How to Visit Capitol Reef National Park for (Almost) Free
All National Parks, by typical vacation standards, are cheap.
But lately, we’ve been trying to find creative ways to enjoy the parks for even cheaper.
When we researched and planned out our visit to Capitol Reef (one of the “Mighty Five” in southern Utah) we knew almost nothing about this place. It isn’t nearly as talked-up as Utah’s other four prized possessions (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Arches). There isn’t much to find about it on our go-to adventure site, Backpacker (which… why? There is so much backcountry here! Anyway…). And we certainly hadn’t heard our friends talking about it.
So we arrived with a loose plan of exploring the different areas of the expansive Capitol Reef (second largest in Utah only to Canyonlands) knowing that we’d be up for just about anything.
We had know idea that “anything” would include four free nights of camping, an amazing slot canyon overnighter, apple and pear picking, top-notch ranger programs, narrows hikes, natural arches and bridges, and some of the greatest views of the Utah landscape that we have seen.
Here’s how we did all of that, and more, for (just about) free:
Did you know that you can camp almost anywhere on Bureau Land Management (BLM) property throughout the United States, for free? We had previously known this, but never really took advantage until this park. There are a few restrictions, of course, but if you are headed to Capitol Reef, we’d definitely suggest checking it out.
Capitol Reef has skinny boundaries and is surrounded by BLM land on almost all sides. Three of our four nights were spent at these dispersed sites just outside the park. We especially loved an area between the entrance gate and the nearest group of hotels to the west, where there were about ten to twenty other RVs camping with us.
The part that made us even more comfortable is that the Visitor Center suggested this means of camping, since their first-come-first-served campground often fills to capacity early in the day. We had a great experience at these sites, and we will definitely be using taking advantage of BLM opportunities more often.
If developed, don’t-have-to-pee-outside camping is more your style, the Fruita Campground in the park provides, at $20/night for tents. Just show up early if you’re arriving in the summer or early fall.
Okay, obviously food wasn’t free. But grocery shopping and preparing ahead of time made it easier to eat cheaply. Plus, you can add a side to as many meals as you want by grabbing a piece of fruit from Capitol Reef’s in-house orchards, for free (or $1/lb if you want a whole bunch to take with you). The orchards, growing cherries, apples, pears, apricots, peaches, and walnuts, are smack-dab in the middle of Capitol Reef and are part of the historic district of (aptly named) Fruita. They also happen to be the largest NPS-maintained orchards in the country with over 3,000 trees. The fact that you can simply grab an apple to snack on while hiking also makes them the coolest orchards, in my opinion.
Now, here’s where you shell out a whopping $6 (+$1 for incredible ice cream). Ready? The park also sells freshly-baked fruit pies and homemade ice cream. Worth it! We split an apple pie, and it plus the ice cream couldn’t have been much more heavenly after our long day of hiking.
Of course, the activities at Capitol Reef are cost-free. But this park is unique in that the park itself charges no admission. Compared to the $30/car ticket at Zion and Bryce, this is a big deal. The only area of the park that does cost $10 (or free if you have the annual interagency pass like we do) is the Scenic Drive, a pretty road through tall cliff faces that leads to the Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash hikes.
Here were our favorite activities at Capitol Reef, free of charge:
- Exploring Upper Muley Twist Canyon: Free overnight permit required, sweeping views of the Waterpocket Fold feature in the south district of the park, gorgeous slot canyons, fun scrambling and route-finding. (Of course, this area is prone to flash flooding, so be careful out there!)
- Traversing the route through Sulphur Creek: Descending small waterfalls, getting our feet wet.
- Hiking the Hickman Bridge / Rim Overlook / Navajo Knobs Trail: Incredible, 360-degree views of the entire Fruita area.
- Picking fruit in the orchards: Cole fell in love with the peaches.
- Attending ranger programs: Of the six we attended, our favorites included the Fremont Culture Talk, an evening program entitled “Traversing the Reef,” and the Historic Schoolhouse Talk
- Hiking to Cassidy Arch: Accessed via Grand Wash, interesting rock formation high above the wash below
- Walking through the Narrows of Capitol Gorge: A short, dry path which used to be the primary road through the park!
- Watching the sunset: From our campsites and from Panorama Point
If you really want, Capitol Reef can be completely free. At the least, it’ll be really cheap.
We ended up spending a total of $13over four days in Capitol Reef: $8 on pie a la mode, and $5 on a souvenir that we’re collecting from each park. Not bad for a trip filled to the brim with activity and adventure, if I say so myself.
Our main point here is that money should not be a deterrence in National Parks travel. Travel can be more than affordable. Just seek out the opportunities, and amazing parks like Capitol Reef will reveal themselves to you in a most beautiful and rewarding fashion.