With sandstone cliffs, white domes, arches, and slot canyons, Capitol Reef National Park is a rugged, extraordinary place to explore. This park preserves the Waterpocket Fold, a rippling of the Earth’s crust that is 100 miles long.
Not a big fan of hiking? One of the things that makes Capitol Reef so easy to visit is that you can see quite a bit of it right from your car. With a highway that runs through the center of the park and a scenic drive that tops the list of the best things to do, you can visit some of the most dramatic spots in Capitol Reef without ever stepping out of your car.
Of course, if you want to go hiking, there are lots of options. From easy, one-mile hikes to half day affairs, there is something here for everyone.
If you have one day or less to spend in Capitol Reef, here are the best things to do with your time.
8 Great Things to do in Capitol Reef
Highway 24 is the main road that passes through the park. This road twists and turns along the Fremont River. It’s a beautiful drive, with scenic pull-offs and parking lots with access to short hiking trails.
There is no fee to drive on Highway 24, so you can tour part of the park without paying an entrance fee. On this list, you can drive Highway 24, see the petroglyphs, hike to Hickman Bridge, and visit Panorama and Sunset Points without paying the entrance fee.
Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
One of the best things to do in the park is to drive the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. This paved road is 7.9 miles long (one way) and takes you past some of the most stunning scenery in the park.
To drive the Scenic Drive, you will have to pay a $20 fee. You will pay this at a self-pay station just past the Fruita Campground. The pass is valid for 7 days.
Grand Wash Trail and Cassidy Arch
While driving down Scenic Drive, you have the option to take the Grand Wash Spur (1.2 miles one way), a gravel road that travels through a long canyon. From the car park at the end of the road, you can hike to Cassidy Arch or hike the Grand Wash Trail.
Capitol Gorge Road and the Pioneer Register
The Scenic Drive dead-ends at Capitol Gorge Road. Capitol Gorge Road is a gravel road that travels 2.2 miles (one way) past enormous canyon walls and is one of the most stunning drives in the park.
Capitol Gorge Road ends at the trailhead for the Capitol Gorge Trail. This 2-mile trail (round-trip) is an easy hike through a narrow gorge. Carved onto the canyon walls is the Pioneer Register, the names of settlers and miners who traveled through this area in the late 1800’s.
This is one of the best short hikes to do in Capitol Reef. Walk along the Fremont River and then hike up to a spectacular viewpoint where you can look out over Highway 24 and Cohab Canyon. Before reaching Hickman Bridge, you descend down into a canyon and get to see a much smaller arch named Nels Johnson Natural Bridge. The trail ends at Hickman Bridge, a large, natural arch that is tucked away near the back of the canyon.
This hike is 1.8 miles round trip, is slightly strenuous, and takes about one hour. Park in the parking lot located on Highway 24. You can do this hike without paying the entrance fee.
See the Petroglyphs
You can see rock art figures (petroglyphs) created by ancient Native Americans on the drive along Highway 24. Park in the small parking lot on Highway 24 located between the Hickman Bridge trailhead and Fruita. It’s a very short walk to a viewpoint where you can see these figures carved onto the rock wall.
Panorama Point offers beautiful views over Highway 24 as it cuts its way through the park. This viewpoint is located just off Highway 24 and it is a quick, easy way to get a spectacular view of Capitol Reef Park.
Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook
From Panorama Point, continue down the gravel access road until it dead-ends at the parking lot for Goosenecks Overlook.
From the parking lot, it is just a short uphill walk to a viewpoint over the Goosenecks. This is where the Sulphur Creek carved out a canyon, its curving path resembling that of a gooseneck.
Walk back to the parking lot and then take the trail to Sunset Point. This is a short, fun trail to a gorgeous overlook in Capitol Reef (we liked Sunset Point more than the Gooseneck Overlook, but both are worth it).
This trail is 0.8 miles round trip and takes about a half an hour. Sunset Point gets its name because it is one of the best spots in Capitol Reef to watch the sunset.
