Capitol Reef National Park is one of the least visited of the Mighty Five parks located in Utah (including Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands)- given its otherworldly beauty, it’s a shame so many visitors decide to skip this magnificent stop.
If you’ve carved out a day to see this awesome hidden gem, it can be challenging to figure out how to best make use of your time in the park, which is packed to the brim with vibrant arches, domes, and cliffs just waiting to be explored. Keep on reading below to see a complete guide on how to spend one day in Capitol Reef National Park, from where to stay to the very best hikes.
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Table of Contents
- What is Capitol Reef National Park?
- How to Get to Capitol Reef National Park
- When to Visit Capitol Reef National Park
- What to Pack for Capitol Reef National Park
- Where to Stay for Capitol Reef National Park
- How to Get Around Capitol Reef National Park
- One Day Itinerary for Capitol Reef National Park
- Other Things to Do In and Around Capitol Reef National Park
What is Capitol Reef National Park?
Capitol Reef’s scenery has not become quite as iconic as some of its neighbors, like Arches or Zion, but that’s not to suggest that the landscape is any less epic. Capitol Reef is located along a 100-mile waterpocket fold (basically a literal wrinkle in the earth’s crust), where years of erosion have caused the colorful rocks, called “reefs”, to be on display. What’s left behind from this process is gorgeously vibrant natural bridges, canyons, and other stunning rock formations for you to explore!
How to Get to Capitol Reef National Park
Unless you live within driving distance, the closest airport to Capitol Reef is Grand Junction, Colorado (a two hour and 45 minute drive). Since Grand Junction is a pretty teeny airport (and thus, airfare there is pretty expensive), your other best two options are Salt Lake City (three hours and 25 minute drive) or Las Vegas (approximately a five hour drive).
To get the best deals on airfare (especially to off-the-beaten-path airports like Grand Junction), I swear by using Skyscanner! During my visit to Capitol Reef, my husband, Justin, and I road tripped from our home in Seattle, stopping in Salt Lake City, to Zion and Bryce, then Capitol Reef, and finally, on to Arches and Canyonlands.
Regardless if you’re flying in or road-tripping from home, you’ll likely need a car to get to and around most of the park. If you’re flying in and need to rent a car, you may want to consider booking a high-clearance vehicle with four wheel-drive, if you can swing it, as some hikes in the park are only accessible via bumpy, washboarded roads (although make sure you read the fine print of your rental contract- some companies do not allow rentals to drive off paved surfaces).
Once you have your vehicle- great news! All the Mighty 5 are easily accessible to one another and thus, basically BUILT for road trips. If you’re considering going to all of them (you totally should!), check out my guide to planning a Utah National Parks road trip.
When to Visit Capitol Reef National Park
Spring (March through June) and fall (October through November) are the best times to visit, when the temperatures are pleasant and the park sees fewer visitors than the popular summer months.
Winter in Utah is the quietest time of year, bringing freezing temperatures and snow to Canyonlands. While this can give the park a magical appearance, it can also close the park’s already bumpy roads. Summer (July through September) is the busiest time of year and can bring high temperatures (with average highs in the 90s come July) and the monsoon season, which may create dangerous flash floods.
What to Pack for Capitol Reef National Park
I trust that you have the socks and underwear part of your packing list sorted, but what about the odds and ends that will make your trip to Capitol Reef a bit better? Here’s some of the extras I’d recommend bringing along for your trip:
- Sun protection: If you’re visiting during the summer, the sun and heat can get quite intense in Capitol Reef (we visited in September and it was 99 degrees while we were hiking!), so, for protection, I’d recommend packing sunscreen, sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection, and a hat.
- Reusable water bottle: Did I mention it can get pretty steamy in Capitol Reef, especially in the summertime? There’s something about the desert climate that seemingly just sucks all moisture right out of your body. Be sure to stay hydrated and be a friend to our planet by bringing along a big reusable water bottle.
Justin and I also keep a refillable jug of water in our car so that we can refill our individual bottles between hikes. After spending way too much money and creating way too much waste with disposable water bottles, these two purchases have been gamechangers.
