We began exploring Capitol Reef National Park in conjunction with an adventure to nearby San Rafael Swell. It is scenic, diverse, and not as crowded as many other National Parks. After many visits to the park, we are still exploring its many treasures.
Capitol Reef has a mixture of everything. Deep winding canyons, stunning red rock cliffs, arches, slot canyons, and remoteness. The hiking in Capitol Reef is fantastic and offers diversity for every skill level. There is a variety of terrain which includes back country routes combined with more convenient trails for those who don’t have the time to explore.
The Waterpocket Fold defines Capitol Reef National Park and is a warp in the Earth’s crust that extends for a nearly 100 miles. It is a classic monocline which is a step-up in the rock layers creating a regional field that has one steep side in an area of nearly horizontal layers. The rock layers on the west side of the Waterpocket Fold are over 7,000 feet higher than the layers to the east. The Fold was created 50 to 70 million years ago and the ongoing erosion of the rock layers have created the austere monoliths, winding canyons, and dramatic arches that we see today.
Capitol Reef located near Torrey, Utah is remote which is what makes it such a special place. Coming from Salt Lake City or Denver you will connect to Utah Highway 24 from Interstate 70. Take Highway 24 for 44 miles to Hanksville and then turn continuing on UT-24 for another 37 miles to the Visitor Center. If you’re traveling east on Interstate 70, take exit 40 to UT-120 for 1.2 miles, then left on UT-118 for .8 miles, make a slight right on to UT-119 and continue for 8.8 miles, and then turn right onto UT-24 east and continue for 63.4 miles to the Visitor Center which will on the right side of the highway. The park brochure contains detailed directions if you’re traveling from Interstate 15.
You can also access Capitol Reef by traveling on Scenic Byway 12 from Highway 89 from the south. This route will take you on a journey of 125 miles past Bryce Canyon National and through Grand Staircase – Escalante giving you the privilege of witnessing some of the most amazing scenery on the planet.
Exploring the Park
There are multiple sections of the park. First, there is the Fruita, or central part of the park where the visitor’s center is located, the start of the scenic drive, and some of the hiking trailheads. There is also the eastern side which is accessed by the Notom Bullfrog road. The southern section of the park is reached by traveling south on the Notom Bullfrog road or from the Burr Trail Road which heads southeast from Scenic Byway 12 in the town of Boulder. The Cathedral District lies to the northeast of the visitor center and requires fording the Freemont River. We’ll share a little about each of these sections including the variety of views and diversity of hiking opportunities.
Everyone visiting Capitol Reef National Park typically starts at the visitor center in Fruita. From there they can take the scenic drive, stop at the picnic area, or access the numerous trail heads to hikes in that region. It’s a good way to orient you to the park and gain a sense of abundant beauty. We have provided a list of hikes based our personal experiences.
The Notom Bullfrog Road is located on the east side of the Waterpocket fold and connects with the Burr Trail Road at the south end of the park. Driving south on Notom Bullfrog Road provides access to the trail heads for three slot canyons that drain to the east.
The southern section of the park offers some special treasures. It is important to understand that Capitol Reef is a vast area of 358 square miles and it is a journey of 125 miles from the visitor center down Notom Bullfrog Road, over the Burr Trail Road to Boulder, and then back to the visitor center.
The Cathedral District is the most northern section of the park and is a drive of 60 miles to view its special sights and includes a River Ford of the Freemont River. The River Ford is usually possible with a high clearance vehicle except during spring runoff or after a thunderstorm. The river crossing is located 12 miles east of the visitor center on Highway 24 where the Cathedral Road always you to cross the river. The 60 mile journey returns you back to Highway 24 just west of Caineville.
Capitol Reef National Park is a special place that begs you to return to enjoy its special treasures time and time again. It is a place that you will never tire of or get bored. Adventure lurks around every corner and turn.