How To Spend One Day in Capitol Reef National Park
May 7, 2021
Capitol Reef National Park is the most underrated national park in Utah! This park is not only beautiful, but it has a long history, amazing scenery and great hiking trails.
The Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people lived in the Capitol Reef area from about 300 to 1300 Common Era, evidenced by petroglyphs on canyon walls. More recently, in the 1800’s, Mormon pioneers settled in the area and planted orchards. The fruit orchards and remnants of the Mormon settlement still remain today.
Capitol Reef not only preserves petroglyphs from the Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Paiute Tribe ancestors, but also preserves dated name carvings from Euro-American pioneers . This area is known as the Pioneer Register and is located on the Capitol Gorge Trail.
I found the geology of Capitol Reef to be just as interesting as the history. A huge geological feature known as the waterpocket fold defines the park. The fold is a 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, where rock layers have been pushed up out of the ground at an angle. The rocks are continuously eroded by waterpockets (small depressions that form from water erosion) that shape the rocks. This feature makes Capitol Reef a sight to behold. You are able to see the fold at certain viewpoints and areas in the park.
From the geology to the history, I found Capitol Reef to be awe-inspiring and an incredible place to explore.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
Are you visiting Bryce Canyon in addition to Capitol Reef? Check out my blog post on the best day hikes in Bryce Canyon!
- There are only a couple roads through the park accessible without four-wheel drive. I visited in a typical front-wheel drive vehicle so all of the areas I discuss are accessible by everyone. If you do bring a four-wheel drive vehicle, you are able to explore more remote and beautiful areas of the park.
- There is no gate to pay a fee when you first enter the park. After turning onto the scenic drive and driving past the campgrounds and visitor center, there is a self service fee station with a fee of $20 per car. If you have the America the Beautiful pass, display it on your dash for free entry.
- In the Fruita Historic District, you can actually pick your own fruit during harvest times. Depending on the fruit, harvesting occurs from June to October.
The Fruita Campground inside of Capitol Reef has 71 sites; reservations are available from March 1 - October 31. The sites are equipped with picnic tables, fire pits and nearby bathrooms. Reservations are available 6 months in advance and fill up quickly during popular times. During the off season from November to March, sites are first come - first serve.
There are additional primitive camping areas located in the areas of the park that require a high clearance vehicle.
There are several hotels right outside of the park in the town of Torrey, just 7 minutes outside of the park.
- Capitol Reef Resort: This hotel has a great view of Capitol in the distance and has a mix of cabins, conestoga wagons, teepees and traditional hotel rooms.
- Red Sands Hotel: Red Sands Hotel & Spa has a pool, a yoga room, outdoor walking paths and views of animals grazing and the red rocks in the distance.
- Skyridge Inn Bed & Breakfast: Skyridge is a bed and breakfast with charming rooms, private patios and delicious breakfasts.
I stayed in Loa during my trip, which is 30 minutes outside of Capitol Reef. Loa does not have as many hotels as Torrey but does have gas, a grocery and restaurants. I stayed at The Snuggle Inn, a historic hotel that was very affordable and provided a comfortable room.
The weather in Capitol Reef stays somewhat mild year round. Most people visit from March - October, so if you want to escape the crowds and don’t mind the possibility of snow, visit in the winter. Heavy snow is rare in Capitol Reef and light snow doesn’t stop you from hiking. The hottest month in July with an average high of 91°F and the coldest month is December with an average high of 40°F. I visited in May and thought it was a great balance of nice weather and few crowds.
If you are new to hiking, check out my day hike packing list!
Start the Cassidy Arch Trail first thing in the morning to beat the crowds and the heat. As you drive to the trail, stop at the Visitor Center for a park map and the picnic area to fill up onwater. The road to reach this trailhead is unpaved and a bit bumpy, but my non 4-wheel drive vehicle made it just fine.
The trail to Cassidy Arch is 3.1 miles with 665 feet of elevation gain and leads to a gigantic orange arch. The climb is the arch is a steady ascent with a mix of rocky steps and inclines. As you ascend, there are beautiful views of the surrounding area. The rocks are a little slick getting to the arch at the top, but not unmanageable. Wear proper hiking shoes to ensure you have a strong grip. When you reach the top, you can sit and gaze upon the arch and even walk across it. With the proper permit, you can rappel down the arch. It was very cool to watch people rappel during my break at the top.
This hike is beautiful and worth the effort to see this giant rock formation and the surrounding views. If you would like to extend this hike, continue on the Grand Wash trail after coming back down from the arch. This trails will take you into a canyon for 6.7 miles (out and back).
