Out of the way and often forgotten, Capitol Reef National Park displays an incredible amount of natural beauty. Positioned along the geological oddity known as the Waterpocket Fold, this area is a jumble of spectacular mountains, cliffs, and outcroppings. By taking two roads, U-24 and the park’s scenic drive, you can enjoy many of the park’s most beautiful spots.
I love to take pictures of beautiful roads that run through beautiful landscapes. Capitol Reef is the perfect place to find lonely, sun-baked asphalt stretching out for miles, devoid of traffic.
On this day, I started my trip in Torrey, and drove eastbound on Utah 24 through the park. Since it was early in the day, the sun was in my eyes, but I stopped frequently to shoot photos looking west.
Every time you go around a curve in Capitol Reef National Park, there’s a new vista to enjoy.
As you drive through, there are numerous places to stop along the way, including Capitol Dome, The Castle, The Fluted Wall, Chimney Rock, Twin Rocks, Panorama Point, and Gooseneck Point. I’ve broken down all of these roadside attractions on this page.
Everything changes on the east side of the park. Here, you can see one of the domes that helped give the park its “capitol” name. (It’s said that the formations reminded early settlers of the capitol building in Washington, D.C.)
Driving through the park on U-24 will take about a half-hour. Once you reach the eastern side, you have a few choices. You could turn south on Notom-Bullfrog Road, which turns to dirt but is passable in a normal car, under normal circumstances. I traveled Notom-Bullfrog Road back in 2009.
Another choice is to turn north, and head towards Cathedral Valley. The roads that lead into this area are rougher, and you’ll have to ford a river in your car. I chickened out, back in 2009, even though I had an SUV. Maybe the water wasn’t as deep as it appeared, but I decided I didn’t want to explain that kind of damage to my rental company.
During my 2013 visit, I turned around and headed back into the middle of the park. Capitol Reef’s scenic drive begins at the visitor center.
Stop for a moment at the Gifford Farmhouse, just down the road from the visitor center. Inside, you’ll find locally-made pies and snacks. The farmhouse is part of the old settlement known as Fruita — so named, because of all the fruit trees planted by early Mormon settlers. Many of the treats for sale in the farmhouse are made from the fruit that still grows on those trees.
Continue past the farmhouse, and the scenic drive begins. You’re required to pay as you enter. Since I had an annual pass, and I had showed it to the park rangers at the visitor center, I drove past the pay station (just in case you’re wondering when you watch the Drivelapse video, later on this page).
The scenic drive is an extraordinary ribbon of pavement that dips and rises with the landscape. At each high point, you’ll get a stunning view of the Waterpocket Fold.
The scenic drive only lasts for about eight miles, but at the end, you have your choice of two other roads: South Draw and Capitol Gorge.
I drove down Capitol Gorge Road to its end. This road is dirt, but smooth and easy to drive. It’s wide enough for traffic, even though it squeezes between cliffs for its entire length. At the end, you can hike the Golden Throne Trail, or continue up the gorge to a viewpoint of petroglyphs.
On the drive back…
… there are even more incredible views to be enjoyed along the scenic drive.
The Bottom Line
It’s hard to believe that on two previous visits to Capitol Reef National Park, I didn’t drive the scenic road that runs south of the visitor center. By all means, you should allow at least two hours for driving and sightseeing on both U-24 and the scenic drive. If possible, allow a couple more hours for hiking and sightseeing at viewpoints along the way.
Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah, south of Interstate 70 and east of I-15. Utah Route 24 cuts an east-west path through the park. The nearest town is Torrey, Utah, located west of the park, where you can find hotel rooms, gas, and food.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive through Capitol Reef National Park: