How to Make the Most of One Day in Capitol Reef National Park
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Over my years of traveling through the National Parks across the American West, I’ve developed a soft spot for the underrated ones – the ones most people overlook or skip for the ones they consider “grander” or more well-known. This includes parks like Olympic in Washington, Pinnacles in California, Great Basin in Nevada, and most recently, Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. Each of these parks offers (and all of them, really!) something special and is worthy of a visit – even if you only have one day as part of a road trip or other adventure.
I visited Capitol Reef during our cross-country move from California to Ohio. At first, my husband (Mr. V) wasn’t sure why we needed to add an extra day to our itinerary for this National Park – it’s the most remote of Utah’s Mighty 5 and was a detour from the most direct route. But after spending one day in Capitol Reef, he (and I) understood why this amazing place is worthy of National Park status – and a visit.
Capitol Reef National Park protects an incredible geologic feature, the Waterpocket Fold. This is a wrinkle in the earth’s crust, and one of the best-preserved examples of such formations on the entire planet. The Waterpocket Fold is home to awesome rock formations: canyons, domes, arches, rock bridges, and more – it’s great for those who love the great outdoors, and those who just love epic natural views.
In this post, I’ll cover how to spend one day in Capitol Reef National Park, based on our experience. No matter what brings you to this park in the heart of Utah, you’ll learn how to maximize your time, which hike(s) to make and stops to visit – and I’m confident you too will come back from your visit singing its praises.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Planning Your Visit to Capitol Reef National Park
Before jumping into my suggestions for how to spend your one day in Capitol Reef, I want to cover a few standard logistical details it’s important to know while planning your visit.
Driving & Parking in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is the second-least visited National Park in Utah; Canyonlands actually receives fewer visitors despite being close to Arches and Moab. While it doesn’t receive as many visitors as more popular Utah parks like Zion (3.6 million in 2020), Bryce Canyon (1.4m), and Arches (1.2m), Capitol Reef still receives almost a million visitors per year on average. Unlike those more-visited parks, Capitol Reef seems to handle the crowds it receives well, and there’s no shuttle system.
Instead, you’ll be able to drive your own vehicle and park in designated parking areas throughout Capitol Reef National Park. Of course, summer weekends are the most popular time to visit Capitol Reef, so arrive early if you’re planning a visit for that time. Otherwise, you should have no issues driving and parking in the park.
In terms of road quality, Utah Highway 24 (UT-24) and Scenic Drive are both fully paved. There are dirt roads you might choose to drive, such as into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge; these don’t require high clearance. Roads in other parts of the park (such as the Cathedral District) may require high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Capitol Reef National Park Entrance Fees
As part of the National Park system, Capitol Reef operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are you options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee is $20.
- You can walk into the park for $10 per person.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Capitol Reef NPS website.
Camping in & Hotels near Capitol Reef National Park
Even though you only have one day in Capitol Reef National Park, you’ll still need a place to stay the night before and night of your visit. Luckily there are options, including a nearby community with hotels and other accommodation to choose from.
The primary campground in Capitol Reef is the Fruita Campground. This is a 71-site campground open year-round, but reservations are available (and recommended) from March 1 to October 31 each year. It’s $20 per night to camp at the Fruita Campground.
There are no hotels outside the park, but there are plenty of options in nearby Torrey, Utah. On our visit, Mr. V and I stayed at the Rim Rock Inn, but here’s a list of options:
- The Rim Rock Inn is one of the properties closest to the park boundary. Our room was spartan but sufficient for a short stay; they have gorgeous cabins I’d love to stay in someday. Rooms start from $109 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- I found the Red Sands Hotel during early research but they were booked during our stay. The rooms and property are luxurious for the Torrey area without adding too much to the nightly cost. Rooms start from $130 per night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- The Capitol Reef Resort is the splurge-worthy option; they have a ton of different room classes including canvas wagons you can book during the summer months! Rooms start from around $289 per night; book on Booking.com.
You can also browse all of the other hotels on Hotels.com. Also, whether you stay at the Rim Rock Inn or not, I recommend dinner at their restaurant – the mole turkey was the most incredible mole sauce I’ve ever had!
What to Do in Capitol Reef National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
Before jumping into the details, it helps to have an overview of what I recommend for how to spend your one day in Capitol Reef:
- Watch sunrise from any of several great spots in the park
- Head to the Visitor Center to get oriented before grabbing breakfast and heading out on a hike
- Have a picnic lunch in Fruita
- Drive Scenic Drive
- Admire the petroglyphs and rock formations
- Stay for sunset and stargazing
Okay, let’s dig in a bit more and you’ll see why I recommend each of these activities to make the most of your day.
The main thing to understand about Capitol Reef is that the majority of the beautiful rock formations along the Waterpocket Fold can be seen looking east. That means that it’s a better spot for watching sunset than sunrise. That said, there are a number of great spots to watch sunrise:
- If you’re arriving from the west (like Torrey), Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook along UT-24 are both great options.
