25 Best Sights in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Burr Trail Switchbacks

Fodor's choice

Offering some of the most eye-popping scenery of any drive in southern Utah, the 67-mile Burr Trail twists and turns from the town of Boulder all the way to tiny Bullfrog, which lies at the tip of one of the many fingers of Lake Powell, within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Only an 8½-mile stretch of Burr Trail passes through Capitol Reef National Park, but it's arguably the most spectacular section. It's especially dramatic if approaching from the west from Boulder through Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. When you reach the Capitol Reef National Park border, the road becomes unpaved but is still generally (unless there's been heavy rain or snow) passable with a passenger car. It curves through juniper-dotted, red-rock countryside, offering sweeping views of the Strike Valley, the Studhorse Peaks, and—in the distance—the Henry Mountains. After about 3 miles, you'll crest the upper, western ridge of the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long monocline in the earth's crust, and then zigzag some 800 feet down a series of dramatic switchbacks to the lower end of the fold. From here, Burr Trail Road continues southeast past the junction with Notom-Bullfrog Road (where a left turn leads back up to Torrey) toward the small village of Bullfrog.

Capitol Gorge

Fodor's choice

The narrow, unpaved road that begins at the end of Scenic Drive twists along the floor of the gorge and was a route for pioneer wagons traversing this part of Utah starting in the 1860s. After every flash flood, pioneers would laboriously clear the route so wagons could continue to go through. The gorge was the main automobile route into the area until 1962, when Highway 24 was built. This 2-mile drive with striking views of the surrounding cliffs leads to one of the park's most popular hikes, to several "tanks" eroded into the sandstone that fill naturally with rainwater and snowmelt.

Capitol Gorge Trail and the Tanks

Fodor's choice

Starting at the Pioneer Register, about a ½ mile from the Capitol Gorge parking lot, this ½-mile trail continues to a short uphill climb to the Tanks—holes in the sandstone, formed by erosion, that fill with rainwater and snowmelt. After a scramble up about ¼ mile of steep trail with cliff drop-offs, you can look down into the Tanks and see a natural bridge below the lower tank. Including the walk to the Pioneer Register, allow an hour to 90 minutes for this interesting hike, one of the park's most popular. Easy.

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Chimney Rock Trail

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You're almost sure to see ravens drifting on thermal winds around the deep-red Mummy Cliff that rings the base of this loop trail that begins with a steep climb to a rim above dramatic Chimney Rock—from here you're treated to impressive vistas of the western ridge of the Waterpocket Fold. This 3.6-mile loop has a 590-foot elevation change and can be a bit strenuous in hot weather, as there's no shade. Allow three to four hours. Moderate–Difficult.

Cohab Canyon Trail

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You can access this 3.4-mile round-trip hike from near the campground in Fruita or from the Hickman Bridge parking lot on Highway 24; the Fruita approach is the more dramatic. From the campground, it's a steep climb to the mouth of the canyon and then a level hike through a wash with amazing color and texture. You'll find miniature arches, skinny side canyons, and honeycombed patterns on canyon walls where wrens make nests. When you get to Frying Pan, continue a little longer to where you can see Highway 24. Here you can hear the river and easily turn around, maybe taking the short (though steep) side treks to the South (0.6 miles round-trip) and North (0.2 miles round-trip) Fruita Overlooks on your way back. Allow two hours, including the side trails to the overlooks. Moderate.

Gifford House Store and Museum

Fodor's choice

A mile south of the visitor center in a grassy meadow with the Fremont River flowing by, this is an idyllic shady spot in the Fruita Historic District to enjoy a sack lunch (if you have packed one), complete with tables, drinking water, grills, and a convenient restroom. The store sells reproductions of pioneer tools and items made by local craftspeople; there's also locally made fruit pies and ice cream to enjoy with your picnic.

Sunset Point Trail

Fodor's choice

The trail starts from the same parking lot as the Goosenecks Trail, on your way into the park about 3 miles west of the visitor center. Benches along this easy, 0.8-mile round-trip invite you to sit and meditate surrounded by the vast, colorful canyons and soaring mesas and mountain peaks. At the trail's end, you'll be rewarded with incredible vistas into the park. As the name suggests, it's a wonderful spot to watch the sunset. Easy.

