With five national parks, Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park may see fewer visitors than its more popular siblings, Zion, Arches, and Bryce, but it’s still one of the more awe-inspiring parks in the state. RVing Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best ways to see the park, either as a grand tour of Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ or as a standalone trip.
Located in the south-central desert of Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is fairly isolated from any big cities. The nearby towns of Torrey and Hanksville are small, and getting here may be a bit of a trek. However, it’s definitely worth the journey.
Why Visit Capitol Reef National Park in an RV?
RVing Capitol Reef National Park is a great experience, especially when touring other parts of the Utah desert. Capitol Reef has spectacular scenery that leaves visitors feeling like they’ve wandered into another world. It is a remote and rugged landscape, which gives a new appreciation for the desert.
There are some amazing hiking and off-roading trails in the park. Capitol Reef shines for RVers who travel in rigs around or under 27 feet or those towing a four-wheel drive-capable vehicle to access remote areas in the park. Visitors in longer RVs may find themselves limited in what they can do in the lesser traveled areas of the park, though there are sites that are still accessible along the main corridors.
When to Visit Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is open year-round – 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The visitor center hours change depending on the season, and parts of the park may close due to inclement weather like snow or floods.
The most popular months are the shoulder seasons – March to early June and September to October. This is when the weather isn’t as hot as it is in the summer months or as cold as it is in the winter. Of course, double-check the weather before visiting Capitol Reef.
While the park only sees an average of 7 inches of precipitation a year, during heavy rain in the area, flash floods can be present. Powerful and incredible to witness, they pose a danger to hikers, particularly those in canyons.
Capitol Reef National Park in the Spring
One of the best times to visit Capitol Reef National Park is in the spring. Temperatures are relatively cooler during the day, while the nights are typically chilly. Average highs from March through May range from 58℉ to 74℉ while lows range from 34℉ to 48℉. Bring layers for the nights and enjoy the warmer temperatures on day hikes.
Capitol Reef National Park in the Summer
If traveling here in the summer, visitors should be prepared for hot days with proper sun protection and water. Temperatures average can soar into the upper nineties and hundreds during the day. Average highs from June through August range from 87℉ to 91℉.
Average lows range from 58℉ to 63℉. Monsoon season is during the summer and can be an amazing weather event, but visitors should be prepared to pay close attention to the weather and afternoon thunderstorms for flash flood events.
Capitol Reef National Park in the Fall
The other best time to visit Capitol Reef is early fall. From late August/early September through October, temperatures drop again in the park. Typically by November, the park’s visitor numbers decrease. Average highs from September through November range from 80℉ to 51℉ while lows range from 55℉ to 31℉.
Capitol Reef National Park in the Winter
From November to March, the park sees a significant decrease in visitors, though, with proper layers, people can still enjoy the outdoor activities that Capitol Reef offers. From December through February, temperature high averages range from 40℉ to 47℉ and lows range from 20℉ to 26℉. The occasional snow may come during this month as well, shutting down roads.
Where to Stay
When RVing at Capitol Reef National Park, visitors have a couple options to choose from to stay inside the park, but this depends on the vehicle used to get there. There are technically three campgrounds in Capitol Reef National Park; however, the only one that can host RVs is the Fruita Campground. The other two require either higher clearance or 4WD vehicles to access.
The Fruita Campground is open year-round but fills up quickly during the spring and fall. Campsites are reservable from March 1st through October 31st and can be made up to 6 months in advance. November 1st through February 28th, Fruita is first come, first serve.
The campground has 71 sites, but there are restrictions for each site that can be checked out before booking. There are no hookups at the site, though generators can be run within approved generator hours. The maximum vehicle length is 50 feet.
For those traveling in a smaller, high-clearance van, another primitive campground exists in the park. Cedar Mesa offers five first-come, first-served campsites. Higher clearance two-wheel-drive vehicles with a shorter wheelbase are required to get here.
Staying Outside the Park
If all the campsites within the park are booked, check out these options. Unlike the park’s campground, these sites have access to WIFI and showers, with some allowing for longer RVs. Especially if RVing around other remote Utah parks, these campgrounds can give a night of comfort.
