drive into capitol reef

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Capitol Reef is my favorite Utah National Park and I’ll share the perfect one-day itinerary so you don’t miss any of the park’s highlights.

I know choosing Capitol Reef over Arches, Bryce or Zion is not a popular statement but it’s way less crowded. There are a variety of hiking options and a swimming spot. You can pick your own fruit at the Fruita orchards. And there are local homemade pies at the Gifford House gift shop.

What else could you want?

Plus, who doesn’t love cheering for an underdog?

We spent three partial days exploring the park but if you are short on time, one day in Capitol Reef is a perfect amount of time to hit the highlights.

I want to warn you, that one day in Capitol Reef will leave you wanting more. Capitol Reef is a hidden gem and could easily entertain a family for a week.

kara at capitol reef park sign

Capitol Reef at a Glance

Entrance fee: The entrance fee to Capitol Reef is $20 per vehicle for 7 days of admission or included with the America the Beautiful National Park Pass.

Campground:

Backcountry camping: Backcountry camping is allowed within Capitol Reef National Park. Free backcountry camping permits are required and can be obtained at the visitor center.

Location: Capitol Reef is located in South Central Utah near the town of Torrey.

Annual Visitation: 950k visitors

Fun Facts about Capitol Reef National Park

  • Capitol Reef National Park is larger than Zion and Bryce combined but the majority of the park is inaccessible without 4×4.
  • The Historic Fruita area is the most visited part of the park and is small enough to easily be explored in one day. We chose to spend three days in the park so we could fit in a few extra hikes without feeling exhausted.
  • Capitol Reef is named for the area’s unforgettable topography. ‘Capitol’ for the white domes of Navajo Sandstone resembling the domes of capitol buildings and ‘reef’ for the rocky cliffs resembling an ocean reef which also makes travel difficult.
overlook inside capitol reef national park

What is Capitol Reef National Park known for?

Capitol Reef National Park is known for the unique geologic beauty of the Colorado Plateau and Waterpocket Fold.

A day in Capitol Reef also provides a great historical glimpse into the Native Americans and pioneers who lived in the South Central Utah area.

Capitol Reef is off the beaten path and not as well known as other Utah National Parks such as Zion and Arches. However, I believe Capitol Reef is a hidden gem and this forgotten National Park shouldn’t be missed.

view driving into capitol reef

What is unique about Capitol Reef National Park?

Capitol Reef’s topography and rock formations are uniquely beautiful to most visitors but they are not to this area of Utah.

The Waterpocket Fold is a 100-mile monocline, a wrinkle in the earth, through Capitol Reef. The fold is a geologic step up in the rocks created between 50 and 70 million years ago when a fault line shifted moving rock.

The rock on the west side of the park folded over and was lifted 7k feet above the east side. Since this fold happened, the rock has experienced erosion which exposed the fold and continues to create canyons, arches, spires, and many other beautiful rock formations.

What is a waterpocket?

Water pockets are indentations in the sandstone caused by erosion. Some other sites we’ve visited called similar water pocket features that were called potholes. I like thinking water pockets are nature’s potholes.

Native Americans used them to collect and store rainwater. The water pockets we saw ranged from small puddles, which dried out quickly in the sun, to holes, deep and wide enough to swim in.

waterpocket in capitol reef

Know before you go to Capitol Reef

  • You can visit some of Capitol Reef for free
    • Driving Highway 24 at Capitol Reef is free and doesn’t require an entrance fee or national park pass. The scenic Hwy 24 drive contains many of the key attractions in the park. Visitors will find Sunset and Panorama Point, petroglyphs, Mossy Cave and some hiking trails on Hwy 24.
  • Capitol Reef Restroom Locations
    • Restrooms are located at the Capitol Reef visitor center and Fuirta picnic area. They are also pit toilets at a few Capitol Reef trailheads including Cassidy Arch, Hickman Bridge and Capitol Gorge.
  • Flash Floods are possible.
    • The canyons in the Capitol Reef area are subject to flash floods from the summer monsoon rains so take the weather forecast seriously.
  • Pack Food and Drinks
    • The only food available in the park is sweet treats at the Gifford House. There is a great shady picnic area in the Fruita Valley so pack a picnic. Water is available at the picnic area or visitor center.
  • Capitol Reef weather is extreme
    • Summer weather can get very hot but the sun can be intense even in shoulder season. 90 degrees was pretty miserable in early-June. If hiking, start the day early to avoid the hottest weather. Always hike with a map, first aid kit, extra water and snacks, and sun protection.
    • Winter weather drops below freezing with snow. Some park roads close due to unsafe conditions in winter. Unmaintained snow and ice-covered roads can be very dangerous.
  • Prepare to be disconnected.
    • There is no cellular service inside the park so plan ahead by downloading offline maps and Gypsy Guide before you leave home.
      • Google offline maps are easy to use and free to download.
      • Gypsy Guide is a self-guided GPS-based audio tour that highlights the best hikes, can’t miss viewpoints, and tells stories about the geology and history of the area. It is like listening to a perfect timed mini-podcast about what you are seeing. Gypsy Guide works offline and doesn’t require a cellular signal. For under $10 you can ensure you don’t miss any top attractions at the Capitol Reef and you’ll get hours of entertainment.
        • The Mighty 5 Gypsy Guide bundle offers lifetime access to all of Utah’s National Park self-guided audio tours (Arches, Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef) at a lower price than buying them separately.
gypsy guide banner

