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How to Spend One Day at Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park was the third official stop on our Southwest U.S. national parks road trip (after Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park). We spent almost a full day here before driving to Arches National Park.

Capitol Reef is one of the lesser known Utah national parks, making it a hidden treasure of undiscovered cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges. Its name comes from the Capitol Dome, an impressive sandstone rock formation on site that resembles the U.S. Capitol building.

The park is located in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline or a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust, that formed over millions of years. It extends for nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell.

Capitol Reef became a national park in 1971 in an effort to preserve these unique geologic features, along with archeological evidence, diverse plant and animal communities, and the homesteads of the area’s earliest inhabitants.

The area has been home to people for thousands of years, and their history is still evident throughout the park. Petroglyphs and painted pictographs remain from the Fremont Culture dating back to around 500 CE (Common Era), and the Fruita Rural Historic District boasts the Gifford House store and museum, an old school house, one of the largest historic orchards, and more.

Table of Contents

    Where is Capitol Reef National Park Located?

    Capitol Reef National Park is located a few minutes west of Torrey in Utah’s south-central desert. 

    Getting to Capitol Reef National Park

    We visited Capitol Reef National Park as a part of a larger U.S. Southwest road trip. We flew into the McCarran International Airport and started our trip from Las Vegas.

    The drive from Las Vegas to Capitol Reef is around five hours, but we stopped at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park along the way (over the course of several days) to break up the drive.

    If you decide to follow the route that we did, note that there are multiple ways to get from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. We recommend going through Escalante and hiking the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail on your way.

    directions from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park

    Flying into Salt Lake City International Airport is another option and is just under a four-hour drive to Capitol Reef.

    Grand Junction Regional Airport is actually the closest airport to Capitol Reef National Park (about a three hour drive), but it’s smaller and less convenient than flying into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.

    A Broad Recommendation: due to the lack of cell service throughout this area, you should download Google offline maps and pack extra water, snacks and warm clothes in case of an emergency.

    Capitol Reef National Park Entrance Fees

    Entry fees vary depending on vehicle type and pass duration. Check out the National Park Service website for more information. The cost at the time of our visit was $20 for private vehicles and was valid for seven days.

    A Broad Recommendation: we’d recommend that you forego individual national park entrance fees altogether and instead invest in the U.S. Park Pass. It’s valid for a full year and covers your entry to thousands of national parks and other federally managed lands.

    Capitol Reef National Park Covid Response

    All visitors, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a mask inside NPS buildings, in crowded outdoor spaces and on enclosed public transportation. This was strictly enforced during our visit.

    Capitol Reef National Park Lodging

    Camping Near Capitol Reef National Park

    The Fruita Campground sits adjacent to the Fremont River and is Capitol Reef’s only developed campground. Surrounded by a historic orchard, the 71 sites each have a picnic table and firepit and/or above ground grill. The campground is open year-round and offers reservations from March through October. The cost will increase to $25.00/night in 2022. 

    There are two free primitive campgrounds in more remote parts of the park, Cathedral Valley Campground and Cedar Mesa Campground. These are both relatively small sites and are first-come, first-served. You can find more information on the NPS website.

    Hotels Near Capitol Reef National Park

    We stayed at the Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse, one of the closest properties to the famous scenic drive that leads through Capitol Reef National Park. 

    Broken Spur Inn & Restaurant

    This hotel is like a small town in and of itself; there’s a restaurant, indoor pool and hot tub, gift shop, playground area, and recreational area with volleyball, basketball, horseshoes and tetherball.

    They also offer a neat glamping experience in Conestoga Wagons. These are replicas of the wagons used by pioneers in the American West; each has its own private bathroom, electricity, AC, heating, Wi-Fi, microwave, fridge and more. I wish we would’ve looked more into these during our trip – that was definitely a missed opportunity!

    Breakfast is also included with your stay here. We booked through hotels.com and paid just under $120 for the night. We recommend using hotels.com to book your stay here too or to find other hotels in the area more suitable for your needs.

    A Broad Recommendation: I love booking stays on hotels.com. They offer great deals and give you one free night for every ten nights you complete. I also use Rakuten at the time of my purchase to get cash back – so awesome!

    Eating in Capitol Reef National Park

    The nearest grocery store and restaurants are located in Torrey. We packed our lunch and ate in our rental car – nothing fancy!

    Capitol Reef National Park Weather

    Capitol Reef gets all four seasons, but because of the varied elevations and landscapes throughout the park, the weather can vary drastically within seasons as well.

