows, but there’s nothing that beats the beauty of red rock with a fresh dusting of dry, fluffy powder. You’ll have the park to yourself, and while a lot of the canyoneering isn’t available, most of the hikes still are.
If you want go visit during warmer months, I’d suggest April – June, and September as the best times to visit.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the most underrated places I’ve ever visited, and I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the American West. From the lush valleys of Montana to the Grand Canyon – and most of Alaska, for that matter – Capitol Reef will always hold a special place in my heart.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and guide from Utah. He’s the Lead Guide/Owner of The Utah Fly Fishing Company, the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a columnist for Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spener_Durrant.