Debating on adding Capitol Reef to your Utah National Park road trip? Even if you only have a day to spare, our ultimate guide will convince you it’s worth it.
Out of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef is the least visited. When looking at the map, it seems like it’s out of the way, but that’s not true. It’s not off the interstate, but still easily accessible by the scenic byways. And FYI, those byways are gorgeous. Besides, if you’re already doing four of Utah’s National Parks, why wouldn’t you do the fifth?
Each park offers a unique experience with out of this world landscapes. So, if you’re considering skipping Capitol Reef National Park on your road trip through Utah, we’re here to show you why that would be a mistake.
Table of Contents
Where is Capitol Reef National Park
Located in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is just outside the small town of Torrey.
The closest airport is the very tiny Canyonlands Regional Airport (CNY) in Moab. With limited flight and car rental choices, most visitors fly into Las Vegas (LAS) or Salt Lake City (SLC), then do the drive.
As Capitol Reef sits between Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands near Moab, it is easy to incorporate into a Utah’s “Mighty 5” National Parks road trip.
- 2.5 hours from Moab, UT
- 2.5 hours from Bryce Canyon National Park
A lot of folks think of Capitol Reef as a detour, opting to take I-70 from Bryce Canyon to Moab instead. However, following the road past Capitol Reef only adds 25 minutes to the journey.
Thing is, State Route (SR) 12 from Bryce Canyon is exceptionally beautiful, especially around Escalante. So is SR 24 around Capitol Reef. You don’t even have to pay the park entrance fee for this section of the national park.
Where to Stay
Though Capitol Reef can be done as a long day trip from Moab or Bryce Canyon, it’s worth staying at least one night in the area.
There are no hotels within the national park. However, with large trees for shade and the Freemont River running nearby, the Fruita Campground is a gem in an oasis.
Capitol Reef Resort
If you’re not camping, you’ll want to stay in or around the town of Torrey.
We stayed in a Superior King Cabin at Capitol Reef Resort. Comfortable with a great location between the town of Torrey and the national park, we were impressed. We even had a little porch in the front to enjoy the evening.
If you’re keen for something different, the hotel also had Teepees and Covered Conestoga Wagons. They looked like quite the experience.
Start With a Hike to Hickman Bridge
It’s best to start early and get in a good hike before the sun warms up too much.
Along SR 24 there are a few great hikes in the fee-free section of the park. With only a day to enjoy Capitol Reef National Park, we chose the shorter, moderate 1.7-mile round trip hike to Hickman Bridge.
The trail was well marked and had fantastic views over the desert oasis of Fruita. It took us about 1.5 hours to complete the trail, but there were so many great places to take photos, we stopped constantly.
A Little Trivia: Why the Name Capitol Reef?
Along the first section of the Hickman Bridge Trail, we had a great view of Capitol Dome. Early settlers thought the white mountain resembled the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
Capitol Reef National Park is an 87-mile-long ridge in the earth’s crust, called a Waterpocket Fold. However, as many prospectors that came to the area had nautical backgrounds, they referred to it as a reef, since it was a formidable barrier to transportation.
And there you have it… Capitol Reef.
Don’t Miss the Petroglyph Panel
Near the parking area for Hickman Bridge Trail on SR 24, are two short boardwalks that highlight the Petroglyph Wall.
Most of the carvings are very faded, so it took us a little while to realize what we were looking at, especially in the bright sunlight. It may be better to start with the boardwalk on the left as there’s a bit more information.
Pay the Park Entry Fee at the Visitor Center
Before the next stop, you’ll need to pay the park’s admission fee – $20 Private Vehicle (2022).
You could drop by the small Visitor Center at the start of the park, but there’s not much there. Alternatively, if you have cash, there is an obvious self-service pay station just beyond the campground.
FYI, the Visitor Center tends to shut between 12 – 1 pm for their lunch break.
America The Beautiful Pass
If you plan on visiting multiple US National Parks or Federal Lands within the year, we recommend getting an America the Beautiful Pass for $80. The pass includes vehicle admission or entry for four adults to over 2,000 federally managed parks. Children under 16 are free at US National Parks.
You can buy the pass through the National Park Service website, at many National Parks, or from REI. The lovely folks at REI don’t always know they sell it, but they do.
Cruise the Scenic Drive
The Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef is 8-miles of paved road through stunning landscapes. It starts at the Visitor Center and ends at Capitol Gorge Road.
Slightly disappointing, there are very few roadside pull-offs to get out for photos. The pull-offs that do exist are only big enough for a few vehicles at a time. Luckily, the road is out and back, so you have two chances to find an empty space.
Stop for Pie at Gifford House in Fruita
Once an historical town, today this deserted oasis of fruit tree orchards is most famous for its pie.