    Winter poses the chance of occasional snow storms and cold weather; spring offers chilly mornings and moderate daytime temps as fruit trees begin to bloom; summer poses the chance of monsoons and flash flooding with hot and arid temps; and fall offers great hiking conditions, fruit-picking opportunities and gorgeous fall foliage. 

    We visited at the very end of October – on Halloween – and it was sunny but chilly during our daytime visit. It was perfect hiking weather!

    Capitol Reef National Park One-Day Itinerary

    Capitol Reef National Park NPS sign
    • Hike the Cassidy Arch Trail
    • Drive along the Scenic Drive
    • Stop at the Gifford House (and get a pie!)
    • Hike the Hickman Bridge Trail
    • Visit the Fremont Petroglyph Panels 
    • Make a quick stop at the Fruita Schoolhouse
    • Stroll around the Goosenecks Trail
    • Stop at Panorama Point

    Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park

    Hiking the Cassidy Arch Trail at Capitol Reef National Park

    Capitol Reef National Park Hikes

    Hiking is one of the main things to do at Capitol Reef, and it’s a great way to experience the park’s natural beauty!

    There are fifteen day hiking trails with trailheads located along Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive. These hikes range from easy strolls to strenuous, steep climbs over uneven and difficult terrain. Here are the ones we did and therefore can suggest:

    Cassidy Arch Trail

    Named after the American criminal, Butch Cassidy, Cassidy Arch is located off of Grand Wash Road, a rocky spur road off of the Scenic Drive. The Cassidy Arch Trail is part of the larger Frying Pan Trail, which also connects to the Cohab Canyon Trail.

    The trail is around 1.7 miles one-way, ending above the arch itself, and requires some trail finding skills. If you follow the rock cairns along the way, you should be fine though!

    The beginning of the hike is a bit strenuous, as it’s uphill and rocky, but it levels off as you continue to traverse across the slick red rocks. Along the way, you can stop and take a breather while admiring the gorgeous canyon views.

    Hickman Bridge Trail

    Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef National Park

    An easier, albeit moderate, hike leads to a 133-foot natural bridge with beautiful canyon views along the way. The trail is 1.8 miles round-trip, and you’ll also get to see a smaller arch called the Nels Johnson Natural Bridge. We read that this hike is really pretty at sunset, though we weren’t able to visit during sunset ourselves.

    Goosenecks

    The easy 0.2-mile-round-trip Goosenecks trail offers dramatic canyon views and is a nice add-on to your day of hiking. 

    Other Trails in the Park

    We also researched the following hikes prior to our visit:

    • Chimney Rock Loop – 3.6 miles round trip – good for sunset with panoramas of the Waterpocket Fold cliffs
    • Grand Wash – 4.4 miles round trip – deep canyon view and narrows; you don’t need to do the entire trail to get the full experience
    • Sunset Point – 0.8 miles round trip – panorama views that are great at sunset
    • Cohab Canyon – 3.4 miles round trip – panoramas at the spur trail viewpoints, views of Fruita, and hiking through hidden canyons

    Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to do all of these, so we’d love to hear how they are if you hike them!

    For more information on all of the day hikes at Capitol Reef, check out the NPS website.

    Backcountry Hiking Trails

    Capitol Reef National Park also offers some backcountry hiking opportunities along twisting gorges, into narrow slot canyons, and to impressive viewpoints above the Waterpocket Fold. The most popular backcountry hikes are the Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyons and Halls Creek. There are other backcountry hiking opportunities in the Cathedral Valley area. Permits are required for camping outside of the established campgrounds and are available for free at the park’s visitor center.

    Drive Along the Scenic Drive

    The 7.9-mile Scenic Drive is a must-do during your visit to Capitol Reef. The drive offers views of incredible and unique landscapes as you go. For more information, check out the NPS website.

    Give yourself about an hour and half to complete the drive and to take in the breathtaking views that Capitol Reef has to offer.

    Eat a Pie at the Gifford House

    The historic Gifford Farm lies in the heart of the Fruita valley. According to the NPS website, the original Gifford Home was built by polygamist Calvin Pendleton in 1908; he was also responsible for building the barn and smokehouse, as well as the rock walls near the house.

    After Pendleton, the Jorgensen family occupied the home from 1916 until Jorgensen sold the homestead to his daughter and son-in-law (Dewey Gifford) in 1928.

    The Gifford family occupied the home for 41 years after that from 1928-1969. During these years, the family added various features like a kitchen, bathroom, utility room and carport. The Giffords were the last residents of Fruita and sold their home and land to the National Park Service in 1969.

