The iconic Mighty 5 national parks in Utah offer an exhilarating experience with eye-catching landscapes and panoramic views that inspire visitors to return year after year. Our visits to Utah have seen us explore all of these epic parks, and perhaps the least known is also the trickiest to visit – Capitol Reef National Park. If you are heading south from Salt Lake City towards Moab to explore Canyonlands and Arches, this is a great time to take a quick detour and pay a quick visit to the heart of Utah to explore Capitol Reef. Whether you are road-tripping in your own vehicle, or perhaps prefer to grab a RV rental to explore the Mighty 5 national parks in Utah, this is definitely an experience not to be missed.
Ready for an epic weekend getaway? Let’s take a look at how you can travel from Capitol Reef to Arches National Parks during the same weekend and perhaps catch a glimpse of inherent beauty of both.
A trip to any of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks deserves much more than 24-48 hours to explore, but if you are pressed for time or perhaps looking to stay in the gorgeous accommodation options available in Moab, it’s feasible to explore Capitol Reef before heading across to the eastern corner of the state.
Our visit to Capitol Reef was actually in reverse, after we headed west from Denver to spend the night in Moab and then enjoy an early morning drive through Arches before venturing across to Capitol Reef. I should add the caveat that we have visited Arches several times previously, so our focus on this trip was to spend as much time as possible in Capitol Reef given that this was the final national park in Utah that we had to visit.
Capitol Reef to Arches – How to Get There
The drive between Capitol Reef and Arches is straightforward however, to be transparent, there is very little in eastern Utah outside of these areas designated as national parks, and so driving along the interstate and then lesser known roads can lead to several hours of very little scenery. However, the ultimate focus should be on the end goal which is arriving at the entrance to Capitol Reef, so whether you are heading there from Salt Lake City, Moab, or other area of the Beehive State, the drive is well worth it.
A drive that is a little over 2 hours between Capitol Reef and Moab ensures that visitors should always have this lesser known park on their radar. You could even consider using Moab as a base to explore Arches, Canyonlands, and take a day trip to Capitol Reef but ultimately it depends on your personal itinerary and how much time you want to dedicate to each park.
To add a little context, Capitol Reef is accessible from the following Utah cities and landmarks:
- Salt Lake City – 218 Miles (3 Hours 26 Minutes)
- St. George – 209 Miles (3 Hours 22 Minutes)
- Bryce Canyon National Park – 112 Miles (2 Hours 6 Minutes)
- Zion National Park – 186 Miles (3 Hours 33 Minutes)
The Landscape of Capitol Reef National Park
While Capitol Reef is frequently considered the least well-known of all the national parks in Utah, you may be surprised to hear that this is actually the second largest after Canyonlands National Park. Much of Capitol Reef surrounds the Waterpocket Fold geological formation, and the park itself runs predominantly north to south, at 60 miles long and only 6 miles wide.
The park can be explored via a self-guided driving tour that meanders through the inherent beauty on either side, but as with most national parks, Capitol Reef is best explored on foot by visiting many of the breathtaking trails. Capitol Reef is essentially divided into three key areas, namely the Fruita Historic District, Cathedral Valley District, and the Waterpocket Fold.
The Fruita Historic District is the most frequently visited and most accessible part of the park. Many of Capitol Reef’s infamous attractions are located in this park area, just off Highway 24. The Cathedral Valley District is much more remote and the rugged landscape of this region is highlighted by towering rock formations, impressive scenic drives, and the iconic Temple of the Sun and Moon.
The heart of Capitol Reef is frequently considered the Waterpocket Fold, and along with parts of the Cathedral Valley District, you will need an AWD vehicle in order to explore the great outdoors in this part of the park.
As with many national parks, Capitol Reef relies heavily on the entrance fees in order to help fund the preservation of this area of natural beauty. Visitors to Capitol Reef will pay $20 per vehicle, but unlike many national parks, there is no official entrance station and guests will follow the honor system and self-pay at either the visitor center or the north end of the Capitol Gorge Scenic Drive.
The visitor center is a great place to visit prior to heading along the Capitol Gorge Scenic Drive, not only to pay a quick visit to the restrooms before heading out into the park, but also to pickup a map of the park, along with other information and history surrounding this part of Utah.
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Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
While hiking is undoubtedly the best way to explore Capitol Reef National Park, if you are short of time, the iconic self-guided driving tours will likely be your best option to experience the inherent beauty of this natural landscape. We will cover two of our favorites but dependent on which direction you enter this park will likely determine if some of the other options are feasible.
Capitol Gorge Scenic Drive
Let’s start with the most iconic drive in Capitol Reef National Park – the Capitol Gorge Scenic Drive. Just a couple of miles from the visitor center, this drive is perhaps the most spectacular experiences at Capitol Reef. Visitors should allocate anywhere from 1 hour to a half-day to explore everything there is to see along this route.
The drive itself can be challenging dependent on weather conditions, as there are numerous low-spots where water passes across the road and it may be beneficial to have an AWD vehicle to ensure you are able to navigate this route without any issues.
