View of towering red rock cliffs in Capitol Reef National Park.

6 Best Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park, located in southern Utah between the towns Torrey and Hanksville, protects a geologic feature known as the Waterpocket Fold – a nearly 100-mile-long warp in the Earth’s crust. Although the park attracts noticeably smaller crowds than other southern Utah national parks, it’s just as spectacular as the others! In fact, Capitol Reef National Park may even give you a longer list of things to do compared with the rest of the iconic Mighty 5 (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks). Here are 6 epic things for your Capitol Reef National Park to-do list to make the most of your trip!

A road leading to red rock cliffs in the American Southwest; sculpted red rock formations; massive cliffs in the desert. Text overlay - The 6 best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park.

6 Best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park

Use the map below that has all the locations on this list pinned, including additional planning tools such as parking, restrooms, water stations, etc.

#1 Fruita Rural Historic District 

The Fruita Rural Historic District (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is a Mormon settlement from the late 1800s to 1950s that surrounds the junction of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek in an area of Capitol Reef National Park known as Fruita.

Back in the day, Fruita (originally named Junction) was a small, isolated community of fruit farmers. The activity in Fruita peaked in the 1920s, but even in its most active years, only up to 8-10 families called this place home.

Fun fact: Many assume that every Mormon back than was a polygamist, but that’s not the case. Only one resident of Fruita had been known to be involved in a plural marriage, having two wives.

Though most of the original Fruita dwellings are long gone at this point, there are a few historic buildings that you can still visit:

  • Gifford Homestead (Gifford House, Fruita Barn)
  • Blacksmith Shop
  • Fruita Schoolhouse
  • Behunin Cabin
A modest old house in a lush environment with views of red rock cliffs in the background.
Gifford House in Capitol Reef’s Fruita

The Gifford House, Fruita Barn, and Blacksmith Shop are located in the central Fruita area, about 1 mile south of the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center along the park’s scenic drive. The Gifford House was built in 1908 and currently serves as the park’s museum and gift shop (opens seasonally; typically between March and November). A footpath connects the Gifford House/Fruita Barn with the Blacksmith Shop if you want to explore Fruita on foot (see the map above for details on where to park).

A lush Fruita valley with a historical Fruita Barn seen from a high vantage point from a trail in Capitol Reef National Park.
Fruita Barn (with the Gifford House just behind it)
Large cottonwood trees in the historic Fruita of Capitol Reef National Park where mail was delivered for the Fruita residents.
Fruita “Mail Tree” – the cottonwood in the back by the fence is where the Fruita residents had their mail delivered.

The Fruita Schoolhouse is located less than a mile east of the park’s visitor center along Utah Highway 24 that passes through Capitol Reef National Park. It was built in 1896 and used until 1941.

Historical one-room wooden Fruita schoolhouse built by the early Mormon settlers, adjacent to red rock cliffs.
Fruita Schoolhouse – Capitol Reef National Park

You’ll find the Behunin Cabin 5.2 miles further east past the schoolhouse along Hwy 24. Built in 1883, the Behunin Cabin is one of the earliest homes in the district.

There are also nameless crumbling structures in Fruita across the road from the Blacksmith Shop behind the Ripple Rock Nature Center (an extension of the visitor center).

#2 Fruita orchards

One of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park? Have a feast at the Fruita orchards!!

There are quite a few fruit orchards within the protected Fruita Historic District, most of which are the original orchards planted by the early Mormon settlers. Around 2,000 fruit trees dot the Fruita valley today – apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, and plums are the most abundant, many of them heirloom or unique varieties (see a list here).

A large fruit orchard with red rock cliffs in the background.

If you visit Capitol Reef National Park in the right season when the fruit is ripe, you can browse through any orchards marked for picking and EAST AS MUCH FRUIT AS YOU’D LIKE – FOR FREE!!! (Ladders and hand-held fruit pickers provided.)

How cool is that?!

#freshisbest

Or you can take the fruit to-go for a small fee (honor system via self-pay stations).

Fun fact: Fruita orchards are watered via a network of flood irrigation ditches that utilize water from the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, which is the original irrigation system used by the Fruita residents.

Historic Fruita orchards started by Mormon pioneers, with original irrigation ditches.
An irrigation ditch in a Fruita orchard – Capitol Reef National Park

In case you wonder (I did…), the fruit isn’t “organic”. The National Park Service upholds the tradition of the pioneers and maintains the orchards with heritage techniques in mind, but they do use chemical means when necessary to keep the orchards in top shape. Still, organically grown or not, the fruit is free & fresh and smack dab in the middle of some of the most gorgeous scenery, and that’s tough to beat!

#3 Capitol Reef Petroglyphs

Prior to the arrival of Mormon pioneers, the land was utilized by the Fremont people who inhabited the Fruita valley from approximately 300-1300 A.D. Numerous Fremont designs can be seen carved onto the towering sandstone walls 1 mile east of the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center along Highway 24. (Best combined with the Fruita Schoolhouse which is less than half a mile away.)