Where is Capitol Reef?

Capitol Reef is located near the small town of Torrey in south-central Utah between Zion and Arches. Each of the epic red rock Utah Mighty 5 National Parks are unique and definitely worth visiting.

google maps utah national parks

Closest airports to Capitol Reef

The closest airports to Capitol Reef are more than an hour away. Depending upon your arrival, plan to stop at other Utah parks on your way to Capitol Reef.

  • Las Vegas International Airport: 337 miles to Capitol Reef (allow 5 hours driving time)
  • Salt Lake City International Airport: 220 miles to Capitol Reef (allow 3 hours driving time)
  • Canyonlands Regional Airport in Moab (Arches & Canyonlands): 118 miles to Capitol Reef (allow 1 hour 45 minutes driving time)

As you may notice Capitol Reef is not super close to any large airports but it is a great destination on an epic Utah National Park road trip.

Allow a minimum of one day in Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Arches and a half-day at Canyonlands.

Additionally, the drive from Bryce to Capitol Reef is a great excuse to visit Grand Staircase Escalante (50 miles away) and Red Canyon Utah (120 miles away), which are home to amazing Utah hiking outside of the National Parks.

How to Get Around the Capitol Reef National Park

Visitors need a car to get around Capitol Reef National Park. The scenic drive and highway 24 could potentially be explored on a bicycle but it isn’t very common.

Best Time to Visit Capitol Reef

The best and most popular times to visit Capitol Reef are spring and fall. These are alos the most crowded times to visit Capitol Reef but the park doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as other Utah parks.

Best Weather

The best weather at Capitol Reef is during spring and fall. Temperatures are mildest but the park is most crowded during these times.

Most Daylight

The most daylight is during summer at Capitol Reef. However daytime temperatures in southern Utah are too hot for safely hiking or extended periods outdoors.

Least crowds

Winter has the least crowds at Capitol Reef due to cold temperatures and snowfall that causes park road closures.

Crowds have become part of the National park experience but annual visitation at Capitol Reef is less than at other Utah National Parks.

Pro Tips to Avoid Crowds at National Parks
  • Longer or more challenging hikes provide a natural deterrent.
    • Most people don’t venture far from their cars at National Parks.
      • Some avoid difficult or long hikes due to physical limitations.
      • Others avoid long hikes due to time constraints on short vacations.
  • Off-peak times are always less crowded.
    • Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to avoid crowds even during busy seasons.

How much is the Capitol Reef entrance fee?

Capitol Reef National Park charges an entrance fee to visit the scenic drive and Fruita area, which are the very popular attractions.

Entrance fees at Capitol Reef are much lower than its sister Utah National Parks. Capitol Reef is a bargain price at $20 instead of $30 at Arches and Canyonlands and $35 at Zion and Bryce.

  • The entrance fee is $20 per non-commercial passenger vehicle to Capitol Reef. Admission covers park entrance for everyone in the car including up to 4 adults for 7 consecutive days.
  • Individuals visiting on a bicycle or on foot only pay $10 for admission to Capitol Reef.
  • Motorcycles pay $15 admission to Capitol Reef.

Your Capitol Reef entrance fee is not valid at other Utah National Parks so if you are planning to visit other parks, you’ll have to pay admission there as well.

Check out Canyonland vs Arches: How to Choose the Best National Park in Moab if you are tight on time and aren’t sure which Moab National Park to visit.

Consider purchasing a National Park pass if you plan to visit multiple parks during a 12-month period. You might even qualify for a discounted or free National Park pass.

National Park Passes are a great deal if you are visiting multiple park sites in the same year. Generally, if you are visiting three higher-priced parks in the same year then the annual national park pass is cheaper than paying admission to each park.