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Tips for your Camping Stay
- If staying inside the park, campground spots are available by reservation up to six months in advance. Book through Recreation.gov for stays from March 1 – October 31.
- Between March 1 – October 31, campers may stay 14 days at the Fruita Campground. If staying outside of those dates, the limit is 30 days.
- There are no hookups for RVs or showers inside the Fruita campground. Service is extremely limited, making a cellular signal booster a great addition to your RV setup. Wi-Fi access is only available at the visitor’s center.
How to Get Around Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef offers unique insights into the Utah wilderness, but getting to the park’s more remote locations requires knowledge of the area and potentially a vehicle with 4WD capabilities (ATVs and UTVs are prohibited within the park). The park has multiple entrances, but most people will enter through Fruita on Utah State Route 24. A 2WD dirt road can be taken from State Route 24 to access the Cedar Mesa side of Capitol Reef.
Places to Go
When visiting Capitol Reef National Park, there are a few places you should be sure to see to get the most out of your visit. The National Park is divided into three areas: Fruita, the Waterpocket (South) District, and the Cathedral Valley (North) District. Fruita is the most visited area, with the Waterpocket and Cathedral Valley districts being a more remote and rugged landscape.
The Visitor Center
Capitol Reef National Park has one visitor center, accessed off Utah State Road 24 in the Fruita district. The visitor center is the only place to get the necessary permits for activities like backpacking and canyoneering. It also has information about the park’s history. Stop in to get current road and trail conditions or to learn more about the park.
A must-stop while RVing at Capitol Reef National Park, travelers are in for a special treat when visiting the historical orchards. These orchards were established by early settlers but are still used today. While open to visitors year-round, from around late June to Mid October, folks can come in and pick ripe fruit that the park staff mark as harvestable. It does cost to pick the fruit, but it goes to the park and groundskeeping.
Travelers interested in history will appreciate a stop at the Gifford Homestead. The original buildings were first built in the early 1900s by Mormon settlers and have since been renovated. From mid-March to the end of October, the farmhouse is open for visitors to tour and includes a sales area for local artisans to sell their crafts.
The single-room Fruita Schoolhouse was built in the late 1800s and was used until the 1940s to teach the settler’s children. The National Park Service has restored the schoolhouse for visitors to see. While the interior is closed to guests, people can look through the windows to see the small schoolroom and learn more about the area’s history.
There are many remnants throughout the park of the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan culture, the people who lived here until about 1300 CE (Common Era). Petroglyphs and pictographs can be found throughout the park, but the most accessible is along State Route 24. Boardwalks lead visitors to two panels. The larger one is further away to protect it from visitors, so you may want to bring binoculars to get the best look.
Things To Do in Capitol Reef National Park
Hikers, offroaders, and canyoners will love this rugged, natural playground. The Reef itself is remote, so visitors should be aware – depending on the time of year and trails, help may not come for a couple days. Those traveling in the more remote sections of the park should be adequately prepared for emergencies.
There are a few scenic drives visitors can do in the park. The big one visitors can do is the “Scenic Drive,” which should be accessible to vehicles up to 27 feet. If you are unsure if your vehicle can make it, check with the Visitors Center.
The Loop-The-Fold driving tour is a popular tour among drivers that stays on paved and 2wd dirt roads for a good portion. This is a popular drive for folks who want a longer tour of the southern parts of the park. Those with a 4wd vehicle can access trails like the Halls Creek Overlook.
In, and just outside, the park trails exist some very rough 4wd roads. South Draw to Pleasant Creek can be accessed near the Golden Throne/Capitol Gorge trailheads. With higher clearance 4wd vehicles, people can complete the Cathedral Valley Driving Loop Tour.
Drivers need to be confident that their vehicle would be able to ford the river. Talk to the visitor center about river conditions before attempting, and do not cross in cases of flooding or high waters. If you don’t have a 4wd vehicle, guides in Torrey offer 4wd drive tours in and around the park.
When RVing at Capitol Reef National Park, there are a few hiking trails you should check out if time allows for it.
- Cassidy Arch Trail: This strenuous, 3.4-mile roundtrip trail leads to the famed Cassidy Arch, named for the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy who was rumored to have hideouts in the area. This trail takes hikers across slickrock with views of the Cassidy Arch spanning a large canyon. For experienced canyoneers, rappel through the arch and continue down the canyon.