- Hiking shoes: Capitol Reef has some great day hikes to epic viewpoints over the desert landscape, along sand or solid rock paths. For the best traction in this kind of hiking environment, be sure to bring hiking shoes, as opposed to flip-flops, Converse, or other questionable footwear choices- you can go with a pair of hiking boots (I’ve used these Merrell’s for years and men’s equivalent can be found here) or some hiking sandals, like the beloved Tevas (women’s or men’s) or Chaco’s (women’s or men’s).
- Headlamp: Capitol Reef is a designated International Dark Sky Park and thus, offers some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world. To be able to get to and back from your stargazing spot safely, I’d recommend bringing along a head lamp- we have these rechargeable ones, which are awesome since they came in a pack of two and we never have to worry about carrying around extra batteries!
- Cash: One of my favorite things about Capitol Reef is the adorable historic settlement of Fruita, which was settled by Mormons in the 1880s, that’s within the park’s borders.
Along with an old schoolhouse and homestead you can explore today, the park has preserved extensive orchards in the park (apples, plums, peaches- even nuts, like pecans and almonds!), which visitors can pick from when the fruits are in-season. If this sounds up your alley, be sure to bring along some cash to pay for the fruits of your labor (pun obviously intended).
- A cooler: There are no restaurants or cafes in the park selling prepared food. You could drive to the neighboring town of Torrey, a little more than 15 minutes away, when you’re feeling hungry, but with only a day in the park, that doesn’t seem like the best use of time.
Instead, if you’re roadtripping to the park like we did, I’d highly recommend packing a cooler (we have one like this and use it all the time for road trips!) to keep in your car with some food to take with you on the trail to cut down on costs and wasted time.
- America the Beautiful Pass: For one car, it costs $20 for a one-week pass into the park. However, if you have plans to stop by a couple of U.S. National Parks within a year span, these fees are waived if you pick up an America the Beautiful Pass, an annual pass that costs just $80 and gets you into more than 2,000 U.S. national parks, forests, shorelines (and on and on).
The proceeds support the National Park Service and if you plan to go to at least three national parks per year (which usually cost around $30-$35 per car per visit), picking up one of these bad boys is a no brainer. You can either pick one up here, at your local REI, or at most staffed entrance stations at U.S. National Parks.
Obviously, if your adventures this year don’t include some National Park visits other than your trip to Capitol Reef, purchasing a pass probably doesn’t make a ton of financial sense. But otherwise, it’s seriously one of the best money saving “travel hacks” that I know!
Where to Stay for Capitol Reef National Park
Unlike a lot of national parks, Capitol Reef does not have any lodging within the park. So if you’re looking for hotels, your best bet will be in the small neighboring town of Torrey, Utah. Consider:
- Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel: A charming lodge with lots of quaint vibes and a well-stocked general store. If you’re looking for privacy and peaceful nights, look into booking one of their cabins.
- Skyridge Inn Bed and Breakfast: This bed and breakfast provides beautiful views of the surrounding landscape and certain rooms come with their own private balconies or even hot tubs! Yes please.
- Red Sands Hotel: Clean, spacious rooms with a pool and hot tub overlooking a bucolic cow pasture.
- Cougar Ridge Lodge: If you’re traveling as part of a big group or just looking for a bougier experience, this upscale lodge is perfect- each casita comes with at least two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and your own private deck, complete with a grill.
Instead, if you’re looking to camp (either by tent or RV), Capitol Reef offers one developed campground (i.e., with fancy flush toilets, but no showers), the Fruita Campground, which costs $20 per night. You will need a reservation here if you’re traveling through the area from March 1 through October 31. There’s also two primitive campgrounds within the park’s borders that are free, Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa.
Note that Cathedral Valley is only accessible with high clearance, four wheel drive vehicles, so it won’t be a good option for the vast majority of my RV fam. Cedar Valley, on the other hand, is generally accessible to two-wheel drive cars and most smaller travel trailers (<18 feet) should be able to make it in when the road is accessible.
