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Capitol Reef is one of the more low-key national parks in Utah. It’s a park that often gets overlooked, simply because of the high number of national parks in the area. But it’s one that is truly unique and worth exploring, especially if you’re a national park lover. Which is why we’re exploring things to do at Capitol Reef National Park and sharing tips to make the most out of your visit.
Hidden large gem
Capitol Reef National Park was established in 1971 but was designated as a national monument in 1937. Despite being a lesser-known national park, Capitol Reef is one of the larger parks in the southern area of Utah. The national park is about 378 square miles, making it larger than many of the more popular national parks in the area, like Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches. Despite its size, it is a park that can be explored in a single day, or over several days if you want to hike the many trails in the park. It’s a park worth visiting, especially if you happen to be exploring some of the other national parks in the area.
Where does the name “Capitol Reef” come from?
Its unique name comes from two different aspects of the park. The “Capitol” portion is named after the white Navajo Sandstone dome formations and cliffs in the area, which resemble the white dome tops on capitol buildings. The “Reef” refers to the Waterpocket Fold, which is a huge rocky barrier. Typically when we think of reefs, we think of underwater barriers. However, a reef can also be a rocky land barrier.
Background and context on our trip to Capitol Reef National Park
I’ll be reviewing our itinerary for visiting the park, along with some tips in case you’re planning a visit. For context, we visited in late September 2019 during our honeymoon, which consisted of a road trip to six different national parks. If you’re interested in seeing more of the parks that we’ve visited, check out our National Parks playlist.
Also, for reference, we came in through the east side of the park. You can also enter from the west side. Unlike most other national parks, there isn’t an official entry gate when driving into the park. You’ll pay an entrance fee of $20 per vehicle if you want to tour the scenic drive, which I highly recommend and will cover later in this post.
Our one-day Capitol Reef National Park itinerary
Below is our one-day itinerary from our visit. Keep in mind that this isn’t an exhaustive list of things to see. Instead it’s a sampling, in case you’re planning a similar day trip as well.
1. Visitors center:
While we came in from the east side of the park, along Highway 24, we could have stopped at some of the trails before heading to the Visitors Center. However, we always find it useful to stop at the Visitors Center to get the latest information about the park. You’ll need to stop here to pay your entrance fee if you want to continue southwards on the Scenic Drive as well. We also recommend getting free maps and recommendations from the rangers based on the current conditions.
2. Hickman Bridge Trail:
Once we left the Visitors Center, we ended up backtracking along Highway 24 to the Hickman Bridge Trailhead. The trail is 1.8 miles round trip, and I would rate the hike as medium difficulty. While the trail isn’t technically difficult or long, there isn’t much vegetation, so you’ll be in direct sun for most of the hike. You’ll also gain about 400 feet of elevation while on the trail.
The trail starts along a stream and then takes you through some rocky terrain. You’ll get some great views of the white dome formations in the area, including the famous Capitol Dome. The trail ends at Hickman Bridge, which is a 133-foot natural arch. The arch is similar to what you’ll see in other national parks in Utah, but we found this one to be a lot less crowded.
3. Fruita Orchards:
This stop was along the same road. From the Hickman Bridge Trail, we passed by petroglyphs and stopped at the historic Fruita Schoolhouse and district. This area is home to many orchards, which is a very unique aspect of the park. There is no charge for fruit that is consumed within the orchard, but there is a fee for any fruit removed. The availability of fruit obviously depends on the harvest time. For example, when we visited in late September, there weren’t many untouched pieces of fruit left. But it was still fun walking in the orchards and spotting apples, especially with the beautiful surrounding landscape.
4. Grand Wash Trail (via Scenic Drive)
We then proceeded southwards from the Visitors Center into the park along the Scenic Drive. This is an 8-mile paved road that offers beautiful views of Waterpocket Fold. We then turned left off the main road toward Grand Wash, which is an unpaved road that leads to the Cassidy Arch Trail. This is both the starting point for the Cassidy Arch Trail and also the end of the Grand Wash Trail. Since the Cassidy Arch Trail was listed as a strenuous 3.4-mile round-trip hike, and we were both feeling a bit tired, we opted to hike the easier 4.2-mile roundtrip Grand Wash Trail. You’ll notice that the official trailhead is on the other side of the park, so we were essentially doing the hike in reverse.
Bear Canyon and the Narrows
The hike took us along Bear Canyon, a large and open trail surrounded by beautiful rock formations. We even saw bats flying overhead as we walked along the trail, even though it was midday. The trail eventually leads to the Narrows, which had a very similar feel to the Narrows found in Zion National Park. As the name implies, the trail becomes much more narrow as you pass through the canyon.
Overall, this was a long but easy hike. Also, it’s not necessary to walk the entire trail to the Grand Wash trailhead. In fact, if you’re short on time or looking for a shorter hike, you can always turn back around mile three once you’re in the middle of the Narrows.
