What's not to love about Capitol Reef National Park? It's got awesome hikes, stunning scenic drives, breathtaking scenery, a fascinating history... and it's comparatively less crowded than Zion National Park or Arches National Park to boot! Heck, there's even a orchard stuffed with snacks free for the taking-- how many National Parks can say that? Most might overlook Capitol Reef entirely, or give it less time than it deserves, but get ready to reconsider. Here are some of the things that make the park worth a stop!
Some tips for visiting Capitol Reef National Park:
The orchards planted by the pioneers who originally settled here have been maintained and you can pick the fruit for yourself! Help yourself to as much as you can eat in the orchard for free, or take some home with you for a relatively cheap price. There are almost 3,000 fruit-bearing trees in the orchards, including cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, and apples, and you can usually find something to pick between mid-June and late September. -Other than occasional summer thunderstorms, the weather here is ideal for camping. There are three in the park, but only one, Fruita Campground, is developed. It only costs $10 for a spot, and backcountry permits to the other sites are free!
There's the park's Scenic Drive, which is about 8 miles long and provides incredible views of the park, but don't overlook the Capitol Gorge Road, a dirt road that spurs off of the scenic drive.
There's also the utterly incredible Burr Trail Road. The half-paved route is an intense 68-mile journey that will take you from Boulder to Bullfrog, through Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area before ending right near Lake Powell. You'll drive through canyons, past incredible rock formations, near some of the state's best hikes, and up (or down) one extremely wild set of switchbacks that rise over 800 feet in less than a mile. Check the conditions of the trail before you plan a trip, though!
The Fruita Campground is the one developed campground inside the park. You can't beat it for convenience, and the flush toilets are a serious godsend. There are two other not-developed campsites in the park as well. You can bring whatever tents you like to any of them. Oh, and by the way... you'll need to make a reservation in advance, though.
The Capitol Reef area was very enticing to pioneers thanks to the Fremont River. It attracted Mormon settlers in 1880, who put down roots here in a town they eventually called Fruita. It remained one of the most remote towns in the country thanks to the rugged landscape (the town got its first tractor in 1940!) but the 10 or so families here were pretty self-reliant, growing and canning fruits and raising animals. There's a little schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, and a few other town buildings still standing today.
The last resident of Fruita was named Dewey Gifford, and he sold his homestead to the NPS in 1969. You can tour it today-- it's got a little gift shop and bakery that's world-famous for its pies. Pies are only available from March 14th (Pi Day) until late summer/early fall, so plan accordingly!
More in the mood for a hike? Head out to Cassidy Arch. The short but strenuous hike up some intense switchbacks offers views you'll only find in Utah. The Cassidy Arch Trail is a fork off of the Grand Wash Trail, and isn't too long. The arch itself is named after Butch Cassidy. There's no proof that Butch Cassidy ever visited the rock formation, but as you hike to it, it's not hard to picture Cassidy and his pals hiding out among the nooks and crannies of the rocks!
Capitol Reef Resort is a great homebase for exploring the park. It's in Torrey, which is super close to Capitol Reef, but still offers the chance to explore the little town's gems. The resort itself offers accommodations for literally everyone. If you want to be pampered, stay in a guestroom or luxury cabin; if you're feeling adventurous, they have tepees and pioneer-inspired Conestoga wagons for glamping! Ask about their guided horseback rides, check out the onsite eatery, and, for the love of God, check out the view from their incredible pool!
Finding places to eat near National Parks can be a challenge, especially in more remote areas like Southern Utah. Café Diablo in Torrey might have you coming back repeatedly, though, because finding a menu as diverse and innovative as theirs is quite rare. Lamb shanks, tuna, beef sirloin, and more, all cooked with locally-inspired flavors and ingredients make up a delicious menu. If you're feeling really brave, try the rattlesnake cakes!
If you're traveling with a group (which is a super fun way to experience Capitol Reef) then book the Ranch at Elk Valley. This barn has been converted into a guesthouse and, with its ranch-inspired decor, makes for a unique stay. There's a kitchen, pool table, huge patio, and three bedrooms!
There are loads of stunning red rocks formations in Capitol Reef. Another one that you can explore is Hickman Bridge. The trail here is about two miles out and back, and along the way you'll see arches, native ruins, and loads of stunning views. Remember to sunscreen up and bring plenty of water!
If you want to see the best of Capitol Reef in a short amount of time, head to Cathedral Valley. You'll get views of massive eroded cliffs, bright colors, and unusual sandstone formations. It's criss-crossed by hikes and drives that take you to various features, like Glass Mountain, the Walls of Jericho, the Temple of the Sun, Moon and Stars, the Gypsum Sinkhole, and more. It's also relatively less crowded, which makes it the perfect spot to really experience just how majestic Capitol Reef actually can be.
Luna Mesa Cafe is literally an oasis in the middle of nowhere. It feels like a place that time forgot, in an enchanting way, and if you happen to be in the area, stop by for a cup of coffee, a burger, or a burrito. The best part is the owners: they're more than happy to point the way wherever you need to go, and are a valuable wealth of knowledge in a mostly-empty landscape.
If you're familiar with Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, then you'll know that the notorious gang of outlaws made camp at Robber's Roost, which is only about 70 miles away from the park. Cassidy was a Utah native, and he and his band of outlaws were notorious across the state. They didn't cause trouble 24/7, though-- they took the occasional night off from train robberies and shootouts to enjoy dinner at Elijah Cutler Behunin's cabin in Fruita-- the cabin has been preserved by the NPS.
There's also the Country Cafe in Loa, which can fill all of your breakfast and lunch needs. The menu features exactly what you'd expect: dinner plates, chicken-fried steak, biscuits and gravy, and more. It's the perfect place to fill up before hitting the road for an adventure!
The best time of year to visit Capitol Reef is pretty much whenever. It does snow in winter and some roads close, but it's open year-round. Summer is always popular, but keep in mind that it can get intensely hot, and that summer thunderstorms are very common (although they don't last too long).