Capitol Reef National Park
Utah is like Mother Nature's weird mood. | Artifan/Shutterstock
Utah is like Mother Nature's weird mood. | Artifan/Shutterstock

Utah's Least-Known National Park Has Miles of Jaw-Dropping Cliffs

Way bigger than Zion, tons more serenity.

Welcome to National Parks Uncovered, where we’ll help you discover the beauty of America’s most underrated—and least-crowded—national parks—from sweeping landscapes where you can get up close and personal with mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes to sunny paradises hiding out near major cities like Chicago and LA. To find out what natural wonders you’ve been missing out on, check out the rest of our underrated national parks coverage.

An 87-mile-long fold rips through the earth’s crust in Southern Utah, creating seemingly endless orange cliffs with sandstone spiked wilderness on either side. This is Capitol Reef National Park, as awe-inspiring as it is underrated. The fifty-year-old preserve is tucked far away from interstate access… and the crowds that come with it. In fact, it’s the least visited of the state’s so-called “Mighty Five,” attracting barely a million annual visitors to an area about a third the size of Rhode Island. Compare that to the 5 million people flocking yearly to Zion and you get some sense of how desolate things are around here. Though even the least crowded of Utah’s parks has more befuddling and mind-blowing landscapes than many national parks across the country.

To an outdoor enthusiast, the small number of visitors ought to read as feature not flaw. Indeed, if you come ready for adventure, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best hiking in the lower 48, leading to some of the most singularly spectacular vistas, well, anywhere. And you often feel like you have it all to yourself. That’s not hyperbole either: peppered throughout the landscape are geological formations unique to this part of the world. Then there’s the sun, rising and setting to drape it all under a spellbinding golden-orange glow, twice a day.

If this all sounds like your cup of tea, you’ve come to the right place for a pour. There’s a lot of ground to cover at Capitol Reef National Park, and visiting requires proper planning. We’ve got your back. What to see? When to go? Where to stay? It’s all here to help you get there—sooner rather than later.

Capitol Reef National Park Utah
And here we thought dirt was brown. | Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

So what is so special about Capitol Reef National Park?

You can’t talk about Capitol Reef without mentioning its defining geological formation: The Waterpocket Fold. It is quite literally a massive wrinkle in the earth’s crust spanning nearly 100 miles from north to south, with its western edge uplifted as much as 7,000 feet above the east.

Otherwise known as a monocline, its formation was the result of a series of seismic, mountain-forming events that took place between 50 and 70 million years ago. The tilt reveals countless layers of red and orange sandstone, much of which has eroded through eons to carve out domes, canyons, arches, and sheer cliffs (AKA: many of the other notable geological features of the park).

That all makes for some pretty epic hikes, scenic drives, plus a sprinkling of petroglyphs (which you can read more about below).

Best time of year to visit

The park and campgrounds at Capitol Reef are open year-round, but the high season ramps up in late March and peaks in late summer. In June and July, the weather averages in the high 80s/low 90s. Keep in mind that’s a very dry heat, so bringing lots of water is pretty much a requirement. Whereas in the wintertime, some roads can be closed due to snow.

As a result, the ideal window for your journey sits squarely within late September and early October. There’s still ample light for lengthy day hikes and—so long as the sun is out—the temperature will range somewhere between a balmy 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, you could still be one of the first to hit it up this spring—if you start planning right now

It's like an ancient family portrait. | IrinaK/Shutterstock

Drive for miles through cliffs and petroglyphs

For those who don’t want to stray too far from their vehicles, the park offers ample sightseeing along established roads. The one you’re most likely to encounter without even trying to visit Capitol Reef is US-24, a state highway bifurcating the park alongside the Fremont River, also known as the “Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway.” For most drivers, it’s what they’ll follow for 80 minutes to get through this part of southern Utah, perhaps going from one national park to the next. It’s impossible to ignore the natural wonder as you drive through. The archaeological marvels are easier to overlook, however. Don’t make that mistake; pull over and get out of the car when you see a sign for petroglyphs.

About 1.5 miles east of the visitors center, directly alongside the highway, you’ll find perfectly preserved petroglyph panels carved into the sandstone cliffs. The markings were made by the Ancestral Puebloan people who roamed the region from 600-1300 A.D. They depict the daily life of this indigenous culture, which mysteriously vanished centuries before European colonizers arrived. Hunters and their prey appear alongside illustrations of farming practices and even religious rituals. A window into an ancient world awaits.

But even more splendid drives await for those who aren’t just passing through. The most notable example is the aptly-named Scenic Drive, which is an eight-mile stretch of pavement abutting steep, sandstone cliffs. But be advised, it’s the only part of Capitol Reef that requires an entry fee: $20 at a self-serve kiosk.

Along the way you can pull-off and spot petrified wood, burgundy-hued hoodoo towers, solution pockets (fancy term for little holes in cliff walls), and slot canyons. Eventually you rise high enough along the thoroughfare to catch a sweeping view of the surrounding panorama, where you can see the Waterpocket Fold (which you’ve been skirting the whole way) in greater context against its surroundings.

