Capitol Reef National Park is probably one of the lesser-known parks in Utah. Zion and Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands are far more popular. But now that I have been to all of Utah's Mighty 5, I'd have to say it was my favorite. I guess I love an underdog.
There is a fairly large area of Capitol Reef that is family-friendly and accessible. We visited inside the park and stopped in Fruita, a historic area that highlights the Mormon pioneer life, a couple of times for their fruit pies. Yes, you read that right. They have darn good locally made pie there, much of the fruit coming from the orchards when in season. How many national parks do you know that have fresh fruit pies every day?
Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!). Opinions are always my own and I’ll never promote something I don’t use or believe in. Also as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
However, the vast majority of Capitol Reef is remote and, quite frankly, savage. And I love that! Ever since our off-road experiences at the beginning of the year in Borrego Springs, I love getting off the beaten path and discovering even more of the national parks we visit.
Waterpocketfold (South) – Strike Valley
There are two main off-road areas, both called Waterpocket Fold (I know, confusing!). For the southern part, you don't really need a 4×4, although personally, I wouldn't want to do this drive in a regular car. The road in this part of Waterpocket Fold is fairly benign, but there are some washes that are rocky.
But the Burr Trail Switchbacks would be daunting in a car. We did the first half of the Burr Trail (until the switchbacks) while staying in Bryce Canyon when we drove Utah Highway 12 to Boulder where the trail starts.
The day we drove through the southern part of Capitol Reef's Waterpocketfold we went up the Burr Trail Switchbacks and out to Boulder again. They are pretty gnarly but going up is better than going down!
Just before the switchbacks is the opportunity to see the entire canyon valley from the Strike Valley Overlook, but unless you hike the full 10+ miles in the wash, you can't access it without a 4×4. The vista is ginormous and I couldn't get it all in on my iPhone, Mr. Misadventures took several panoramas which are on his site.
It's amazing to see the layers of geological eras. The colors are spectacular and it just blows my mind to think about the millions of years of wind and water that shaped these lands.
Waterpocketfold (North) – Cathedral Valley
The northern Waterpocket Fold area was my favorite part of Capitol Reef and definitely in the top five of all the places we've visited since we started RVing.
To get to Upper Cathedral Valley, a 4×4 is a must. And depending on your route (starting from the Fremont River or from the Caineville Wash) you need a high clearance 4×4 because you have to cross an active river (the water depth was 1.5 feet when we crossed) and several riverbeds with gnarly rocks.
[This is a photo at sunrise of the Fremont River in a much tamer spot than where we crossed.]
In addition to the river and dry riverbeds, there are sections of the road that are all rock and so bumpy your teeth will feel like they are rattling out of your head!
BUT. If you have or can get a 4×4 you will see views like this:
There is a self-guided auto tour that you can purchase at the Visitor's Center for $2. They have points of interest labeled with mile markers. The odometer readings are a general guide and don't account for “driving in” to see stuff. Meaning, you may reach a point of interest on the main road, but to get there you have to turn in and drive 1-2 miles there and back – those extra miles aren't accounted for in the guide so it can be confusing (and you have to do the math).
The park says it's a 58-mile loop (it was closer to 70 by our count) and with stops, it took us nearly 6 hours. We saw seven other cars the whole day. (Not sure if it was because it is the offseason or if its the 4×4 thing.)
The road isn't well maintained and there are spots, like driving from the Upper South Desert Overlook down to the Cathedral Valley, that is nerve-wracking.
The park says you can travel by car and see Lower Cathedral Valley by entering through the Caineville Wash. It's true the road on the valley floor is doable for a car, but it's the drive in and out that is tough and I would not do it in a car.
If you do decide to drive into the valley, you can see the Gypsum Sinkhole (don't fall in!):
…and continue to Glass Mountain (actually a hill) made of beautiful shiny pieces like this
…and the Temples of the Sun and the Moon (see here from Glass Mountain), after that you have to turn around the way you came as the road gets too rough.
However, I think the best spots and views are in the first part of the route so get your hands on a 4×4! If you don't like the thought of driving the road yourself, you can always hire a guide, there are several outfits in the park area. You don't want to miss the Bentonite Hills:
And the views from Lower South Desert Overlook and Upper Cathedral Valley.
Capitol Reef Offroad Tips
– The weather can change quickly. Bring extra food, water, layers. There is absolutely NO cell service.
– This is NOT possible at ALL (for 4×4's as well) in wet weather.
– The whole area is an open range. Watch for cows when coming around blind corners, trust me mamas with their babies will give you the stink eye if you come around the corner and catch them on the road.
How about you? Have you been to Capitol Reef National Park yet? What was your favorite part? If you haven't, would you consider it? Do tell!
Like it? PIN it!