- The Golden Throne: The Golden Throne trail is a harder trail that climbs to a viewpoint below one of the Capitol Reef’s tallest sandstone monoliths. The trail is 4 miles round trip and is rated as strenuous. For nice views, get there early to see the sunrise and avoid the heat. This trail sees fewer visitors than some of the others.
- Hickman Bridge: One of the more popular hikes in the park, this 1.5-mile roundtrip trail takes hikers under the 133-foot-long natural rock bridge. Hikers can continue on from here for a harder trail that leads to the Rim Overlook for some amazing views.
- Capitol Gorge: A short, easy 2-mile hike, Capitol Gorge follows the old pioneer road underneath the towering cliffs. It features rock inscriptions that include Fremont petroglyphs and pioneer registers.
For those wanting a bit of an adrenaline rush with their adventure, canyoneering in Capitol Reef National Park is a great way to explore the lesser-seen areas of the park. Canyoneering, a technical activity that involves rappelling down ropes, is dangerous and should only be done with a guide or someone who knows the sport.
If going without a guide, obtain a permit beforehand at the Visitor Center. Guides in the area include Backcountry Outfitters, located in Torrey, about 15 minutes from the Visitor Center.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
As far as National Parks go, the amenities are pretty limited in Capitol Reef. RVers should be prepared for no power and limited service. Learn more about planning your national park trip.
- Check the weather before you go. While the desert area of Utah is pretty dry, rain can cause some major issues, especially during the summer, when it’s monsoon season. Do not go into canyons if there is rain in the forecast. Flash flooding can and has killed people in the canyons.
- Plan your trip well and check road conditions. The park sees many visitors during peak times, so be prepared for longer walks from overflow parking or to get up earlier to visit the must-see sites. In the winter, roads can get hazardous, so call or stop by the Visitor Center to get the most updated information. Dirt roads can be impassable if muddy (even to the most highly equipped 4wd vehicles), and getting towed out of the park can be a very rough experience.
- Leave Fido at home. Dogs are not allowed in the park. With how hot it can get, especially during the summer, make sure your air conditioning unit works well if leaving them in the RV during your hike.
- Carry extra water. There is very little shade in Capitol Reef National Park, and it can get very hot during the day. If you’re in the lesser traveled parts of the park, help may not come for days at a time. You’ll also want to bring sun protection.
- Bring a generator. If you need power, there are generator hours that must be abided by when staying in the park.
- Bring a satellite phone. If your vehicle breaks down or you have an accident, these rescue devices can be your lifeline to communicate your predicament to park officials.
- ATVs/UTVs are prohibited in the park. While there are ample 4wd trails in the park, they are accessible by 4wd vehicles only. This includes street-legal ATVs.
Brief History of Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park was established in 1971 and just celebrated its 50-year anniversary last year, but there’s a lot of history in the area. The Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people lived in the Capitol Reef area from around 300 to 1200 CE.
Visitors can see remnants of the cultures with petroglyphs and pictographs around the park. If you encounter these amazing sites, don’t touch them to help preserve the art. As there is a lot of history here, you may find pottery sherds or ruins. If you find any, know that it is illegal to remove it from the land. In more recent history, Ute and Navajo tribes lived in the area.
Mormon pioneers settled in the now-known Fruita District of the park in the late 1800s. Orchards were planted here, and a wagon trail was cleared to allow others to pass through the area more easily. Eventually, the Fruita Schoolhouse was built and remained open until the 1940s.
Park staff have worked closely with their structures by restoring buildings like the Farmhouse and working to keep the historical orchards alive. In 1914, local Utah legislators worked to create the area as a state park in hopes it would protect its cultural and natural resources as well as drive tourism to the surrounding towns.
It later would become a national monument in 1937 when the Yellowstone National Park Superintendent visited the area in 1932 and reported that the area should be considered for future investigation.
In the 1960s, the park expanded with the purchase of surrounding land by the National Park Service. In 1970, bills were submitted to Congress to determine if the monument should become a national park. A year later, the legislation was signed, and Capitol Reef gained national park status.
Have you spent time RV camping in Capitol Reef National Park? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
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