Upper Muley Twist Canyon Trail

Fodor's choice

The entire Muley Twist canyon runs about 12 miles north to south, crossing Burr Trail Road. It was used as a pass by pioneers traveling by wagon through the Waterpocket Fold and got its name because it was so narrow that it could "twist a mule." The Upper section has the most impressive scenery. There are two ways to tackle this trek. If using a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive 3.2 miles from Burr Trail along a rough but pretty road to the Strike Valley Overlook parking lot. If you're using a passenger vehicle, you'll need to park at the Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead, which is just 0.3 miles off Burr Trail, and then hike the remaining 2.9 miles to the Strike Valley Overlook parking lot. Just remember, the latter approach adds an extra (although very flat) 5.8 miles round-trip of hiking to this 10.3-mile trail, so plan accordingly. From the Strike Valley Overlook lot, it's a pretty easy and level 3.4-mile round-trip hike to Saddle Arch, a dramatic sandstone formation. But for the most magical scenery, from here you'll want to continue on the 5.6-mile Rim Route loop, following it counterclockwise as it passes over slickrock (you'll need to scramble up steep ridges in places) and through juniper and pinyon forests, providing dazzling views of fantastic rock formations, the Waterpocket Fold, and the Strike Valley down below. The trails in this part of the park aren't maintained (rock cairns and occasional signs mark the way), so bring a map, along with plenty of water—it can get very hot here in summer. Difficult.

Utah Scenic Byway 24

Fodor's choice

A roughly 15-mile section of this 65-mile designated byway between Loa and Hanksville passes right through the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. Colorful rock formations in all their hues of red, cream, pink, gold, and deep purple extend from one end of the route to the other. The landscape is most colorful within the park, but the views are pretty impressive the entire route, even as you continue through the lush green mountains west of Loa.

Behunin Cabin

In 1883, Elijah Cutler Behunin used blocks of sandstone to build this rudimentary cabin in which he and his family of 15(!) resided. Floods in the lowlands made life too difficult, and he moved just a year later. The house, 5.9 miles east of the visitor center, is empty, but you can peek through the window to see the interior.

Burr Trail Scenic Backway

Branching east off Scenic Byway 12 (see the Bryce Canyon National Park chapter) in Boulder, Burr Trail travels through the Circle Cliffs area of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument into Capitol Reef. The views are of backcountry canyons and gulches. The road is paved between Boulder and the eastern boundary of Capitol Reef. It leads into a hair-raising set of switchbacks—not suitable for RVs or trailers—that ascend 800 feet in ½ mile. Before attempting to drive this route, check with the Capitol Reef Visitor Center for road conditions—it can be impassable in wet or snowy weather. From Boulder to its intersection with Notom-Bullfrog Road the route is 36 miles long.

Capitol Dome

The rock formation that gave the park its name, this giant sandstone dome is visible in the vicinity of the Hickman Bridge trailhead on Highway 24, 1.9 miles east of the visitor center.

Capitol Reef Visitor Center

Watch a park movie, talk with rangers, or peruse the many books, maps, and materials for sale in the bookstore. Towering over the center, which is just off Highway 24 about 11 miles east of Torrey, you'll view The Castle, one of the park's most prominent rock formations.

Cathedral Valley Loop

The north end of Capitol Reef, along this backcountry road, is filled with towering monoliths, panoramic vistas, water crossings, and a stark desert landscape. The area is remote and the road through it unpaved and extremely rough, so don't even think about entering without a suitable mountain bike or high-clearance vehicle, some planning, and a cell phone (although reception is virtually nonexistent, you'll want to download maps to it before you get here). The trail through the valley is a 58-mile loop that you can begin at River Ford Road, 11¾ miles east of the visitor center off Highway 24; allow half a day. If your time is limited, consider touring just Caineville Wash Road, which takes about two hours by ATV or four-wheel-drive vehicle. If you are planning a multiday trip, there's a primitive campground about halfway through the loop. Pick up a self-guided tour brochure at the visitor center.

Chimney Rock

Even in a landscape of spires, cliffs, and knobs, this deep-red landform, 3.9 miles west of the visitor center, is unmistakable.