This 8-mile scenic drive offers breathtaking panoramic landscapes of the Fruita District and beyond. There are numerous spots where you will likely want to pull over to capture a few pictures, while the end of the drive offers the short Capitol Gorge road which is another 2 miles and well worth heading off the beaten path to experience this route.
The dirt road is a little less forgiving than the main route, and there are several blind spots where you are passing through the gorge with very little space to maneuver, especially if you meet any oncoming traffic that is heading out of the gorge. However, this is an unforgettable experience with breathtaking scenery and definitely something that creates a magical memory from your visit to Capitol Reef.
Highway 24 Scenic Drive
Visitors arriving at Capitol Reef National Park from Salt Lake City, Moab, or other northern locations will first experience the beauty of this natural landscape via Highway 24. This scenic drive offers epic views of the rugged Waterpocket Fold and follows a 25-mile journey into the heart of this national park, starting out at Chimney Rock and passing through the orchards and historic buildings at the ghost town of Fruita.
A trail behind the rather unique schoolhouse leads to a petroglyph panel, then continues on to Hickman Natural Bridge and the Fremont Indian ruins. Throughout this journey, you cannot help but admire the scenery that you are passing through, again reiterating the beauty of Utah’s natural landscape unlike anywhere else in the world.
Along Highway 24, visitors can enjoy several iconic attractions and viewpoints, including but not limited to, Panorama Point, Goosenecks Overlook, and Sunset Point. The journey along Highway 24 also offers a glimpse of Capitol Reef National Park without any sign of an entrance station, even when you are passing through the iconic park sign.
For those who may want to just drive this stretch and tour the park for free (though to reiterate you cannot afford to miss the Capitol Gorge Scenic Drive!), you won’t want to miss this drive.
Capitol Reef Hiking Trails
While the aforementioned scenic drives offer visitors an opportunity to see many of the highlights throughout this national park, it’s when you get out on foot that you are able to see the real beauty here. Some of the best trails include the following, each of which offers epic viewpoints and a more in-depth experience at Capitol Reef.
The incredible view from Panorama Point is a short walk from the road along Highway 24. Located 2.5 miles west of the visitor center on the south side of Highway 24, Panorama Point offers views across Capitol Reef, the distant Henry Mountains to the east, and towering Boulder Mountain to the west.
South of Panorama Point are the Goosenecks of Sulphur Creek, offering equally spectacular views across this iconic landscape. The canyon walls display a myriad of colors and the short walk from the gravel road leads to the Goosenecks Overlook which towers above the rim 6,400 feet into the creek below.
Another easy hike for visitors is Sunset Point. Panoramic views of the Fremont River gorge, the Capitol Reef cliffs, and the distant Henry Mountains can all be experienced here, and just as the name of the overlook sounds, this is the perfect place to experience breathtaking sunsets. From the Goosenecks Overlook parking area, it’s a short 0.3-mile hike across the slick rock to Sunset Point.
Enjoy an Evening in Moab
After exploring Capitol Reef National Park, head back along Highway 24 in the direction of I-70 to venture east towards Moab. Dependent on how you plan your trip to Capitol Reef, you may have time to visit Arches National Park before spending the evening in Moab. There are several iconic attractions in Arches National Park that are close to the entrance, and certainly worthwhile visiting even if you only have a couple of hours daylight.
The Park Avenue viewpoint is one of the most incredible sights as the sun is setting, and definitely one of our favorite landscapes in any national park across the US. The Windows are another attraction which are a great spot to visit late in the day, with a short hike from the road offering epic views of these geological formations.
Perhaps you prefer to arrive in Moab and simply enjoy a relaxing evening in the heart of the downtown area, grabbing dinner at one of the many local restaurants here (Fiesta Mexicana is one of our favorite spots, especially if you enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine) before planning your visit the following day to either Arches or Canyonlands National Parks, both of which are easily accessible from downtown Moab.
Stay at Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton to enjoy views of Moab’s red rocks and a short 10-minute drive from the entrance to Arches. Whether you choose to stay here, or other accommodation option in the area, you will have plenty to experience in Moab.
Capitol Reef’s location in Utah makes this the perfect national park to visit in conjunction with a visit to nearby Moab to explore Arches and Canyonlands. While it may seem like a stretch to explore more than one national park in a day (or even a weekend), the location of Capitol Reef means that you can explore the scenic drives, a couple of the shorter hiking trails, and still have time to capture an epic sunset at Arches National Park.
Regardless of whether you choose to spend a full day at Capitol Reef and then drive to Moab to spend the night, or try to explore some of the iconic landmarks in Capitol Reef and Arches during the same day, we hope that this post will inspire you to at least add both national parks to your itinerary. There is a reason why Utah’s collection of national parks are recognized as the “Mighty 5”, and you will not leave any of them disappointed that you visited!
What are your experiences in Capitol Reef and Arches National Parks? Share your comments below!