    Today, utensils and household tools, quilts, rugs, soap, candles and toys are sold out of the former kitchen. There’s also a selection of books, jams and jellies, as well as locally baked fruit pies and homemade ice cream; we recommend trying a pie!

    The Gifford House is open from March 14 (Pi Day – haha) through October 31 (the day we were there – lucky us!). There is also a parking lot and picnic area onsite.

    Admire the Petroglyph Panels

    The Fremont Culture lived in what is now Utah from 300-1300 Common Era (CE). Petroglyphs, i.e. images carved into/painted onto stone, from the Fremont Culture still remain today and are accessible via a short boardwalk trail near one of the entrances to Capitol Reef National Park.

    Many of the drawings are of humans and animals, but there are also other designs. This site, along with all other archeological sites here, is protected, and there’s a hefty fine for vandalism. Stay on the trail and help to preserve this beautiful piece of history.

    Stop at Fruita Schoolhouse

    Nestled below the Wingate Sandstone cliffs, the single-room Fruita Schoolhouse was built in 1896. It was used to teach the children from the eight large families that lived in Junction (later called “Fruita”). The schoolhouse hosted classes of all sizes, and many of the students were quite unruly, according to the on-site audio guide.

    During its years of operation, the building was also used for dances, town meetings, elections, church youth activities, and celebrations. However, the school was discontinued due to lack of students in 1941.

    Capitol Reef National Park Photography

    Sunrise

    The Cathedral Valley District is a more remote area of Capitol Reef National Park and sometimes requires a high clearance vehicle; you can find out more about current conditions at the Visitor Center. If you can, do the two-hour drive to the Temple of the Sun for incredible views at either sunrise or sunset.

    Sunset 

    Besides the Cathedral Valley District, which is a bit more difficult to get to, there are several options for watching the sunset in Capitol Reef National Park. Here are a few that we learned about:

    • Hickman Bridge Trail – a moderate 1.8-mile round trip hike with canyon views
    • Chimney Rock Loop – a strenuous 3.6-mile round trip hike with panoramas of the Waterpocket Fold cliffs
    • Sunset Point – an easy 0.8-mile round trip hike with panorama views that are best at sunset (naturally, per its name)

    Despite being less popular, Capitol Reef is a beautiful and unique national park that deserves a visit at least once. We hope you’ll start planning your visit soon!

    Pin this post for later, and continue along our road trip with The Best Hikes in Arches National Park.

    XOXO Travel A-Broads

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    Renee
    Renee
    9 months ago

    The one day itinerary sounds perfect. I would love to do a hike, take in those amazing landscape and rock formation views. And, you had me at pie! Good to know the shop is seasonal, would hate to miss out.

    Ashlee Fechino
    9 months ago

    Beautiful article! I worked here for a summer after college and my husband and I had our first camping date here. So many memories. Great share!

    cosette
    9 months ago

    Oh, your post about Capitol Reef brings back memories. We loved visiting this park and I still think about the delicious pie we had back then.

    Hannah
    9 months ago

    Capitol Reef National Park looks like such a beautiful place to spend the day! The scenery looks incredible! I’d love to try the glamping experience in Conestoga Wagons – they look like so much fun! Thanks for the great guide!

    Katia
    9 months ago

    I love the photos! Makes me really want to go now XD

    Pam
    Pam
    9 months ago

    I’m not too familiar with Utah, but I’ve definitely never heard of Capitol Reef. I love your pictures. The petroglyphs looks really interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    SSeeks
    9 months ago

    Capitol Reef is now officially on my bucket list!

    Emma
    9 months ago

    I’ve wanted to go to Utah for so long. All the national parks look amazing, but I think this is the one I’ve seen the least about so good to learn more about it. The petroglyphs would be really interesting to see, and I’ll never say no to pie. Can’t wait to visit one day

    Denise
    9 months ago

    Your photos of Capitol Reef National Park are amazing!

    Mayi
    9 months ago

    Great guide. America has such amazing hiking opportunities. Sleeping in those wagons must have been such an amazing experience. It gives me a “little house on the prairie vibe”

    kmf
    kmf
    9 months ago

    Utah keeps calling my name! Great guide to Capitol Reef National Park. Would love to do some hiking here…so beautiful!

    Marianne
    Marianne
    9 months ago

    Wow! This guide is awesome! Capitol Reef National Park looks absolutely incredible! Will be adding it to my list, especially since we have not yet visited Utah.

