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Capitol Reef might be my favorite national park in Utah. It’s the one I’ve lived the closest to making it the easiest for me to explore. While it has a ton of awesome hikes, there are so many cool things to do that involve little to no hiking. Whether you can’t hike or just don’t like it, you should still visit Capitol Reef. You’ll still be able to see plenty of the park.
If you’re planning a Southern Utah road trip and visiting the other parks, I have a guide for not hiking in Arches and one for Zion as well. I’ll be doing them for Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands as well, so stay tuned. Any walking included in this will be less than a mile, most are less than half a mile, and easy. You can find the rest of my “things to do that aren’t hiking” posts here.
What to bring to Capitol Reef National Park
Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side. They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.
Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry! I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese. There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.
Light Jacket – Because you just never know. Weather can change quickly depending on where you are and if you’ll be in any slot canyons, they can get cool depending on the time of day and season. I usually use my rain jacket for this.
Sleeping pad – Gotta make the tent comfy! The one I have isn’t available anymore but this one is similar. It’s self-inflating and just needs a little help filling all the way. Buy the sleeping pad here.
Pillow – If you’re just driving, I’d just bring a regular pillow, but if you’re flying then renting a car, you might want a smaller pillow. This is a good non-inflatible option. Here is a good inflatable option.
Lantern – I love having a lantern for in the tent at night, reading in the dark, or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The LuminAID is my favorite and you can charge your phone on it. Buy the LuminAID lantern here.
Stop and see the Goosenecks
While you can walk the bottom of the Goosenecks on the Sulphur Creek Trail, you can still enjoy them from above on this short walk up to the Goosenecks Overlook. The walk is 0.1 miles with less than 50 feet of elevation gain. You’ll get views of the Goosenecks below in the huge canyon with mountains in the distance.
The Goosenecks Overlook is on Highway 24 running through Capitol Reef. It’s the part you don’t need a pass to see, so even if you’re just passing through, you can stop and see this. The road up to it is dirt, but you don’t need anything special to get to it. It is washboard-y though. And I don’t believe RVs can go on it, but any car is fine.
Do the scenic drive
While you can drive through a lot of the park on Highway 24, there is a lot more to do and see on the scenic drive, too. If it’s been really rainy recently, the drive may be closed because a lot of washes go over the road. If you do plan on doing any hiking here, Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash are two great hikes along the scenic drive.
You can find a couple orchards down here along with the campground, Gifford Home, visitor center, Capitol Gorge, and all kinds of cool rock formations. This part does require a fee, but the national park pass will cover it if you have one. If not, it is $20 per vehicle.
Get pie, cinnamon rolls, and ice cream at the Gifford Homestead
This is a must-do in Capitol Reef, no matter how much time you have. The historic Gifford Homestead was built in 1908 by polygamist Calvin Pendleton where he lived with his family for eight years. The Jorgensons lived in there next for 12 years followed by the Giffords for 41.
Now it is a small store that sells homemade pie, ice cream, cinnamon rolls, salsa, pickled vegetables, and some textile things. We stop here every time we visit to get ice cream and salsa. If you want pie and cinnamon rolls, go earlier in the day because occasionally the do run out if it’s busy.
Check out the Petroglyphs
This is an easy 0.2-mile boardwalk along highway 24 taking you to quite a few petroglyph sites. The first one is pretty high up on the wall, but they have one of those big binocular things so you can see them closer up. If oyu keep going, the rest are lower on the wall, but you have to keep an eye out for them. Some are hard to spot, but you can usually tell where they are because there will be people standing around them. I really like this stop and it’s great if you want to be in the shade for a bit.
Watch the sunset at Sunset Point
If you’re in the park all day, or getting there later in the day, make sure you go watch the sunset at Sunset Point. I haven’t done this yet (these pictures are from the North Fruita Overlook) but from what I’ve seen on Google, it looks wonderful. This is at the same parking area as the Goosenecks Overlook.
