When it comes to stargazing, there are few places quite like Utah. As one of the U.S. states with the most designated dark sky places, Utah is a haven for stargazers – and for those who love exploring our National Parks system.
Most travelers know Utah’s famous parks, like Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion – but there’s another, lesser-visited park that’s actually just as good (if not better) than those parks when it comes to stargazing. Say hello to Capitol Reef National Park.
Located in the heart of central Utah, Capitol Reef is out of the way – but that’s a good thing, as it makes for darker skies and better quality of night sky. If you’re planning a Capitol Reef stargazing trip and uncertain where to start, look no further. In this guide you’ll discover everything you need to know to visit Capitol Reef, go stargazing there, and even how to spend your days between stargazing sessions.
In this post, I promote traveling to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in December 2021, and was updated in January 2023.
How to Get to Capitol Reef National Park
Photo credit: Phil Sisto (both) for NPS
Knowing how to get to Capitol Reef National Park is crucial to organizing your Capitol Reef stargazing experience. Before we start, I’d like to recommend you follow the map on the park’s website instead of Google Maps if you’re driving.
There are four ways to get to Capitol Reef, depending on your starting point.
- Westbound – If you’re traveling westbound, you’ll take Interstate 70. Start driving on I-70 to the west and take exit 149. Then, take Utah State Route 24 (SR-24) west toward Hanksville (exit 149) and stay on it for 43.8 miles. You’ll turn right to continue on SR-24 west and continue for 37.3 miles. You’ll spot Capitol Reef Visitor Center on the left.
- Eastbound – Those traveling eastbound will also take Interstate 70 to reach Capitol Reef. First, follow I-70 east to exit 40. Then, turn right onto Utah State Route 120 south/ North Main Street and continue for about a mile and a quarter. Turn left onto Utah State Route 118 north/ E 300 N and continue straight for 0.8 miles. Make a slight right onto Utah State Route 119 east. Stay on Utah State Route 119 for 9 miles and then turn right onto Utah State Route 24 east, where you’ll continue for 63 miles. The Capitol Reef Visitor Center will be on the right.
- Northbound – To start your journey, take I-15 north and continue until you find exit 95. Then, you’ll take Utah State Route 20 toward US-89/ Panguitch/ Circleville (exit 95) and continue for 20 miles. Turn left onto US-89 north and keep driving for 21 miles. Turn right onto Utah State Route 62 and continue for 12.4 miles. Turn left onto Utah State Route 62 north and continue for 30 miles. Turn right onto Utah State Route 24 east and continue for 47 miles. You’ll see the Capitol Reef Visitor Center on your right.
- Southbound – Travelers driving southbound will also take Interstate 15. Once you’re on I-15 south, continue driving until you find exit 188. Then take US-50 east toward Scipio (exit 188) and turn left onto Utah State Route 50. Stay on Utah State Route 50 for three quarters of a mile. Turn right onto US-50 East/ North State Street and continue for 24 miles. You’ll turn right onto Utah State Route 260 south and continue for 4 miles. Turn right onto Utah State Route 24 (SR-24) east and continue for 3 miles. Make a slight left to stay on SR-24 east and continue for 71 miles. The Capitol Reef Visitor Center will be on the right.
Where to Go Stargazing in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park has been an International Dark Sky Park since 2015. So, it’s safe to say the night sky in Capitol Reef will be a pitch-dark canvas where stars shine brightly. Here are five places that promise travelers the best stargazing in Capitol Reef.
Gooseneck Overlook is a prime Capitol reef stargazing spot. You’ll find it along Highway 24, approximately 2.5 miles from the Visitor Center to the west and one mile after Panorama Point. Once you see the second parking lot, it’s there.
The trail to the Overlook takes off from the parking lot and is one of the easiest and shortest – it’s only 600-feet. So, we could say it’s more of a short walk than a hike. However, the views once you reach the edge of the viewpoint are breathtaking, with the magnificent canyon landscape sprawling before your eyes. It’s a popular spot to see the sunset and, of course, for stargazing sessions!
Also found on Highway 24, Panorama Point is an excellent spot to set up your telescope. It’s a 600-feet out-and-back trail, just like Gooseneck Overlook. Once you get to the top, you’ll understand why the viewpoint got its name. The scenic spot offers impressive views of enormous sandstone cliffs everywhere you look.