The petroglyphs are easily accessible via a boardwalk. The panel tends to draw crowds due to easy access, and you can’t view the designs from up close (nothing beats the Cub Creek Petroglyphs in Dinosaur National Monument!), but it’s a MASSIVE petroglyph panel worth a look.

Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef National Park - human figures and animals.
Capitol Reef National Park petroglyphs – a piece of history, left by the Fremont Culture
Hiking on slickrock among red rock formations; a historic house in a lush valley surrounded by massive cliffs; a slice of a pie. Text overlay -  Capitol Reef National Park - The 6 best things to do (not just hikes!).

#4 Fruita Campground

Fruita Campground is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef National Park. It’s situated right along the park’s scenic road.

There are both positives and negatives about staying at the Fruita Campground, but to sum it up: WE HAD A VERY UNIQUE EXPERIENCE HERE… despite having some reservations at first.

A lush open-space campsite with views of red rock cliffs.
Fruita Campground – Capitol Reef National Park (with the Gifford House in the back)

Although there are several great options for Capitol Reef National Park camping both in and outside of the park, the Fruita Campground has many charms that you just won’t find elsewhere.

(PS: Our favorite hike in Capitol Reef National Park starts just across the road from here!)

#5 Hiking trails

Not every national park is a hiker’s paradise, but Capitol Reef National Park delivers! Striking vistas, narrow canyons, colorful rock walls, ancient rock art, peace and solitude? Check – check – check!

Even if you only have one day in Capitol Reef, I highly recommend you try one of the many hikes in the park.

See a list of the hikes we’ve tried in Capitol Reef National Park and why we think you may like some over the others – depending on your ideal type of a hike. Some are a mere flat stroll, so you can go on a hike in Capitol Reef and soak in the spectacular views EVEN IF YOU DON’T HIKE!

Our favorites:

Hiking on a narrow desert path in Capitol Reef National Park at a higher elevation with views of cliffs and various red rock formations and scattered loose rock.
One of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park? Go on a hike!

#6 Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is an excellent way to reach deeper, more rugged parts of the park without having to hike for hours on end. (Though if you’re up for a hike or two, several trails are located along the way.)

The scenic drive takes off from the visitor center. It’s 7.9 miles (12.7 km) on a paved road with a dirt spur to the Cassidy Arch trailhead. After the paved scenic road ends there are 2 more miles on a dirt road (known as Capitol Gorge Road) that dead-ends at the Capitol Gorge trailhead – this route is well worth it!

Dirt portion of the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, bordered by tall cliffs, contrasting with dark blue skies.
Capitol Reef Scenic Drive – just past the point where the paved road ends

Even though I won’t dispute the validity of the “scenic” claim of the paved Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, the rest of the road that follows – Capitol Gorge Road – is just STUNNING!!! The closer to the end you get, the better the scenery. This is easily one of the best things to do in Capitol Reef National Park that you’ll remember for a very long time. Plan to spend about 30 minutes to complete the entire stretch of the scenic drive (paved road + dirt section).

Dirt road in a stunning sculpted narrow red rock canyon, with the occasional desert plant growing alongside the road.
Capitol Gorge Road

The dirt section is suitable for most vehicles – weather permitting (rain and snow can make the road impassable). Per the National Park Service, the dirt spur of the scenic drive (Capitol Gorge Road) is suitable for RVs up to 27 feet in length.

THIS AREA IS PRONE TO FLASH FLOODING. If you’re visiting in the summer monsoon season (July – September), check at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center on the condition of the road and the weather forecast prior to leaving. You can also call (435) 425-3791 and follow the prompts for a recorded forecast for the day as well as road conditions.

(Just before the paved road becomes a dirt road, there is a dirt spur to the right – Pleasant Creek Road – that goes deeper into the south section of the park which requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle.)

Best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park

Popular times to visit Capitol Reef National Park are in the spring (late March/early April through June) and in the fall (September to October). Summers are hot, and monsoon rains during the summer months are common.

average weather and peak season for Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Peak season & average weather in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Know before you go:

  • There are no services in the park. The fruit pies and coffee at the Gifford House are about the extent of prepared food you can get in Capitol Reef National Park. The closest town is Torrey, Utah – 11 miles west of the park’s visitor center.
  • Capitol Reef National Park has NO admission fees except for the scenic drive ($20 per vehicle if you don’t have an annual pass). A self-pay station is located along the scenic drive just south of the Fruita Campground.
  • The park is open 24 hours a day, every day. Visitor center hours vary.
  • The elevation in Capitol Reef National Park varies from 4,000 feet to over 11,000 feet. The more accessible and busiest areas of the park are all around 5,000 feet.
  • Parking is available in several locations throughout Fruita – at the Doc Inglesby Picnic Area, Fruita Campground Amphitheater (Loop C), and at the Gifford House (a smaller lot at the Gifford House has time limit during the peak season; the larger lot just down the road does not and is suitable for larger vehicles and disconnected trailers). Visitor center parking is limited.
  • Potable water refill stations: visitor center, Doc Inglesby Picnic Area, Fruita Campground, Gifford House.
  • Check the park’s website for more information, updates, and closures of trails or other areas within Capitol Reef National Park.

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