Fremont Petroglyphs

Between AD 600 and 1300, the Capitol Reef area was occupied by Native Americans who were eventually referred to by archaeologists as the Fremont, after the park's Fremont River. A nice stroll along a boardwalk bridge, 1.1 miles east of the visitor center, allows close-up views of ancient rock art depicting bighorn sheep as well as trapezoidal figures, often shown wearing headdresses and ear baubles.

Fremont River Trail

What starts as a quiet little stroll beside the river turns into an adventure. The first 0.3 miles of the trail wanders past orchards next to the Fremont River. After you pass through a narrow gate, the trail changes personality and you're in for a steep climb on an exposed ledge with drop-offs. The views at the top of the 480-foot ascent are worth it. It's 2.1 miles round-trip; allow 90 minutes. Moderate.

Capitol Reef National Park, UT, 84775, USA

Goosenecks Trail

This quick little stroll provides a great introduction to Capitol Reef and the surrounding landscape. You'll enjoy the dizzying views from the overlook. It's only 0.2 miles round-trip to the overlook. Easy.

Capitol Reef National Park, UT, 84775, USA

Grand Wash Trail

At the end of unpaved Grand Wash Road you can continue on foot through Bear Canyon all the way to Highway 24; if you'd rather avoid paying the $20 fee for Scenic Drive, you can also park at the Grand Wash Trailhead on Highway 24 and hike in from there. This mostly level hike takes you through a wide wash between canyon walls and is an excellent place to study the geology up close. Its round-trip hike is 4.4 miles; allow two to three hours. Check the weather conditions before you start, as this wash is prone to flooding after thunderstorms. Another (more strenuous) hiking option from the same starting point is the rugged 3.4-mile round-trip trail (it's fairly steep) to Cassidy Arch. Easy.

Capitol Reef National Park, UT, 84775, USA

Headquarters Canyon Trail

Among the hikes in Capitol Reef's South District, this typically quiet (you may have it all to yourself) trek offers a great reward—it leads into a narrow slot canyon with soaring cliff walls—but requires relatively little effort. It takes only about an hour to complete this 2.2-mile round-trip trail with an elevation gain of about 400 feet. Easy.

Hickman Bridge Trail

This extremely popular trail leads to a natural bridge of Kayenta sandstone, with a 133-foot opening carved by intermittent flash floods. Early on, the route climbs a set of steps along the Fremont River. The trail splits, leading along the right-hand branch to a strenuous uphill climb to the Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs. Stay to your left to see the bridge, and you'll encounter a moderate up-and-down trail with an elevation gain. Up the wash on your way to the bridge is a Fremont granary on the right side of the small canyon. Allow about two hours for the 1.8-mile round-trip, which has an elevation gain of about 400 feet. Moderate.

Capitol Reef National Park, UT, 84775, USA

Pioneer Register

Travelers passing through Capitol Gorge in the 19th and early 20th centuries etched the canyon wall with their names and the date. Directly across the canyon from the Pioneer Register and about 50 feet up are signatures etched into the canyon wall by an early United States Geologic Survey crew. Though it's illegal to write or scratch on the canyon walls today, plenty of damage has been done by vandals over the years. You can reach the register via an easy hike from the sheltered trailhead at the end of Capitol Gorge Road; the register is about 10 minutes along the hike toward the sandstone Tanks.

The Golden Throne Trail

As you hike to the base of The Golden Throne, you may be lucky enough to see one of the park's elusive desert bighorn sheep, but you're more likely to spot their split-hoof tracks. The challenging but rewarding hike sees a steady elevation gain of nearly 800 feet and sheer drop-offs. The Golden Throne is hidden until you near the end of the trail, when suddenly this huge sandstone monolith appears before you. If you hike near sundown, the throne burns gold. The round-trip hike is 4 miles and takes two to three hours. Difficult.

Capitol Reef National Park, UT, 84775, USA

The Waterpocket Fold

This giant wrinkle, technically what's called a monocline, in the earth's crust extends almost 100 miles between Thousand Lake Mountain and Lake Powell. You can glimpse the fold by driving south on Scenic Drive after it branches off Highway 24, past the Fruita Historic District. For a more complete immersion, enter the park via the Burr Trail, 36 miles from Boulder. Roads through the park's South District are unpaved and sometimes very rough—they can be impassable after rain, so check with the visitor center for current road conditions.