After a morning hike, I recommend making your way to the Gifford House Store and Museum to ensure you get a slice of their famous pie before they sell out! When I visited on a Saturday in May, they sold out right before I arrived at around 1:00PM. In addition to a selection of seasonal pie flavors, the store has salsas, jams, books and household goods. There is also a small museum area where you can learn about the history of the house.
The store is open from Pi Day (March 14th) until the end of October and is typically open from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. There is a nice picnic area right outside to enjoy your pie and other treats.
There are other historic areas in the Fruita Historic District to explore as well. You can visit the Ripple Rock Nature Center, the Blacksmith Shop, the Fruita Schoolhouse and enjoy a picnic lunch under majestic trees in the picnic area. The Nature Center typically has exhibits but was closed during my visit due to Covid-19.
After securing your pie, head back past the Cassidy Arch and take the scenic drive to the end of the paved portion, or go further if you are feeling adventurous. The drive from the Cassidy Arch Trail to the Capitol Gorge Road is a little under 5 miles and has stunning views. There are viewpoints along the way and rocks with stunning stripes of yellow, pink, orange and red. It’s a quick drive that is definitely worth spending some time exploring. The national park website has details on everything you’ll see on this drive.
When we reached Capitol Gorge Road, we took our car down part of the unpaved road. This drive was even more scenic, as you quickly drive into a canyon with walls towering above you. A little less than a mile from the beginning of the road, there is a Tapestry Wall where thick black vertical stripes line a wall of orange rock. While the road is narrow and bumpy, the views here are absolutely incredible.
I believe most cars can make it to the Capitol Gorge Trailhead, but we got nervous about large potholes and turned around early. If you reach the trail, you can hike about a half mile to see the Pioneer Register where early pioneers signed their names in 1871. If you continue on and complete the entire trail, it is a relatively easy 4.5 miles with interesting rock formations.
Another quick but interesting stop is the Petroglyph Panel, located near the Fruita Schoolhouse on Utah Route 24. There are two wooden platforms here that lead to a close-up view of petroglyphs left by ancestors of the Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Paiute Tribe. The petroglyphs were created sometime between 300 and 1300 Common Era.
When I visited in May, tent caterpillars were all over the boardwalk and falling from the trees. There are tons of these caterpillars in Capitol Reef!
The Chimney Rock Trail is another short but highly rewarding trail located near the entrance to the park. The hike is a loop of 3.3 miles and 793 feet of elevation gain. If you take the trail counter-clockwise, you will climb the elevation at the beginning and then gradually descend the rest of the trail. The entire trail has beautiful views, but it’s most notable feature is a great view of Chimney Rock - a 6,420 foot tall rock resembling a chimney. The chimney was interesting, but I was honestly even more blown away by the aerial views this hike provides. You essentially are walking along the rim of a tall rockface and can see for miles.
Alternative: For a slightly shorter hike, the Hickman Bridge Trail is another great option! It is 1.7 miles with 416 feet elevation gain and leads to a large natural bridge. Or if you have enough time, do both hikes!
Before you leave the park, be sure to stop at Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook, two beautiful viewpoints very close to the Chimney Rock Trail. Panorama Point is located right off the road and is a quick walk from the parking area. It offers beautiful views and photo opportunities of colored cliffs. It’s also an amazing place to watch the sunset in Capitol Reef.
Goosenecks Overlook is located a little less than a mile down an unpaved road from Panorama Point. For being so close, this view offers a totally different experience. Take the short half mile hike and you will arrive at a viewpoint overlooking a large S-shaped curve in the Sulphur Creek. The creek has carved a deep gorge creating a unique and gorgeous sight to see.
A “gooseneck” refers to a meander in a river that creates a bend so tight that it almost doubles back on itself. Goosenecks State Park in Southeast Utah offers an even better example of this phenomenon.
Reward yourself after a long day of hiking and exploring with some delicious pizza, Indian food or a fusion of both at Curry Pizza. This unique restaurant is located about 20 minutes outside of Capitol Reef in Bicknell. The restaurant has four shops now but this was their original location. They were featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and were playing the episode on tv’s inside the restaurant when I visited. They serve over 15 different curry sauce options and accommodate vegan and gluten free diets. I really enjoyed the curry pizza and the staff was so kind too! This is a great place for some delicious comfort food after a great day.
The employee featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives was working during my visit to Curry Pizza!
I hope this guide helps convince you not to miss out on Capitol Reef! From hiking to history to pie, the park has a lot to offer and is very unique. As always, please remember to leave no trace when visiting outdoor destinations.
For More Utah Travel Guides, Check Out These Blogs:
- How To Spend Two Days in Zion National Park
- The Top Things To Do in Bryce Canyon National Park
- The Best Day Hikes in Bryce Canyon
- The Best Things To Do in Kanab, Utah
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