However, some years the National Park pass doesn’t save you money so read America the Beautiful National Park Pass: Is it Worth it and Will it Save You Money to determine if it’s right for you and for a complete list of current national park admission fees by state.

How much time do you need at Capitol Reef National Park?

If you do not plan to do any off-roading or backcountry trails, one day is enough time at Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef is one of the least crowded National Parks in Utah and has a lot to offer.

We spent three partial days in the park hiking and exploring. When leaving, we felt like we fully experienced Capitol Reef but would happily spend a week in the area with excursions to nearby

What should people look out for in Capitol Reef?

At Capitol Reef, it is easy to find beauty around every corner but you won’t want to miss a few highlights of the majestic place.

In summary, visitors with one day should explore the scenic drive and the Fruita area. Before heading to Hwy 24’s main attractions including multiple viewpoints, the petroglyphs and a hike to Hickman Bridge.

Keep reading for a detailed one-day itinerary with seasonal recommendations for Capitol Reef.

Where to Stay Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef and the nearby town of Torrey have several lodging options for every budget.

Capitol Reef lodging choices range from the most expensive option, a resort, to the least expensive option, camping for free on public land.

The most expensive and luxurious lodging option is to stay at one of the several privately owned hotels and inns in nearby Torrey. There is only one national hotel chain in Torrey, the Days Inn, but several resort options for various budgets.

Booking.com

Camping near Capitol Reef

There are a few options for camping near Capitol Reef including the NPS Fruita Campground, nearby BLM or numerous private campgrounds in Torrey.

For complete camping details at Capitol Reef check out Complete Capitol Reef National Park Camping Guide: Everything from Luxury RV Parks to Free Dispersed Camping.

Fruita Campground

The Fruita Campground is located in the middle of Capitol Reef National Park’s Fruita section. We walked around the campground and the sites were spacious. It would be a nice option if you don’t need cellular service during your trip. Sites are $20/night.

While in the park, we had no cellular service. A park ranger told us the area was a little behind on technology, had very little cell coverage and they still don’t even have a stoplight in the whole county.

Free camping on nearby BLM

Beas Lewis Flats is the closest free camping to Capitol Reef. The location is only 15 minutes from the park. It is between Torrey and the park entrance. However, it is a super dusty stone quarry area with limited accessibility large enough for motorhomes, like Pippi.

We chose the spot due to its proximity to the park and good cell signal. In hindsight, we would have chosen a different spot and suffered without cellular data because we spent the following weeks cleaning both inside and outside.

sunset at beas lewis flat public camping area near capitol reef
Best Summer Camping near Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef and Torrey can get very hot in summer. The best summer camping would either be at a full hookup campground in Torrey with a pool.

Or if you prefer more rustic and affordable camping, then going to a higher elevation will be the best option to escape the heat. Fishlake is about an hour from Torrey and at much higher elevations. The Fishlake National Forest is a great place to avoid the heat at Capitol Reef.

After sweating in Torrey just an hour earlier, we needed sweatshirts in the higher elevation at Fishlake. Plus the aspen pando clone is worth the drive.

pippi among the aspens in fishlake national forest
Aspen Pando Clone

The Aspen Pando Clone in Fishlake National Forest is one of the world’s largest living organisms.

A clone of aspen trees occurs when new trees grow from the roots of another tree resulting in identical DNA. All trees in this colony are genetically identical males.

fish lake at doctor creek campground in utah national forest

Can I shop in Torrey Utah?

There are a few motels, campgrounds, and tourist shops in Torrey Utah but not many options for everyday shopping needs.

Is there a grocery store in Torrey?

The general store in Torrey has limited groceries and personal care items available but I wouldn’t plan to shop in Torrey. The sandwiches from the deli inside the general store in Torrey have decent reviews but we didn’t try them.

During a quick walk through the general store in Torrey, we noticed the prices were higher than any others we had seen in Utah. We were especially shocked by the $29.99 for a 32-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer.

We decided our half-full bottle would last a while longer and we could restock at a later stop.

Escalante has a regular albeit small grocery store, Griffins Grocery. The prices and selection were much better there. We were able to buy enough produce and meat to eat healthy meals at home.

Where to eat near Capitol Reef National Park

While at Capitol Reef National Park, locals provided recommendations on where to eat out. They recommended a burger food truck and a shake shack. Not the healthiest options but both were delicious.

If you want a nicer dinner, consider the Pioneer Kitchen at the Capitol Reef Resort.

