Utah has five gorgeous National Parks. Only Alaska and California (8 each) have more than Utah. Probably the least known park in Utah is Capitol Reef National Park. The park was established to protect the water pocket fold, a unique geological feature created when the Pacific plate crashed into California and pushed and folded the continent all the way over in Utah.
There are a lot of fun things to do in the park, and you can actually go “through” the park for FREE on Highway 24. There is also a scenic drive which costs $15 (or free with National Park passes). We enjoy any time that we get to spend in Capitol Reef, so we are going to share our favorite things to do on a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.
The Visitor Center at Capitol Reef is small. There is one small display about the geology formations and a map of the park. There is a also a small gift shop. You can watch the movie, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for your children, grab a map, and ask the rangers any questions. We always stop to ask about current conditions and get recommendations from the rangers. If there are no ranger programs happening while we are there, we watch the movie because that is a requirement for the Junior Ranger program.
Right along Highway 24 is a pull out for some petroglyph panels. There are two little boardwalks and both lead to different petroglyph spots. We love to stop and walk along the walks and talk about the history of Utah. So add this to your list of stops.
Near this spot we also saw two big horn sheep. They are pretty rare, and you may not be so lucky, but this was quite a treat for our boys.
We think that the picnic area in the middle of Capitol Reef is the absolute best. There are big shade trees, grass to run around on, a bridge over a small stream, and deer. Always deer. We have never been here when there aren’t deer wandering around. So pack your lunch and dinner, and plan to take a break from exploring in the picnic area.
Pie & Ice Cream
Just down the road from the picnic area is a small historic Pioneer home. It is famous for its fruit pies made from the orchards planted there by the Pioneers. We LOVED the peach pie and our kids were grateful for some cool ice cream. The pies do go quickly, so plan to stop here earlier in the day than later. They also sell other treats and pioneer knick knacks.
Junior Geologist Program
We love participating in the Junior Ranger program, so make sure to grab a booklet in the Visitor Center. But Capitol Reef also has a Junior Geologist Program. This program is very interactive, and was really fun for the kids. The rangers taught them about the geology of Capitol Reef and they even did a few science experiments. Ask in the Visitor Center when this program is happening. It is located at the Ripple Rock Nature Center, but it only happens once a day, and only when there are enough rangers around to run it. Kids earn a patch for participating, and the program is free.
We also took the main scenic drive. This is the only part of the park that requires a fee of $15. The scenic drive is about 8 miles each way on a paved road. There are also two shorter drives on dirt roads that you can take to trailheads as well.
The Grand Wash drive had some beautiful rock formations. It is a short drive, and ends at the trailhead for Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash Trail. We also had two chukars fly over our car, which is exciting if you are into birdwatching (which we are!).
The other drive along the scenic drive is Capitol Gorge. This wash is similar to Grand Wash and ends at a trailhead as well. Here you can hike to the Pioneer Register and Tanks.
Temple of the Sun & Moon
There is another scenic drive that we enjoyed that takes you out to the Temple of the Sun & Moon, as well as Glass Mountain. If you have four wheel drive, you should definitely drive Cathedral Valley. We travel in a van, so we couldn’t make the full loop, but we drove from Caineville out to the Temple of the Sun and it was stunning. The road is dirt, and there are a few sketchy parts, but our van made it just fine. Read full directions on our post about this drive.
Our favorite thing to do in Capitol Reef National Park is hike. We will warn you that it gets vey hot in the summer. So please be careful and hike in cooler parts of the day such as the morning, or evening. Drink lots of water, and wear hats and sunscreen.
There are some amazing hikes in this park. We have written about our favorite trails for families on our Capitol Reef Kid Hikes post. Each hike has lots of details and tips. Some of these hikes are along Highway 12, so they don’t require a fee, while others are on the scenic drive fee area. Our favorite hike was Cassidy Arch, but this was done when our youngest was 5, and is not for all families. Walking on top of this massive arch was truly amazing!
There is a lot to learn at Capitol Reef National Park. We learned about geology, history, and nature and had a great day in the park.
Capitol Reef is located in Wayne County in the middle of Utah. It lies along Highway 24. The closest town is Torrey, UT. For more info, visit the National Park website.