5. Capitol Gorge (via Scenic Drive)
Afterward, we drove further southwards on the Scenic Drive to Capitol Gorge. The roads are again unpaved and conditions can be windy, so you’ll want to take it slow, especially around the tight corners. While it was a beautiful drive, we, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to hike here. By the time we arrived, the parking lot was completely full. Since we were short on time and still had a two and a half-hour drive to our Airbnb near Bryce Canyon, we decided to head back along the Scenic Drive toward the Visitors Center.
However, we wished we had hiked the area. The Pioneer Register Trail in the area is one of the most highly rated hikes in the area and was used by pioneers to get through Waterpocket Fold. The pioneers even left signatures on the rocks, so it’s worth stopping and exploring if you have the time.
6. Gifford House
Before arriving back to the Visitors Center area, we stopped at the Gifford House for a quick snack and coffee. The Gifford House is 1.1 miles south of the visitor center on the Scenic Drive. It’s a preserved farmhouse from the early 1900s, and it’s a great place to stretch your legs and enjoy some desserts and coffee.
7. Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point
We then headed westward from the Visitors Center toward Goosenecks Overlook. Goosenecks is a beautiful canyon with massive cliffs and a creek below. The trail is only 0.2 miles round trip, making it an easy stop.
From here, we decided to take the short hike to Sunset Point. This is a 0.8-mile round trip hike that’s fairly easy and provides beautiful views of the landscape.
Worth visiting for a day (or even longer)
And that was our itinerary. While we could have easily spent another day at the park exploring more hikes, we thought we got a good taste of what Capitol Reef had to offer. It’s a beautiful place that’s worth your time. Between the majestic rock formations and peaceful orchards, it has a charm that is truly unique and different from the other national parks we visited.
Lodging and dining
Unlike some of our other national park videos, we didn’t stay near the park, so I can’t give you recommendations on places to stay or eat. Within the park, the only place to buy snacks or drinks was at the Visitors Center and the Gifford House. There is a campsite in the Fruita Historic District as well, and several hotels in the neighboring city of Torrey. While we didn’t stay there, the Capitol Reef Resort looked like an interesting option and is well-reviewed on Trip Advisor.
Additional tips and considerations
Lastly, if you’re planning a trip to Capitol Reef, here some additional tips to keep in mind.
1. Start early:
This goes for all national parks. The parking lots were much more crowded as the day went on. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t want to wait for a parking spot at Capitol Gorge, so we ended up forgoing one of our planned hikes. If possible, I recommend entering the park early so you can spend less time waiting for a parking space and more time exploring.
2. Pack plenty of water and snacks:
Since there are only two places where you can get water and snacks, it’s worth packing at least a gallon of water per person and carrying them while hiking. Many of the trails are exposed, meaning that there isn’t much vegetation to shield you from the sun. Also, we didn’t see any water bottle filling stations, so you’ll want to prep your water before entering the park.
I highly recommend using some kind of insulated bottle as well, especially if you’re planning to leave extra water in your car. Since the temperatures can get quite high, these bottles can help keep your water cool and refreshing.
3. Bring sunglasses and a hat:
Since you’ll be exposed to sun and heat on the trails, you’ll want to make sure you protect yourself. We also found many of the overlooks to be extremely windy, so you’ll want to keep that mind. Having sunglasses definitely helped to keep the blowing dust out of my eyes.
4. Monitor the weather:
Since Capitol Reef is comprised of canyons and gorges, it is susceptible to flash flooding. You’ll want to monitor the weather conditions in the area and avoid hiking in places that are prone to flash flooding, even when there’s a small chance of wet weather.
5. Rent an SUV:
While you can explore many of the unpaved roads using a regular car, you may feel a bit more secure driving a vehicle with higher clearance. We did hit some bumpy patches on the road. While you would probably be ok driving a normal car, I still would recommend an SUV.
Also, there are several dirt roads that are restricted to 4X4 vehicles. These tend to be very difficult to navigate, so I wouldn’t attempt them unless you’re confident in your off-roading skills. You’ll want to make sure to check with the rangers at the Visitors Center if you plan to do any off-roading.
6. Pack hand sanitizer and wipes:
Many of the bathroom facilities do not have running water, so you’ll be much happier if you have some hand sanitizer or wipes with you. And since we are releasing this video during the pandemic, this is more important than ever.
7. Sign-up for a ranger-guided tour:
While we didn’t do this, I was very interested in some of the tours offered by the national park staff. This includes stargazing tours and a full moon night hike. If you’re staying in the park late, you may want to take advantage of these programs.
Have you been to Capitol Reef National Park, or are you planning to visit in the future? Also, do you have any additional tips for others visiting the park? Let me know in the comment section below. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.