If you are only in Capitol Reef for one day and want to eat like local, have a Capitol Reef burger for dinner and a Slackers shake for dessert.

Capitol Burgers Food Truck

Based on a local recommendation, we decided to have dinner at the Capitol Burgers food truck.

Both the macaroni-and-cheese burger and cremini mushroom burger were delicious at Capitol Burger in Torrey Utah. All burgers are made with local Angus beef.

It is a mobile food truck so you will need to look up its current location on the Capitol Burgers Facebook page.

capitol burgers in torrey utah

Slackers

Slackers’ online reviews are all about the milkshakes so I didn’t focus much on their other menu options.

Kevin got a sandwich and Oreo milkshake and I had a bowl of bison chili and a Grasshopper (the mint chocolate cookies not the insect) milkshake.

I can confirm the small-sized milkshake at Slackers in Torrey is 16 ounces and delicious.

slackers in torrey utah

Packing List for Capitol Reef

You’re ready for your Capitol Reef trip but still need help with the packing list.

Don’t worry, we’ve thought of everything for your Capitol Reef packing list.

  • Cash
    • The Gifford House only accepts cash so be sure you have a few bucks on hand.
  • Food and drinks
    • There are only desserts (pie, cinnamon rolls and ice cream) available inside Capitol Reef National Park. Driving to the nearby town of Torrey for a meal will steal multiple hours from your time in the park. So bring food and drinks with you. Water refill stations are available at the Visitor Center and Fruita picnic area.
  • Hiking hat
    • A wide-brimmed hat protects your face and shoulders from the sun. It also provides some respite from the heat.
  • Shoes with good grip
    • Hiking shoes with a good grip are the best way to prevent falls on uneven or slick trails.
  • Hiking socks
    • Avoid cotton socks as they cause blisters. Darn Tough makes cute and comfortable hiking socks.
  • First aid kit
    • None of Capitol Reef has cellular service so you can’t call for help if injured. Hiking with a first aid kit is essential.
  • Sunscreen
    • Wear sunscreen and reapply regularly to avoid sunburn. The Utah sun can be brutal.
  • Water
    • A hydration bladder is an easy way to carry multiple liters of water per person when hiking.
  • Headlamp
    • A headlamp is safety equipment and should be kept in your hiking backpack just in case you need it.

Perfect One Day Itinerary at Capitol Reef

If you only have one day at Capitol Reef, I would pack a cooler, follow this itinerary and plan for a full day.

Step by Step One Day Capitol Reef Itinerary

Recommended stops are:

  • 6a-8a: Sunrise hike to Hickman Bridge
  • 8a- 9a: Visitor Center to get your bearings
  • 9a-9:30a: Sweet Treat at Gifford House
  • morning: Drive the Scenic Drive
    • Walk Capitol Gorge trail
  • noon: picnic lunch at Fruita picnic area
  • afternoon: Drive Highway 24
    • Mossy Cave
    • Petroglyphs
    • Sunset
  • evening: Dinner in Torrey or Ranger Program
  • Stargazing

One Day Capitol Reef Itinerary

Most people visit Capitol Reef on a Utah vacation and may only have one day or less to experience the park.

We’ve maximized your time by mapping out the highlights in a logical order in the following one-day Capitol Reef Itinerary.

Sunrise at Capitol Reef

Arrive early for a hike to Hickman Bridge for sunrise.

The sunrises at 6 am on the longest summer day at Capitol Reef. Sunrise on the shortest day of winter is closer to 8 am at Capitol Reef.

Plan your hike to arrive at Hickman Bridge for sunrise. Remember to bring a headlamp so you can ensure footing on the dark trail.

If summer, you’ll have time after this hike to explore the rest of Highway 24 before the Visitor Center and Gifford House open. Gifford House is only open from May 14 to October 31. If visiting during shorter days, you may want to alter this itinerary to head straight to Gifford House for pie and/or cinnamon rolls.


Capitol Reef Visitor Center

The visitor center at Capitol Reef National park is a great place to learn more about the park. It is open from 8 am to 4:30 pm daily (9 am to 4 pm in winter) and closed on Federal Holidays.

Visitors to Capitol Reef Visitor Center can:

  • learn about the geology and history of this area of Utah.
  • check for ranger walks and programs
  • get a National Park passport stamp
  • buy a postcard or another souvenir
  • refill water containers

The Sulfur Creek trail behind the visitor center is a fun and popular creek walk. It is not marked on any national park maps but you can’t miss it when you walk behind the visitor center on a warm afternoon. Just follow the crowds along the cool creek to a small waterfall.