There’s also an exhibit explaining how the exceptional air quality found in the park makes it possible to soak in the incredible views. Stargazers who visit Panorama Point will also be signing up for the sunset-stargazing combo.
Photo credit: Phil Sisto (L) for NPS
Slickrock Divide is a ridge that separates two large drainages. It lies along Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive, starting at the park’s visitor center in the Fruita historic district. You’ll have to pass the Fruita Campground and the Grand Wash Road (it is approximately 1.8 miles from the fee station) to find Slickrock Divide. It is a stunning place to appreciate the geologic features from up close. You can almost see the entire valley from here, too.
Slickrock Divide is quite secluded, so if you’re looking for utmost solitude to hold your Capitol reef stargazing session, this is the place to go.
Capitol Gorge Road Picnic Shelter
If you continue along Scenic Drive you’ll find Capitol Gorge Road Picnic Shelter. Notice the shelter is right at the end of the Scenic Drive, where Capital Gorge Road, a gravel spur road, starts. If this sounded a bit confusing, don’t worry. There are plenty of road signs showing where you are along the way, so you won’t get lost.
The shelter has a few covered picnic tables and pit toilets. There is not any accessible water so make sure you bring some with you. There’s also a trail to explore the surroundings.
Cathedral Valley Campground
Photo credit: Zoltan G. Levay and Phil Sisto via NPS
Pitch dark skies and solitude reins in Cathedral Valley Campground, making it a prime spot for stargazers. Cathedral Valley Campground sits on the remote northern section of Capitol Reef, halfway along the Cathedral Valley Loop Road. It’s not the easiest place to get to. However, the sky views you’ll see are well worth it.
You will need an all-wheel-drive and high clearance vehicle to access Cathedral Valley Campground. It only offers six primitive sites spaced far apart, so you’ll have plenty of space to set up your stargazing gear. It also has fire rings, picnic tables, and pit toilets.
Where to Stay Near Capitol Reef National Park
Photo credit: Jacob W. Frank (R) and Ariel Solomon (L) via NPS
Whether you want to camp out in the stars all night or have a cozy bed to fall into after a night of stargazing, here are the best places to stay near Capitol Reed National Park.
Hotels near Capitol Reef
There are a few towns around Capitol Reef that offer accommodation. However, my top recommendation is the town of Torrey, located only 11 miles away from Capitol Reef National Park.
- Red Sands Hotel – Red Sands Hotel is the perfect option for those looking to go back to a comfortable (and fancy) bed at the end of the day. It is just a 3.1-mile drive from the entrance to Capitol Reef. The hotel also has a restaurant and bar, yoga room, meeting space, and spa beside the gorgeous and spacious rooms.
- Velvet Ridge Lodging – A Stone’s throw away from Capitol Reef, Velvet Ridge is an excellent option if you’re traveling with family. They offer fully-equipped apartments, each one with its own entrance. Not to mention there’s a restaurant right across the street if you don’t want to cook.
Camping in Capitol Reef National Park
Photo credit: Hannah Taylor and Jacob W. Frank via NPS
If stargazing goes hand in hand with camping for you, then you’ll love Capitol Reef. It has tons of camping options for the intrepid ones.
Set adjacent to the Fremont River, Fruita Campground is a gorgeous oasis in the middle of the park. It has 71 sites; each one has a picnic table and fire pit and/or above the ground grill. There are no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups, though. There is an RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. The restrooms have running water and flush toilets, but no showers. Beware that Fruita Campground has a 100% reservation system from March 1 – October 31.
Capitol Reef offers two free primitive campgrounds in the more remote areas of the park.
- Cathedral Valley Campground – The Cathedral Valley Campground sits halfway on the Cathedral Valley Loop Road. Like we mentioned before, you’ll need a high clearance four-wheel drive to access this campground. It’s about 36 miles from the visitor center and has 6 sites. Each site has a picnic table and fire grate. There is a pit toilet, but no water available. While the campground is open year-round, it might close due to inclement weather.