For other free primitive camping options that are within close proximity to the park, consider Capitol Reef East Dispersed Camping and Pleasant Creek Dispersed Camping. You could alternatively go on a backpacking trip on several designated trails throughout the park if you snag a free overnight permit from the visitor’s center- you can see more information about the available routes here.
As a final note, I suspect most people visit Capitol Reef as a brief pitstop between Bryce and Moab (I know I did!)- and if you’re in that boat, if at all possible, I’d recommend driving to Torrey (or wherever you’re staying for your time in Capitol Reef) the night before.
Capitol Reef is a little more than a two hour drive from both Bryce and Moab, so if you’re driving to or from one or both of those destinations during your day in the park, it’ll really impact your ability to dig in and deeply explore. Speaking from personal experience, Capitol Reef totally blew my expectations out of the water and I’m kicking myself for not allowing myself a bit more time to take advantage of all the park has to offer.
How to Get Around Capitol Reef National Park
Unlike some of the other parks in Utah, Capitol Reef does not offer a shuttle system, so you will need to drive around to get around. As noted above, it would be advisable to rent a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to get around Capitol Reef, as a fair amount of the park’s roads are unpaved and can become quite washboarded.
One Day Itinerary for Capitol Reef National Park
Now that all of the logistics are out of the way, on to the fun stuff- how to spend one day in Capitol Reef National Park!
1. Cassidy Arch Bridge
Assuming you’re driving from Torrey, start off your day bright and early by driving into the park, towards the Cassidy Arch Bridge trailhead. You’ll drive along the Scenic Drive, past the little historic town of Fruita- just south of the town, you’ll pass a fee station, where you’ll have to stop and pay for your entry if you don’t have an America the Beautiful Pass (if you do have a pass, you can keep on driving to the trailhead).
Cassidy Arch is one of the most unique trails I’ve ever been and if you’re going to only do one hike at Capitol Reef, I’d make it this– over the course of one and a half miles (three miles roundtrip), you’ll climb 666 feet above the Scenic Drive to the top of the arch itself.
Unlike most natural arches, you can actually walk across the top of this one, which is about 20 feet wide in most sections, so it’s manageable for even my acrophobic friends. The arch and the view of the park from the higher vantage point is absolutely breathtaking- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allegedly hid out in the nooks and crannies around the trail (hence the name) and 10/10, would hide here myself if I was an old Wild West bank robber.
Protip- If you’re up for an early morning wake up call, the sunrises here are STUNNING. Even if beautiful sunrises aren’t your jam, I’d suggest you get here early- to beat the crowds (this is one of the most popular hikes in the park) and to avoid hiking up the relatively steep beginning section of this hike in the midday heat.
2. Scenic Drive
Blast the AC and cool off from your hike as you continue south along the Scenic Drive, a 7.9 mile drive along Capitol Reef’s most stunning scenery, including exposed rocks and even petroglyphs. Scenic Drive is not a loop, so, once you reach the end of the road, you’ll need to drive back the way that you came- good thing every second of your drive is gorgeous! Roundtrip, you should budget for about an hour and a half for this activity- plan for LOTS of photo stops!
3. Gifford Homestead
Once you’re back and headed northbound on Scenic Drive, stop by and explore the very photogenic settlement of Fruita. The Gifford Homestead has a cute selection of locally made artisan crafts and goodies, like homemade jelly, cinnamon rolls, and pies. If it’s late summer or fall, you can also try your hand at picking the in-season fruit at the nearby orchards- this seems like the perfect family activity!
4. Hickman Bridge Trail
Now that you’re nice and filled up with carbs, let’s go on another hike! Head north up Scenic Drive and take a right at Utah State Route 24 towards the Hickman Bridge Trailhead. This is a moderate 1.8 mile out-and-back trail that hikes up to a stunning viewpoint overlooking Highway 24 and ends with a view below the Hickman Bridge, soaring 300 feet overhead. Once you’re done gawking at the bridge, be sure to loop behind it for a spectacular view of the surrounding canyon.
