Top 10 Things to See at Capitol Reef National Park

Updated: Mar 3

View from the scenic drive along the west end of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah
Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem as the least visited of the "Mighty 5" National Parks in Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is the least visited of the "Mighty 5" National Parks in Utah. In fact, I still run into many Utahns who have yet to visit this geological treasure located in the center of the state. In many ways, the lack of crowds compared to Arches and Zions National Park make a trip to Capitol Reef more special. Many people don't add Capitol Reef to their itinerary because they aren't sure what the park has to offer. Whether you are visiting out of state or are a local Utahn who just hasn't made the trek to Capitol Reef yet, here are the top 10 things to see and do in the park.

The Historic town of Fruita with its Orchards are located near the Gifford House in Capitol Reef National Park
View from the Gifford House of the Historic Fruita Barn

10. Pie at the Gifford House - I've never been to Capitol Reef without stopping by the historic Gifford House near the Fruita Orchards and having fresh baked pie. This old farmhouse has been converted into a quaint gift shop, but of all the things for sale, I think the pie is the best. They even sell homemade ice cream to go on top if that is your thing. Make sure to go early however, it is not uncommon for the Gifford house to sell out of pie, or at least the best flavors by lunch time. I always begin any adventure in Capitol Reef with pie from the Gifford House. You can enjoy it on the Picnic tables and take in the incredible views as you fuel up for your adventure.

Cathedral Mountain along with other rock formations give Cathedral Valley its name in Utah's Capitol Reef National Park
Rock formations of Cathedral Valley

9. Cathedral Valley - It's off the beaten path and down a long dirt road, but the unique sandstone formations of Cathedral Valley are definitely worth the drive. Looking like sandstone cathedrals in the desert, it's not hard to understand how this valley got it's name.

To reach Cathedral valley, take the Hartnet Road East of Orientation Pullout. A sign marks the road and the trail starts off fording the Fremont River. I recommend only driving this trail with a truck or SUV - the road does not require any crazy off road driving skills or a huge suspension - I did it in a stock Tacoma - but is definitely nice to have the clearance and 4 wheel drive for the river ford and for a few spots where the road is rough.

From the viewpoint of Cathedral Valley from the Hartnet Road you can head north down into the valley and take a right at Cathedral junction onto the Cathedral Valley. The road will take you through the valley and passed the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the moon before reaching the town of Caineville outside of the park boundary. Allow a few hours to complete the entire loop and it's always a good idea to check at the visitor center to get the current road conditions and depth of the river.

White sandstone domes look like Capitol domes giving Utah's Capitol Reef National Park its name
Large sandstone domes give Capitol Reef its name

8. Panorama Point - Located at the west entrance of the park, just off the main road Panorama Point provides some great views of the geologic formations that give Capitol Reef its name. Capitol Reef gets its name from the white sand stone domes that look like the domes of Capitol buildings and the rocky cliffs that are a barrier to travel like an ocean reef. Other points of interest near Panorama point are Chimney Rock and Gooseneck overlook so if you are going to stop for one, it is worth hitting them all.

The Petroglyph Panel is located along the Fremont River in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah
A walkway provides up-close views of the petroglphs

7. Petroglyph Panel - Keep left on Highway 24 as you pass the visitor center and just beyond the old school house is Petroglyph Panel along the Fremont River. A wooden walkway hugs the sandstone cliff and allows for an up close view of many different petroglyphs. The walk itself is only a few hundred yards, but provides a glimpse into the rich history of the Capitol Reef area. It is also a great place to get out of the summer sun and enjoy the cool breeze of the river and shade of the trees.

Temple of the Sun is located in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah
Temple of the Sun off Cathedral Valley Road

6. Temple of the Sun & Temple of the Moon - These are two unique sand stone formations just barely inside of the park boundary. What makes these two unique is the flat landscape and lack of any other rock formations around them. To access the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon take the Cathedral Valley Road that heads north from Caineville. It is about a 15 mile drive out to the two Temples and the road takes you right up to each of them. The Cathedral Valley road is a dirt road and its condition can be greatly affected by weather. Plan on a couple of hours for an out and back trip to the two temples. I would recommend only attempting the road with a truck or SUV, especially if weather conditions are not ideal.

The scenic drive is an 8 mile paved road that runs from the Fruita Campground to Capitol Gorge in Utah's Capitol Reef National Park.
Scenic drive from Fruita Campround to Capitol Gorge

5. Scenic Drive to Capitol Gorge - This scenic drive begins just past the Fruita campground and extends 8 miles to Capitol Gorge. The road is paved and while it is a relatively short journey it is packed with some great scenery. The road hugs one of the large sandstone "Reefs" that contributes to Capitol Reef's name and ends at the scenic spot Capitol Gorge. Along the scenic drive is Grand Wash, which is a great canyon to get out of the car and explore and is also the starting place to the popular Cassidy Arch Hike. I've done the scenic drive by car and by bike and whichever way you choose to experience it, you won't soon forget it.

4. Hickman Bridge Hike - The trail to Hickman Bridge is just under 1 mile each way and gains about 400 feet in elevation. It is rated as moderate by the National Park Service. The hike itself goes under and round the 133-foot natural bridge and provides some good views of the canyon. This is a good hike for families even though it is rated moderate, as the trail is wide and not exposed at any parts. The trailhead is located on the North side of Highway 24 just east of the Petroglyph Panel. The turnoff is well marked and there is parking available off the road. For a guide to many of the hikes in Capitol Reef, click here.

View of the Burr Trail Switchbacks in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah
The Burr Trail Switchbacks are one of the most beautiful stretches of scenic highway in Utah

3. Burr Trail Switchbacks - The Burr Trail Switchbacks are an interesting part of what is known as the Burr Trail, a trail system that extends from Capitol Reef across Grand Staircase and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area. The Burr Trail was named after John Atlantic Burr, who settled this area in 1876 and used it for grazing cattle.

The Switchbacks are one of the few passages across the Grand Staircase area of Utah and consist of hairpin turn switchbacks that quickly ascend up a sandstone canyon. The switchbacks are steep by today's standard and make for one of the best stretches of scenic highway in Utah.

Just of the Nottam Bullfrog Road is the Burr Trail Switchbacks in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The start of the Burr Trail Switchbacks

In dry conditions the switchbacks are passable by passenger vehicles and provide excellent views of the Water Pocket Fold area below as you ascend the switchbacks. In wet or mixed conditions 4 wheel drive is recommended. The Burr Trail switchbacks can be accessed from the Notom-Bullfrog Road in Capitol Reef National Park or from the Burr Trail road in Boulder Utah.

The Notom-Bullfrog Road is a dirt road that parallels the Water Pocket fold south passing a few back country campsites and various hikes and side canyons. It can be a bit bumpy, especially in a passenger car, and is very remote, so be sure to have plenty of gas and water. You'll follow the road south for 33 miles from Orientation Pullout in Capitol Reef and then head west on Burr Trail Road. Just after turning on to the road you'll see the switchbacks. You can check current road conditions here.

Soon after the switchbacks the road turns to pavement and takes you th