The tiny Gifford House is a favorite stop in Capitol Reef National Park. Though originally a farmstead, today the little gift shop sells local crafts and sweets. We grabbed Apple and Strawberry-Rhubarb pies for our picnic’s dessert – yummm!
If you’re not into pie, they also had amazing looking cinnamon buns.
Other than pie and cinnamon buns, there’s not a whole lot else to eat in the park. Driving back to Torrey is around 20 minutes, so bringing a picnic with you will save you a lot of time.
In front of the Gifford house are a few picnic tables. The other option is to picnic in the lush park across the street, a little way back towards the Visitor Center. After a while in the desert, it felt surreal to walk on grass again.
If you’re really lucky, you may catch the orchards in bloom or be able to pick the fruit. Timings vary annually so call the park to check what’s available and current fruit prices. (435) 425-3791 then press #5 for the fruit hotline or check the park’s orchard page.
- Cherries: June 11 – July 7
- Apricots: June 27 – July 31
- Peaches: August 4 – September 6
- Pears: August 7 – September 8
- Apples: September 4 – October 17
Plan to eat in Torrey? Our Where to Eat section is below. We also include where to find the best chocolate cake we’ve ever had.
Take a Detour on the Grand Wash Drive
At the 3.4-mile mark of Scenic Drive is the Grand Wash dirt road turn-off. The 1.3-mile road leads to the parking area for the Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash Trails.
In good weather, the road is suitable for most standard vehicles. Unfortunately, we had hard rain the night before, so the road was only passable with a 4×4. This is a section we would love to come back to another time.
- The Cassidy Arch Trail is a strenuous 3.4-mile round trip.
- The Grand Wash Trail is a very easy 4.4-mile round trip. The trail ends on SR 24, so if you have two vehicles you could leave one parked here, and just do the trail one-way. However, parking does fill up fast. As this trail is prone to flash floods, be sure to check the weather carefully before venturing out.
Hike to The Tanks from Capitol Gorge Road
Capitol Gorge Road starts where the Scenic Drive ends. Normally in good weather the road is passable in a standard vehicle. However, the park had the road closed to all vehicles when we visited.
We parked our car at the small picnic area and took a short walk. As we only had the day at Capitol Reef, we didn’t have time to walk the entire 2.3-mile road to the Capitol Gorge Trailhead. From the trailhead it’s another 1-mile to The Tanks, a series of canyon potholes that fill with water after rain.
Grab Your Camera for Panoramic and Sunset Points
Once you’ve finished exploring the Scenic Drive, head back to SR 24. As you travel towards Torrey there’s a parking area on the left for Panoramic Point. This area is part of the fee-free area of Capitol Reef National Park.
Though beautiful any time of day, it’s exceptionally hypnotizing for sunset when the red sand practically glows.
Drive past the parking lot for Panoramic Point to reach Sunset Point. From the parking area there are two short walks for more breathtaking views.
Get the View (Without the Hike) at Chimney Rock
Just a little past Panoramic Point, on the right, is another worthwhile stop-off, Chimney Rock.
With only a day, you’re unlikely to have time to hike the full 3.6-mile round trip Chimney Rock Trail, but that’s okay. From the parking lot you actually get a fantastic view of Chimney Rock without walking anywhere.
Where to Eat
You’ll find all the restaurants in the town of Torrey. Admittedly, for seemingly the middle-of-nowhere, we found some amazing food on the Capitol Reef section of our Utah road trip.
- Our absolute favorite were the burgers at the Capitol Burger food truck. Fresh buns, thick patties, and an array of interesting toppings, we will be back! We found them in the parking lot of the Chuckwagon General Store but being a food truck, they do move around. Check their Facebook page for their current whereabouts. You won’t regret it.
- We grabbed our picnic lunches from The Wild Rabbit Cafe. There were so many things on the menu we wanted to try, but finally settled on the Orchard Salad and the Caprese Sandwich. We couldn’t have been happier with our choices, and Jeremy swears by their coffee.
Best Chocolate Cake Ever
For those traveling from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef, we must let you in on the best chocolate cake we’ve ever had. Yes, we know that is a huge statement, but seriously.
Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but you have to stop at Griffin’s Grocery in the town of Escalante.
In the back of the store is a small, refrigerated section with salads and sandwiches from Mimi’s Bakery & Deli. Apparently, Mimi’s was a physical bakery with a restaurant that closed during the pandemic. To continue selling their food, they started selling it at the local grocery store.
Though their salads seem a bit pricey for a grocery store, they are seriously restaurant quality. They were so good and filling. Though, the star of the meal was a Flourless Chocolate Torte with Pecans we grabbed for dessert. We’d go back tomorrow and get another if we could.
Looking for more on Utah’s National Parks? Here are a few other posts you may enjoy.