It is a 0.4-mile, easy walk to panoramic views of Capitol Reef. There are less than 50 feet of elevation gain, so it should be a nice, easy walk, and totally worth it at the end.
If you’re visiting later in the summer or fall you can pick fruit in the orchards! This is one of my favorite things to do in Capitol Reef, for sure. There are quite a few scattered around the Fruita District. You can tell which ones are open because they’ll have a U-PICK FRUIT sign out by the road. There will also be a sandwich board telling you what you can pick in that orchard.
While you’re in the orchard you can pick and eat as much as you want. If you want to take any with you, it’s $2 per pound. There are scales by the orchard entrances and a box to pay in. It is cash only and an honor system. It’s really fun wandering around the orchards eating some of the best apples ever.
Drive Cathedral Valley Loop
If you have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and are up for a little more adventure, consider driving the Cathedral Valley Loop. This is a 56-mile loop north of the Fruita District. If you just have one day in the park, I’d skip this, but if you’ve got extra time, this could be a great option. It’s definitely not as busy as the rest of the park due to its remoteness.
This is best done over two days with a night spent camping, but if you just have one day, you can still do it. Plan the whole day for the drive though. There are a few hiking routes in Cathedral Valley if you want to do them, but you can also just drive and admire the scenery. Make sure you see the Temple of the Moon and Sun and the gypsum sinkhole. Check road conditions at the visitor center before leaving.
Check out all the rock formations along Highway 24
Chimney Rock, Balanced Rock, Twin Rocks, The Castle, these are just a few of the many rock formations you can admire along Highway 24 on your drive through Capitol Reef. There are quite a few pull-offs to enjoy the views from along your drive. If you’re only driving through on your way to Bryce Canyon or Moab, these can be a great way to still enjoy the park.
Stop at Panorama Point
Just before, or after depending on your direction of travel, the Goosenecks Overlook is Panorama Point. If you want great views of Capitol Reef, this is the stop for you. It’s a 0.1 mile lightly trafficked trail over the sandstone with views for miles in every direction. This is definitely one of the best views in the park that involves minimal hiking to get to.
The Pioneer Register is in Capitol Gorge at the very end of the scenic drive (the part you need a pass for) and a short walk into the gorge. You’ll drive to the trailhead on a dirt road, but any car can do the drive. Just be careful if it’s been rainy recently.
The whole Capitol Gorge trail is one mile, but the Pioneer Register isn’t all the way in. On the left of the trail, which follows the wash, you can see some petroglyphs. Soon after on the right, waaaaay up on the wall, you can see a list of names of the pioneers that came through here in the 1800s. On the left, you’ll see almost a gallery of names carved in the wall in one area. If you’re a big history fan, this is a cool thing to see.
So, whether you like to hike and don’t have time, just don’t want to, or can’t hike, there is still plenty of reason to visit Capitol Reef on your Utah road trip. It has some of the best scenery and is totally underrated. Plus, it’s a great way to break up the long drive between Moab and Zion.
Tips for visiting Capitol Reef:
- If you’re visiting in the summer and plan on staying in Torrey, I would recommend booking a hotel in advance. If you want to stay somewhere specific like the Skyridge Bed and Breakfast (which I would highly recommend) or Capitol Reef Resort, you’ll really want to book ahead. The bed and breakfast can book up months in advance since it only has six rooms. You can book hotels in Torrey here.
- If you’re visiting in summer, it will get extremely hot. The best time to be in the park during the hot months will be sunrise/early morning and the evening. If you’re not hiking it’s not as much of an issue though.
- Either way, drink lots of water.
- If you want a less busy time to visit and have the time to do it, go in the winter. The weather will be perfect then.
- You don’t need a special car for any of the drives in the park, other than Cathedral Valley Loop. You’ll need high clearance 4WD for that.
- The best time to pick fruit in the orchards is going to be late summer and fall, but you might be able to see the blooms earlier in the summer.
Have you been to Capitol Reef? Did you do any of these things? What is your favorite thing to do there?