Gifford House

A visit to Capitol Reef is not complete without a sweet treat from Gifford House. Head further into the park from the visitor center and stop on your way at the Gifford House.

The staff at Gifford House makes individually sized fresh pies daily from the historic Capitol Reef orchards. Also available are cinnamon rolls (limited quantities sell out quickly) and ice cream. The gift shop at Gifford House sells jams and other homestead-themed gifts.

Gifford House is located in the historic Gifford settlement in Fruita. Gifford House is open from March 14 to October 31 from Monday to Saturday 9 am to 4:30 pm. The Gifford House does close from noon to 12:45 for lunch.

gifford house pie at capitol reef

Drive the Scenic Drive

After picking up your pie or cinnamon roll, start exploring the Scenic Drive at Capitol Reef. You’ll have the remainder of the morning to explore the Scenic drive including Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge spur add-ons.

The 7.9-mile Scenic Drive and both spurs are suitable for passenger vehicles. The NPS offers a free self-guided tour on the NPS app or online. Remember to save offline since there is no cellular service in the park.

Stop as much as you like along the Scenic Drive but aim to get back to Fruita for lunch.

A few highlights to not miss along the Scenic Drive:

  • Drive the Grand Wash spur road. This dirt road closes during flooding and snow.
    • Optional hike: Grand Wash is a 4.4-mile roundtrip walk to Cassidy Arch. Most visitors will not have time to fit in this hike during a one-day visit to Capitol Reef.
  • Drive the Grand Wash spur road. The dirt road closes during floods and snow.
    • Recommended Hike: Capitol Gorge is a great, short walk to view the Pioneer Register. Mormon pioneers signed their names and dates of passage in axle grease on the canyon walls. The 1-mile roundtrip trail is in a wash (creek bed) with loose uneven sand. Bring water as it can be very hot on sunny days.
  • Get a photo of the photogenic Gifford Barn before arriving at the Fruita picnic area for a lunch break.
fruita capitol reef barn with horses

Relaxing Picnic in Fruita

Fruita is a historic homestead including the historic Gifford House, barn and Fruita schoolhouse. Explore and snap some pics before settling at the Fruita picnic area to enjoy your packed lunch.

There are picnic tables and restrooms at the Fruita picnic area.

It’s also a great park-like area to take a nap break if your sunrise hike was too early.

fruita picnic area in capitol reef national park

Drive Highway 24

Highway 24 is a designated Scenic Byway running 163 miles from Salina to Green River Utah. The Capitol Reef Scenic Byway is free to visit and doesn’t require a National Park entrance fee.

Highlighted attractions are designated by road signs so stay alert. Each stop has information boards or they can be looked up on the NPS app.

A few highlights of Highway 24 in Capitol Reef are:

  • Petroglyphs date back 3,000 years ago and are attributed to the Fremont culture. Follow signs to a short roadside boardwalk.
  • Panorama Point Overlook
  • Goosenecks Overlook
  • Hickman Bridge if you didn’t make the sunrise hike then consider hiking now. This trail can be challenging on hot days so prepare accordingly.

Sunset at Sunset Point along Highway 24

Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point Share a parking area on Highway 24 in Capitol Reef. Sunset Point is a great location for sunset at Capitol Reef if you still have energy after a long day.

Depending upon when you visit, it may make more sense to take a dinner break before sunset, especially during long summer days.

Dinner in Torrey or a Ranger Talk

If Capitol Reef has a ranger talk during your visit, they are very informative and should be prioritized. If there are scheduled ranger programs, then head to dinner. Flip back for our Torrey dinner recommendation.


Star Gazing

This is not a park-specific task, so if you are camping outside of town, feel free to head back to your campsite for star gazing. If you are staying in town, then you’ll probably have to drive away from town and closer to the park to find truly dark skies.

Capitol Reef is a designated dark sky-certified park which means you can see the night sky without the negative impact of light pollution. Stargazing is a great ending to the perfect one day in Captiol Reef.

fruita schoolhouse at capitol reef

Is Capitol Reef National Park worth seeing?

Capitol Reef is the hidden gem of Utah’s Big 5 National Park and is definitely worth seeing.

It is a bit out the way and deters many other visitors. The main section of the park is easily accessible and you can easily experience Capitol Reef in one full day.


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One Day at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument: Some of Utah’s Best Hikes outside the Big 5 National Parks

Complete Capitol Reef National Park Camping Guide: Everything from Luxury RV Parks to Free Dispersed Camping

Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park: Trip Itineraries and Insider Tips for Your Visit

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