- From near the Visitor Center, you can get a great view of the Castle formation lighting up in the morning sun.
- If you’re willing to drive further into the park, Grand Wash (an unpaved road off Scenic Drive) is another fantastic spot for watching the sun light up the rocks.
- If you’re arriving from the east, you could choose to do sunrise at Goblin Valley State Park (about an hour away from the park) or admire the sunlight rising on Factory Butte (east of the park) or Capitol Dome (in the park) along UT-24.
Don’t forget that dawn begins about an hour before sunrise, and you want to arrive early for the full experience. So be sure to understand the travel time from where you’re staying (east or west outside the park, or at the campground) and plan accordingly.
Head to the Visitor Center
Once the sun is up, it’s time to start the day! Depending on which season you visit Capitol Reef, the Visitor Center may open at either 8am (summer) or 9am (winter). This means you may have some time to hang out before heading there.
I always love stopping at National Park Visitor Centers to learn more about the park and what makes it special – and to visit the gift shop and grab a postcard to stamp. (I explain more about this habit in my National Park gift guide.) Unfortunately during my visit they were out of my favorite postcard design when I visited Capitol Reef, so I’m going to have to order one online.
Grab Breakfast at the Gifford Homestead
After the visitor center, head down Scenic Drive for a quick pit stop before getting out to explore the park. The Gifford Homestead is one of the main buildings remaining in the Fruita Rural Historical District, where Mormon pioneers once called this verdant valley home.
The Gifford Homestead is known for their fruit pastries and products, specifically cinnamon rolls and pies (they also have jams and other such sweets too). So before you head out on a hike, swing by the Gifford House and grab a cinnamon roll to chow down first. The cinnamon rolls are especially popular and sell out early each day – so they probably won’t be around after hiking in the morning. (If you miss out on the cinnamon rolls or don’t want to start the day with that much sugar, swing by later to grab a small pie to enjoy with your picnic lunch.)
Now it’s time to get out and explore the Waterpocket Fold! The best way to do this is on foot – so strap on your hiking boots and get out there. I break down several hikes below, but it helps to know there are 15 hikes that are considered “day hikes” in Capitol Reef, ranging from 0.8 to 9.4 miles and easy to strenuous.
For a morning hike, I recommend one of the following:
- Hickman Bridge, a 1.8-mile out-and-back moderate hike to a natural stone bridge (1-1.5 hours)
- Cohab Canyon, a 3.4-mile out-and-back moderate hike through one of the deep canyon fissures in the Waterpocket Fold (2-3 hours)
- Grand Wash, a 4.4-mile out-and-back easy canyon hike (1-2 hours)
- Cassidy Arch, a 3.4-mile out-and-back strenuous hike to a rock arch (2-3 hours)
As you can see, the hikes in Capitol Reef have a huge range – there are short, easy hikes and long, easy hikes… but also shorter moderate and strenuous hikes (and longer moderate and strenuous hikes that probably won’t fit if you only have one day in Capitol Reef).
Trivia/Note: There are old uranium mines in Capitol Reef National Park. If you come across an exposed mine shaft, do not enter! Report it to a ranger at your earliest convenience.
Picnic in Fruita
Once you’ve worked up an appetite on one of those Capitol Reef hikes, it’s time for lunch. I recommend planning ahead to bring a picnic lunch; there aren’t any restaurant options in the park. (I suppose you could just feast on pies from the Gifford Homestead though, if you didn’t bring anything!)
There’s a picnic area in the Fruita part of the park with picnic tables; there are also a few more tables near Gifford Homestead too – this is where Mr. V and I had lunch.
Drive Scenic Drive
After lunch, it might be getting quite hot, so I recommend staying out of the heat and sun unless you’re planning a full day hike. (More on those options below!)
Scenic Drive is an 8-mile (one-way) drive from the intersection with UT-24 to Capitol Gorge. It’s a gorgeous stretch that follows the landscape along the western edge of the Waterpocket Fold – and every new turn shows another stunning view of the rock formations.
The speed limit is low (25mph, if memory serves) so it takes almost an hour to drive the whole stretch. But don’t be surprised if you want to turn off and explore a bit: you can turn and take a dirt road into both Grand Wash (for hikes like Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch) and Capitol Gorge (for hikes like Capitol Gorge and Golden Throne). There are also just tons of photo opportunities that will slow you down (in the best way!).
Admire the Petroglyphs
Before heading out of the park at the end of the day, there’s one more stop worth making: the Petroglyph Panel located along UT-24. This small parking area leads to a boardwalk where you can walk along the sheer face of the Waterpocket Fold and try to spot petroglyphs left by the ancestral Hisatsinom/Wee Noonts people who called this area home long before Mormon settlers or modern visitors.