    Tiffany Smith
    Tiffany Smith
    9 months ago

    The wagons look like such a cool place to stay! I will def look to book there when we eventually make it to Capital Reef

    Michelle
    9 months ago

    I love to hike and Capital Reef Park looks like an amazing place for hiking. I love seeing the colors of the mountains and the interesting rock formations.

    Melanie
    Melanie
    9 months ago

    That glamping experience looks sooo cool! I can’t wait to visit one day!

    Sue
    Sue
    9 months ago

    I visited Arches and Canyonlands in 2019 and I’m dying to get back to Utah to see Capitol Reef, it looks beautiful!

    Brittany
    9 months ago

    This is such a great guide! I really need to explore more of Utah’s national parks. I think the Cassidy Arch Trail looks so awesome! Thanks for sharing these recommendations 🙂

    Linda (LD Holland)
    9 months ago

    Many people miss a visit to Capitol Reef when they do the Utah National Parks. We were sure glad we planned a stop on one of our travel days. We did not stay close to the park but those Conestoga Wagons look like a fun glamping option. We would have liked more time to do some of those hikes and will plan for it next time. 

    Jenn | By Land and Sea
    Jenn | By Land and Sea
    9 months ago

    Capitol Reef isn’t too terribly far from where we live, yet we have never been to this area of Utah. We are going to have to change this because it looks like such a great place to visit!

    Jill
    9 months ago

    Capitol Reef National Park looks so amazing!! Your photos are awesome. I would lovee to cruise down the Scenic Drive with the windows down – everything looks beautiful. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    simplyjolayne
    9 months ago

    Great post. We love the amazing national parks in Utah but haven’t visited this one yet. Thanks for the idea.

    Cristina
    Cristina
    9 months ago

    I always love discovering lesser-known locations, so thank you for sharing Capitol Reef National Park. I would love to explore it and see all the cliffs and canyons. The landscape is amazing! Also, I’ve never been glamping, but I’d love to give it a go there.

    Sarah Wilson
    9 months ago

    Excellent detailed blog. Planning a Utah road trip and I didn’t know about this park. Looks stunning and very few people around – just the way I like it 😂

    anatureescape@gmail.com

    Love that this park has a driving route and lots of hiking options. Thanks for sharing such a detailed blog!

    Krista
    9 months ago

    There’s so much to see in this national park! I’d definitely be stopping for some pie along the way.

    Lenore
    9 months ago

    Another well detailed itinerary! I’m hoping to incorporate more hiking this year, and I love learning about what to do and the best seasons to hike. I hope to stay in one of the Conestoga Wagons.

    Josy A
    9 months ago

    I just love the colours of this area – it is sooo different to the bright green mountains we are used to in the Pacific North West. Cassidy Arch looks fantastic – those views would make me keen to try some of the longer back country trails!
    Glamping in a wagon sounds really fun too!

    Lasma
    Lasma
    9 months ago

    First of all, your photos are amazing! This place looks stunning ❤️ And you have so much interesting information about Utah… will save it all. Thank you!

    Polly
    9 months ago

    I have just started looking at taking a road trip to Utah to visit Bryce Canyon National Park and Arches National Park and I have to say that I didn’t even look up Capitol Reef! What a mistake! Thank you for the inspiration!

    Val
    Val
    9 months ago

    Your Photos and post are Very informative but I am especially astonished at the Fruita Schoolhouse and how well preserved it is! The majority of Greek schools are way “worse” than this even if ther remain functional!

    Bea
    Bea
    9 months ago

    What a spectacular park! These landscapes are gorgeous. And I’m smitten by the cute hotels in the area. I would stay in those wagons!

    Gloria
    Gloria
    10 months ago

    I had never heard of capital reef before reading this. Just moved to the US and putting together a list of places to see especially in Utah, glad I found this

    Emma
    10 months ago

    I honestly didn’t even know this national park existed!! I don’t know how that’s possible as its absolutely stunning.

    Christina
    Christina
    10 months ago

    I’d never hear of Capital Reef National Park. It looks beautiful. Seems like a fun day as long as you remember sunscreen and water.

    Pafoua
    10 months ago

    I love all the picturesque photos – those formations are always amazing! Thank you for sharing great tips and the best way to hike the trails! Pinned this for when I go!

    Amy
    Amy
    10 months ago

    Capitol Reef is the last of Utah’s national parks I need to see! Thanks for this helpful information.. & the Conestoga Wagons look so cute!