One Day at Capitol Reef: The forgotten Utah National Park
March 20, 2021
Originally posted July 2020; Revised and migrated March 2021
Travel date June 2020
After a quick hiking detour in majestic Escalante, we continued along scenic Highway 12 to Capitol Reef. We spent three partial days exploring the park but if you are short on time, one day in Capitol Reef is sufficient to hit the highlights.
I want to warn you, 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.
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 hikes.
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.
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 glimpse into the Native Americans and pioneers who lived in the 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 shouldn’t be missed.
What is unique about Capitol Reef National Park?
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. 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.
What to know before you go to Capitol Reef
The canyons in the Capitol Reef area are subject to flash floods from the summer monsoon rains so take the weather forecast seriously.
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.
Summer weather can get very hot but the sun can be intense even in shoulder season. 90 degrees was pretty miserable in early-June. Start the day early to avoid the hottest part of the day. Hike with a map, extra water and snacks, and sun protection.
There is no cellular service inside the park so plan ahead by downloading offline maps.
Highway 24 doesn’t require a fee and contains many of the key attractions in the park including Sunset and Panorama point, petroglyphs, and some hiking trails.
How much time do you need at Capitol Reef National Park?
If you do not plan to do any off-roading or backcountry trails, the park can be explored in one day. 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 Fishlake National Forest (40 miles) and Grand Staircase Escalante (50 miles).
One Day at Capitol Reef
If you only have one day at Capitol Reef, I would pack a cooler and plan for a full day. Recommended stops are:
Visitor Center to get your bearings
Fruit pie or cinnamon roll from Gifford House to kick off the day
Hike (either early or late to avoid midday sun)
Drive the Scenic Drive and Highway 24
Petroglyphs along Highway 24
Sunset at Sunset Point along Highway 24
Stay to see the stars in this dark sky certified park
If you have extra time, the Fruita picnic area is a great grassy area along the Fremont River to relax.
Also, check at the visitor center to see if the orchards are open for visitors. If so, pick some fruit to take home. Sadly, the drought in the year prior to our visit meant the orchard production was low and visitors weren’t allowed to pick fruit.
Drive the Scenic Drive at Capitol Reef
The Scenic Drive at Capitol Reef is a 7.9 miles paved road with two optional dirt spurs, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. Allow 1.5 hours for the drive including both dirt spurs.
Both dirt roads are generally accessible by passenger vehicles and RVs up to 27 feet. We drove both dirt spurs without any issues in our low clearance sedan. Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge are subject to closures from flash floods or snow.
The Gifford Homestead was originally settled in 1908 by polygamist Calvin Pendleton. The historic orchards still produce fruit and the Gifford House gift shop is well known for its pies and jams. They sell ice cream, homemade fruit pies, and cinnamon rolls.
Hours are limited to March through October and the Gifford House was completely closed on Sundays during our visit. When open, the cinnamon rolls sell out quickly. If you only have one day in Capitol Reef and don’t want to miss the pie, I would recommend going directly to Gifford House after leaving the visitor center.
Once you’ve secured the precious pie, save it for dessert after lunch or an afternoon snack. However, if you want to eat morning pie, you are among friends and no one will judge you. We were lucky enough to buy a strawberry rhubarb pie and cinnamon roll at Gifford House. I enjoyed the pie more than the cinnamon roll.
Animals at Capitol Reef
While visiting Capitol Reef we lost count of the deer we saw near the Fruita picnic area. A park ranger said they had become braver during the COVID closure and were getting too close to visitors. I experienced this first hand while sitting in my hammock in the Fruita picnic area.
I was reading and looked up to see they were grazing within 10 feet of me. My clapping and shouting did little to scare them away. They just jumped, stared at me for a few seconds, and went back to grazing.
I spent the same afternoon watching two marmots frolic nearby. This was my first time seeing a marmot. I think they look and act like beaver and prairie dog cross.
We also attended a ranger talk about mountain lions while at Capitol Reef. The ranger shared photos of mountain lions hidden among the rocks and most people were unable to see the lions until the ranger pointed them out. They are masters of disguise and we have likely been nearby without us even realizing it.
The lions can leap up to 15 feet vertically and can easily jump from high canyon ledges onto prey. Thankfully, we attended this talk after hiking Cohab Canyon or I would have been a lot more nervous walking in the canyon.
Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park
Hiking is a popular activity in Capitol Reef with over 15 day-use trails. If you have time during your visit, chose a hike or two to get your heart pumping while you explore. A few of the most popular easy to moderate hikes are:
Capitol Gorge to Pioneer Register and the Water Tanks, 2.5 miles, easy
Sulphur Creek Trail, 2.3 miles, easy
Cohab Canyon, 3.4 miles, moderate
Hickman Bridge, 1.8 miles, moderate
Cassidy Arch, 3.4 miles, strenuous
Hiking Tips for Capitol Reef
Summer weather can get very hot. 90s was pretty miserable in early-June.
Start early to avoid the hottest part of the day.
Hike with a map, extra water and snacks, and sun protection.
Capitol Gorge to Pioneer Register and the Water Tanks
On our first day, we drove the scenic drive and hiked Capitol Gorge to the Pioneer Register and the Water Tanks. This was an easy 1.5-mile walk in a dry gravel and sandy Fremont River bed.
Mormon pioneers signed their name and date on the canyon walls of the Pioneer Register as they passed through the gorge. Unfortunately people have since vandalized the area and it was difficult to pick the historic signatures from the modern graffiti.