We noticed several panels so faint that others walked right by; you’ll see human figures, a number of animals, and a variety of patterns in the petroglyphs that serve as an indelible reminder of the long-standing beauty of this place.
Note: It should go without saying, but modern petroglyphs – aka graffiti or defacing the rock – is unacceptable and can result in fines or legal action if you’re caught.
By this point, it’s possible you’ll be perfectly timed for sunset; you may need to kill some time depending on when you visit. You have two options for any extra time in the daily schedule: head out on another short hike – such as Hickman Bridge, which I highly recommend – or drive the short distance to Torrey before returning to the park for sunset.
In terms of where to watch the sunset, there’s one point I recommend: Sunset Point. Yep – that’s what it’s called! This parking and view area is located west of Fruita along UT-24 and will allow you to watch the sun turn the red rocks of the Waterpocket Fold into a fiery display before the sun goes down completely.
After sunset, there’s one more activity I have to recommend: stargazing! Capital Reef National Park is certified Dark Sky Park (since 2015) and home to stunning spots for stargazing. You can stay near Sunset Point if you choose, or head back into the park. The campground in Fruita is another good spot for stargazing, and where the National Park Service hosts occasional astronomy talks and events at the amphitheater.
Perfect Capitol Reef National Park Trails for a Day Hike
When I write these series on making the most of one day in a National Park, I don’t always include a section on day hikes. However, as that’s a primary activity for Capitol Reef National Park and there are tons of great day hikes, it seems like it’s worth it to have an extra section about hiking in Capitol Reef! Here are some of the day hikes I recommend:
- Distance: 0.2 miles (total out-and-back)
- Effort: Easy
If you are definitely not a hiker, it’s at least worth getting out of the car for Goosenecks Overlook trail, which is a pretty easy trail up over a small ridge (<50 feet in elevation change) to get a look at the canyon below. There are steps and slopes involved, as well as some unevenness in the terrain, but it’s definitely a short, easy hike.
- Distance: 2.0 miles (total out-and-back)
- Effort: Easy
Located at the end of Scenic Drive, Capitol Gorge is a good easy hike to stretch your legs. The two-mile hike is relatively flat and gives you great views from the canyon floor, as well as historic inscriptions from visitors long ago. If you want to work a little extra, a short climb at the end takes you up to the “waterpockets” this formation is named after (pictured above).
- Distance: 4.4 miles (total out-and-back)
- Effort: Easy
I didn’t think it was possible, but Grand Wash qualifies as the rare combination of a “long” and “easy” hike. It’s 4.4 miles total, but covers mostly flat ground as you work your way up the canyon. Note that this canyon/wash is subject to flash floods, so you should avoid it if rain is in the forecast.
- Distance: 1.8 miles (total out-and-back)
- Effort: Moderate
Hickman Bridge is probably Capitol Reef’s most popular and well-known hike. It’s the perfect combination of exertion and distance with the payoff of a huge rock bridge at the turn-around point. Mr. V and I did this hike on the afternoon of our visit and really enjoyed it.
- Distance: 3.4 miles (total out-and-back)
- Effort: Moderate
If you want a canyon hike that requires more work but better views than Capitol Gorge or Grand Wash, Cohob Canyon is your best bet. This hike works its way up the canyon with occasional panoramic views of the surrounding area, as well as hidden spur canyons and plenty of rock formations to admire.
- Distance: 3.4 miles (total out-and-back)
- Effort: Strenuous
Cassidy Arch is the last day hike I’ll mention as it moves into the “strenuous” category and is really best for those who love hiking and are in shape for this one. While the same distance as Cohob Canyon, it has almost 50% more elevation gain, so be prepared for the uphill on the way to the arch and downhill on return. If you’re still sold, get excited: Cassidy Arch is a gorgeous formation to reach and the effort involved culls down the crowds.
Longer, More Strenuous Hikes
There are other hikes that may sound interesting, if you’re really into hiking or want to spend most of your day on the trails:
- Golden Throne – This is a 4-mile hike that gives you epic views of Capitol Gorge and the Golden Throne formation. It’s located at the end of Scenic Drive and sets out from the same parking area as Capitol Gorge.
- Rim Overlook – As the name suggests, this hike gets you up high enough to admire the Waterpocket Fold from above. It’s a 4.6-mile hike in total with over 1100 feet in elevation change – so be prepared for that!
- Navajo Knobs – The longest hike I think you can do in a single day, this 9.4-mile hike is a continuation of the Rim Overlook trail and has 360-degree views of the Waterpocket Fold thanks to the 1620 ft of elevation change you’ll endure.
Obviously if you choose one of these hikes, you’ll need to forego other activities I recommended for your one day in Capitol Reef National Park – or just add on an extra day!
Now that you know how to visit the park, what to do, and which hike(s) you’ll make, you’re all set for a perfect day in Capitol Reef National Park. If you have other questions about visiting Capitol Reef National Park, let me know in the comments!