Fremont River
Only a few get to see some sights. | Edmund Lowe Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Go on a bumpy ride through the desert with no one in sight

If you have a sturdy 4-wheel-drive vehicle, you should splinter off the pavement onto Grand Wash—a 1.2-mile dirt road that leads to an even shorter hiking trail overlooking Cassidy Arch. It’s a popular pitstop for families.

For more off-road adventure, Capitol Reef is home to one of the best backcountry byways in all of America. The Burr Trail is 67 miles of red rock resplendence leading from the tiny town of Boulder to the even tinier town of Bullfrog, alongside Lake Powell. You start on a sealed road as you descend into a stunning sandstone canyon before the asphalt gives out, and you’re left to descend a vertigo-inspiring series of switchbacks through the Waterpocket Fold, itself.

The full list of scenic majesty you’ll encounter is worthy of an entirely separate writeup (the National Park Service catalogues notable mile markers here). But the basic point is: this is a ride you won’t ever forget. And one that you shouldn’t even try if you don’t have four-wheel-drive and a spare tire in tow.

Hickman's Bridge
Arches aren't just for Arches National Park. | Sproetniek/iStock/Getty Images

Hike domes and arches

The trailhead for Hickman Bridge, Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs is among the most popular stops in the park, as it contains three separate points of interest. And it’s all easily accessed from a parking lot just off of US-24 (be forewarned that the lot can fill up fast during the high season).

The first part of the hike is an easy, mile-long jaunt up to Hinkman Bridge—a natural sandstone arch spanning 133 feet. To get there, you’ll follow the meandering Fremont River before ascending stone steps up to a plateau that overlooks several surrounding canyons. From here, you can catch an unfettered glimpse of the Capitol Dome protrusion that helped lend the park its name. When you see it, you’ll know why the 19th-century settlers to the area immediately drew comparisons to the white marble monuments of Washington DC.

After reaching the bridge, many hikers—especially those with small children in tow—will opt to turnaround. It’s a rewarding journey that can reasonably be completed, there and back, within two hours. If you have more time and aren’t deterred by a 1,600-foot elevation gain, proceed to Rim Overlook (4.5 miles round trip) or past that to the Navajo Knobs (10 miles round trip). The views of the Waterpocket Fold, with the Boulder Mountains hovering over the distant horizon, are sensational.

Squeeze through slot canyons

Slot canyons are fantastically narrow passageways chiseled through rock by water and wind over millennia. Utah is famous for examples that can be over a thousand feet deep, while no wider than a human body. Here in Capitol Reef you could spend several years exploring them and still not find them all.

If you’re planning a shorter stay in Capitol Reef—say, a day or two—here are some great places to start: Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch. The trailhead for each are separated by only a few miles as you make your way southward along the Notom-Bullfrog Road—a well-maintained dirt road that spurs off from US-24.

The above routes are relatively popular because they each can be done in an easy out-and-back day hike. And they each will lead to picturesque terrain absent of any crowds. Just remember that there are no services offered here. You’ll have to pack-out everything that you pack-in, and you should never hike this dynamic landscape solo. Slot Canyons are notoriously prone to flash floods and the terrain can become treacherous in an instant—without warning. Always examine the weather report for the entire region before embarking on any trek.

Capitol Reef, Utah
Okay, well you can't stay in the historic sites, but you can imagine what that must've been like. | JKO Photos/Shutterstock

Where to stay when visiting Capitol Reef National Park

If you want to car camp at Capitol Reef, Fruita Campground is your only option. Billed as a desert oasis, this surprisingly green space is suspended beneath red rock alongside the Fremont River. The only downside is that it fills up fast. There are only 71 spaces and the park requires reservations through an online system if you’re booking between March 1st and October 31st. You can secure your spot as early as six months in advance for $25 per night.

Looking for something a little more luxurious? Check out Capitol Reef Resort, a 3-star property just west of the park entrance in the quaint town of Torrey. Rooms afford stellar views of the red rock mesas just beyond your door and are appointed with alluring western decor (think antler chandeliers and Navajo throw rugs). There’s also a heated outdoor pool and hot tub boasting postcard-caliber panorama. Rates start at $155 per night.

For those who want to get a bit boutique—and are eager to explore of the country’s most inspiring scenic byways—take UT-12 to the town of Escalante (or travel up the aforementioned Burr Trail from inside the park). Here you’ll find one of the more unique lodges in the American Southwest. Scattered across 20 acres of wilderness, Yonder Escalante features a series of airstreams converted into cozy cabins. You can also enjoy a “drive-thru” classic movie experience from their large outdoor screen. Perch up in one of the retired classic cars that they keep parked in front, savor some fresh popcorn from the concession stand, and get warped back to the 1970s.

The property also features a hot tub, swimming pool, bodacious brunches, and dozens of dedicated RV hookups. Seeing this part of the world from a recreational vehicle is another sort of thrill, altogether. If you don’t own one, there are now helpful sites such as RVShare, which essentially act as AirBNBs for RVs.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him @Journeys_with_Japhe.