- Cedar Mesa Campground – The Cedar Mesa Campground is approximately 23 miles south of Highway 24 on the Notom-Bullfrog Road and is at 5,500 feet in elevation. In most cases, travelers just need two-wheel drive vehicles to access Cedar Mesa Campground; however, the road might require high clearance sometimes. The site features five sites. Each one has a picnic table and fire grate. There is also a pit toilet, but no water is available. Same as Cathedral Valley Campground, Cedar Mesa Campground is open year-round. Still, the park advises visitors to check with the Capitol Reef Visitor Center for road conditions before planning an overnight stay.
Capitol Reef also offers backcountry options. You’ll need to get a free backcountry permit at the visitor center for camping outside of established campgrounds. You can find a map with different routes and backcountry sites on the park’s website.
What to See & Do During the Day at Capitol Reef
There’s a lot more to Capitol Reef than just stargazing. The park offers a wide variety of activities to keep you busy all day. Below you’ll find the most popular ones.
Scenic driving: Besides Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive, Highway 24 is a gorgeous stretch of road, full of stunning landscapes and top spots of the park. Unlike Scenic Drive, Highway 25 is free.
Canyoneering: Canyoneering has been growing in popularity on the Colorado Plateau. It’s a different way to explore your surroundings and have fun at the same time. You’ll need a permit to go canyoning and a separate permit for each canyoneering route. Popular canyoneering routes pass through the Navajo and Wingate sandstone formations. Make sure you check all rules and regulations before requesting a permit.
See the petroglyphs: You can see art figures (petroglyphs) ancient indigenous people carved on the rocks along Highway 24. You’ll find many at the viewpoint between the Hickman Bridge trailhead and Fruita.
Explore the Historic Fruita District: Back in 1800, pioneers would settle in the Fruita District, right at the center of Capitol Reef National Park. While you won’t see most of the original buildings, you can still visit the one-room schoolhouse, the Gifford House and barn, and the orchards.
Biking: Like many other parks, Capitol Reef also has designated roads for people who want to explore the park by bike. Just make sure you carefully read all the regulations relating to bicycles and e-bikes.
Hiking: To no surprise, hiking is an extremely popular activity in Capitol Reef. Visitors can choose between day hiking and backcountry hiking. If you choose day hiking, the Fruita area offers fifteen-day hiking trails with trailheads located along Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive. As for backcountry hikes, you’ll find the most popular options in the southern section of the park. The Cathedral Valley area and near Fruita all offer backcountry hiking opportunities.
Other FAQ About Stargazing in Capitol Reef National Park
If you still have questions about stargazing in Capitol Reef, check out this short FAQ to find an answer.
When is the best time to go stargazing at Capitol Reef?
Winter is the best season to go stargazing at Capitol Reef for two reasons. First, Utah’s dry winter air contributes to the stars and constellations often appearing brighter. Second, days are shorter during winter, so you can start stargazing earlier. To be more specific, try to avoid full moon nights as the moon’s light will wash out the stars.
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing at Capitol Reef? When?
Photo credits: Jacob W. Frank and Phil Sisto for NPS
Yes! You can easily spot the Milky Way at Capitol Reef, thanks to its low light pollution, and clear and dark night skies. The best time to see the Milky Way is from March to November when the Milky Way’s barycenter burns brightly.
Can you see the northern lights from Capitol Reef?
Sadly, no. You won’t be able to see the northern lights during your Capitol Reef National Park stargazing experience. There are other national parks in the U.S. where you can, though!
Is Capitol Reef National Park open at night?
Yes, Capitol Reef is open 365 days and 24 hours. So, you can arrive at the park anytime you want. The visitor center is also open every day, except for certain holidays.
Is there a dark sky festival in Capitol Reef?
Yes! Capitol Reef hosts a dark sky festival within the park and in nearby towns. In 2022, the Heritage StarFest happened in late September, with telescopes, astronomers giving talks, and exhibits to learn more about the cosmos. The dates for 2023 haven’t been announced yet, but keep an eye on the page linked above for updates.
Are there guided night tours in Capitol Reef?
Yes, Capitol Reef National Park does offer ranger-led astronomy programs and night hikes. There aren’t any currently, but make sure you check out their website for any updates.
As you can see – and have read in this post – Capitol Reef National Park is an incredible stargazing destination, and well worth the trip to spend several nights under the stars. Have any other questions about planning a Capitol Reef stargazing trip? Let me know in the comments.