How to Plan Your Time
Here is a sample itinerary if you have plans for a quick visit to Capitol Reef National Park. This works will if you are driving through the park on a road trip, for example, if you plan to visit Capitol Reef while driving from Bryce Canyon to Moab or Salt Lake City (or vice versa).
If you are coming from Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, or Salt Lake City, you will enter Capitol Reef from the west.
Drive into the park, visit Panorama Point, Goosenecks Overlook, and Sunset Point. From Fruita, turn right onto Scenic Drive, pay your park fee, and spend the next few hours on this scenic drive. Along the way, you have the option to take the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge spurs and go hiking. Once back on Highway 24, hike to Hickman Bridge. If your next destination is Moab (Arches and Canyonlands National Parks) or Goblin Valley, you will head east out of Capitol Reef.
If you enter Capitol Reef from the east, hike Hickman Bridge, drive the Scenic Drive, and end with Panorama and Sunset Point.
Driving Distances from Nearby Destinations
Here are the driving distances and times for nearby destinations in Utah.
- Moab: 144 miles, 2.5 hours
- Bryce Canyon National Park: 120 miles, 1.25 hours
- Zion National Park: 182 miles, 3.25 hours
- Goblin Valley State Park: 68 miles, 1.5 hours
- Salt Lake City: 225 miles, 3.5 hours
- Escalante: 75 miles, 1.75 hours
Know Before You Go
Best Time to Go to Capitol Reef: The spring and fall months are the best times to visit. Weather conditions are pleasant and you can avoid the larger crowds that arrive in the summer. During the summer months, expect soaring temperatures and large crowds (although Capitol Reef does not get the legendary crowds like Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion). During the winter months, the park is less crowded, but temperatures get below freezing and snow is likely. Snow can close the roads and make hiking more difficult. Check the status of the roads on the official National Park Service website.
Entrance Fees: It costs $20 per vehicle to drive the Scenic Drive and this is good for seven days. You can also purchase an annual National Parks pass (called the America the Beautiful Pass) for $80. With this pass you can visit over 2,000 federal recreation sites. This is worth it if you also plan to visit more of Utah’s Mighty 5, including Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, or any other US National Park or National Monument within the year.
Where to Stay near Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef Resort. This is the most luxurious (and the most interesting) place on this list. Located in Torrey, near the entrance to Capitol Reef, this property offers a wide variety of beautifully decorated rooms. You can even sleep in a teepee or a Conestoga Wagon.
Sunlit Oasis. Located in Notom (just 15 minutes from the park), this ranch-style house offers clean, quiet rooms. It’s located in a rural area, so if you want a quiet spot in the country, this is the place for you.
The Noor Hotel. This is a nice option if you are looking for a budget accommodation. Located in Torrey, this hotel offers rooms that can accommodate up to four people.
Canyon Country Lodge. This highly rated property offers large rooms that can accommodate up to four people. This lodge is located in Escalante, so this property works well if you are looking for a place to stay on the drive between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon or Grand Staircase-Escalante.
About Our Visit
We visited Capitol Reef National Park at the very end of December 2018 during the government shutdown. The park was open, however, a recent snowstorm closed Scenic Drive (which is why we do not have photos). We have plans to revisit the park, hopefully within the next year, not only to drive Scenic Drive but to also explore some of the backcountry.
Where to Go Next
Here are links to more of Utah’s Mighty 5, plus, links to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is located very close to Capitol Reef National Park.
- Utah’s Mighty 5: Travel Guide and Road Trip Itinerary
- 10 Days in the American Southwest: The Ultimate Road Trip
- 10 Great Hikes in Zion National Park. Which One Will Be Your Favorite?
- One Perfect Day in Canyonlands National Park
- 10 Best Things to do in Arches National Park
- One Perfect Day in Bryce Canyon National Park
- How to Hike Zebra Slot Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante
- A Photojourney through Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch
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