5. Cathedral Valley Driving Loop
If you’re driving around Capitol Reef with a four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle, consider continuing east down Highway 24 and spending the rest of the afternoon exploring part of Cathedral Valley, a remote section of the park with rugged desert landscapes. While there’s plenty of beauty to see along the entire Cathedral Valley Driving Loop, completing the entire thing would take 6-8 hours.
So, instead, I’d recommend driving only part of the way to arguably the most iconic site in the park, the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, textured sandstone monoliths rising dramatically out of the desert floor. Although the Temple of the Moon is only 33 miles away from the Hickman Bridge trailhead, it will likely take about an hour and 45 minutes to make your way out to the monolith, given that Cathedral Road is often full of potholes and washboards. That being said, due to the remoteness of this section of the park, you’re likely to have these epic landscapes all to yourself!
On that note, be prepared if you do drive in Cathedral Valley, as you likely will not have cell phone reception and it may be hours before another visitor passes you. Make sure you know how to change a tire on your vehicle, have a roadside assistance kit with you, and bring along plenty of snacks and water.
Not comfortable driving on a kinda sketchy road in a remote desert?
Instead, consider going on another hike along Highway 24, like the Chimney Rock Loop Trail, a 3.3 mile moderate loop trail with fantastic vistas of Fruita and the waterpocket fold below or the Capitol Gorge Trail, an easy 1.5 mile out-and-back trail that leads to the Pioneer Register, an inscription that early Mormon settlers carved into the canyon walls in the late 1800s (if you decide to hike the Capitol Gorge Trail, it makes sense to stop at this trailhead during your drive along the Scenic Road, as described in #4 above, so you’re not doing so much doubling back through the park).
6. Sunset Point
If you can swing it, try to time your visit to Sunset Point along with sunset. This trail, an easy 0.8 mile out-and-back hike to a gorgeous overlook, is the perfect place to watch the orange glow of the fading sun dance on the red canyon walls and say goodbye to Capitol Reef. If you’re up for one more stop in the park, Goosenecks Overlook trail departs from the same parking lot as Sunset Point, where you’ll follow a 0.2 mile out-and-back path to see a canyon, carved by Sulphur Creek, that resembles (you guessed it!) a gooseneck.
Other Things to Do In and Around Capitol Reef National Park
If you have more time around Capitol Reef, consider:
- Other hiking trails in the park. Navajo Knobs, a 9.5 mile trail, is one of the longest and most challenging hikes in the park, but provides panoramic views (arguably the best in the park) over Capitol Reef’s gorgeous rock formations.
Alternatively, you can drive south in the park to explore some of the really cool (and scarcely visited) areas along the waterpocket fold, like the 2.2-mile Headquarters Canyon, a narrow slot canyon with stunning striated rock, or drive (if you have a 4WD vehicle) to Strike Valley Overlook, where you’ll literally stand on top of the waterpocket fold and have 360 degree views of the valley below you.
- Stargazing! As mentioned above, Capitol Reef has some of the darkest skies on the PLANET, which means you’ll be able to see thousands of stars and the Milky Way on most moonless nights.
I’d recommend watching sunset at Sunset Point and then sticking around until the stars twinkle to life (just be sure to bring along a headlamp so you can get back to your car safely).
- Getting that adrenaline pumping by doing some rappelling or canyoneering down Capitol Reef’s impressive cliffs. When Justin and I were at Cassidy Arch, we saw a dad and his son casually rappel down the side of the arch into the dark canyon some 400+ feet below (you know, as one does in Utah).
If you’re not up for scaling canyon walls by yourself yet, there are some tour companies, like Red Rock Adventure Guides, who will teach you the necessary skills and techniques and lead you on a canyoneering adventure.
- Checking out Goblin Valley State Park. This hidden gem is an hour drive to the east (and, if you’re headed to Moab, basically on your way!) and packed with thousands of mushroom-shaped pinnacles and hoodoos (tall skinny shafts of sandstone that are a product of erosion), which some believe resemble goblins. It’s not every day that you see goblin-looking rocks!
Capitol Reef is a truly gorgeous national park and I hope you have the best time exploring it. What are you most looking forward to exploring in Capitol Reef? Do you have any questions about the park? Let me know in the comments below!
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