The ‘water tanks’ or water folds were natural depressions in the stone that Native Americans used to collect rainwater during dry seasons. They required a fairly short, steep climb and were underwhelming puddles to me.
Sulphur Creek Trail in Capitol Reef
We spent the afternoon walking the Sulphur Creek trail behind the visitor center. This is a well-traveled riverside walk to a small waterfall and is not marked on any National Park guides.
The trail ran alongside the Fremont River but many people, including us, walked all or some of the path in the water rather than following the trail. It was a pretty walk with minimal effort and perfect to combine with another hike or a bike ride.
Cohab Canyon Trail in Capitol Reef
The weather was steadily heating up in Utah so we decided to start our next morning earlier to beat some of the heat. We hiked the 4-mile Cohab Canyon trail and planned to make our midway point the Gifford House for a pie break.
Fortunately, we realized the gift shop was closed on Sundays before we hiked down the 0.5mi of switchbacks to the Fruita valley. We disappointingly shared some almonds before making our way back to the trailhead. The famous pie would have to wait for another day. Thankfully the hike has some pretty epic viewpoints of the Fruita valley.
Hickman Bridge Trail
After lunch in the Fruita picnic area, we decided to hike to Hickman Bridge. The afternoon was heating up and we were thankful for our wide-brimmed hats and camelbacks full of water. We refilled our water at the Fruita picnic area while having lunch.
The two mile trail would have been easier on a cooler day but at 90 degrees it was a bit challenging.
The massive natural bridge at the end of the hike was impressive.
I also learned the difference between a natural bridge and an arch. Arches are caused by weathering usually a combination of wind and the freeze-thaw process over time. Bridges are caused by flowing water eroding into the stone over time.
Relax at Fruita
The forecast for the next day was in the high 90s so I spent my final day relaxing in the hammock at the shady Fruita picnic area. I was able to read a little and catch up on some blog writing while surrounded by deer.
The Fruita picnic area is a lush grassy area along the Fremont River and is a great place to relax in Capitol Reef. There were other visitors with blankets and books lounging in the shade. I also saw several families cooling off in the river. If you have more than one day in Capitol Reef, I’d definitely recommend a relaxing afternoon in Fruita.
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.
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
We only planned to stay a few days and chose to park on public land 15 minutes outside of Capitol Reef National Park. The camping area, Beas Lewis Flats, was a super dusty stone quarry area with limited accessibility large enough for Pippi.
We chose the spot due to 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 dust both inside and outside of Pippi.
Where to eat near Capitol Reef National Park
While at Capitol Reef National Park, we asked locals for recommendations of where to eat out. They recommended a burger food truck and a shake shack. Not the healthiest options but both were delicious.
Torrey was open for business with masks being requested. Most restaurants were open with socially distanced seating. This was a big change from our previous stop in Escalante which was very restricted.
Based on a local recommendation, we decided to have dinner at the Capitol Burgers food truck. We split a macaroni-and-cheese burger and cremini mushroom burger. They were both delicious burgers made with local Angus beef. I would recommend Capitol Burgers while in Torrey. However it’s a mobile food truck so you will need to look up their current location on the Capitol Burgers Facebook page.
After weeks of limited restaurant options, I wanted to make the most of our time in Torrey so we also went to Slackers for lunch later in the trip. 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. For the record, the small size milkshake is 16 ounces and delicious.
If I was only in Capitol Reef for one day, I’d have a Capitol Reef burger for dinner and a Slackers shake for dessert.
What is in Torrey Utah
After dinner at Capitol Burgers, we walked the main street in downtown Torrey Utah. There are a few motels, campgrounds, and tourist shops in Torrey but not many options for everyday shopping needs. The general store had limited groceries and personal care items available but I wouldn’t plan to shop in Torrey.
During a quick walk through the general store, we noticed the prices were higher than any others we had seen in Utah. We were especially shocked by a $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.
Biking Near Capitol Reef
Kevin explored the Pleasant Creek mountain bike trail on Saturday morning. The 19-mile trail starts in the Dixie National Forest which required a 20-minute drive up into the mountains. The temperature difference between the park and the cool mountain top was at least 20 degrees.
After dropping Kevin off at the trailhead, I drove the car about an hour back down into the park to meet him at the end of the trail on Pleasant Creek Road. On his ride, Kevin came across an injured cow. The cow had 3 legs stuck in a cattle guard. Kevin got close enough to see her ear tag information and he reported her location and condition to a park ranger.
He said the ride was mostly downhill with a few uphill challenges. Unfortunately, Kevin took a minor tumble and his bike incurred a little damage on a particularly rough section of road. He and the bike were only slightly scuffed up and in good condition for a mountain bike incident.
I am glad I skipped the full Pleasant Creek bike adventure. Instead, I rode a few easy miles on the maintained dirt road section of Pleasant Creek Road inside the park while I was waiting for Kevin.
Escape the Capitol Reef heat at nearby Fishlake National Forest
We left Torrey and Capitol Reef in the afternoon to escape the never-ending dust at our camp spot and the quickly rising temperatures.
We headed north to Fishlake National Forest and spent a majestic evening surrounded by aspens. The NFS Doctor Creek campground was 40 miles towards our next destination Spanish Fork, Utah, and was substantially cooler than Capitol Reef.
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.
After sweating in Torrey just an hour earlier, we needed sweatshirts in the higher elevation at Doctor Creek. Only 40 miles from the park, we were surprised by the drastic weather change.
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 experience Capitol Reef in one full day.