Perhaps the most underrated of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, Capitol Reef is a true hidden gem filled with unique buttes, jumbled rocks, and canyons. Located 226 miles from Salt Lake City, 123 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, and 154 miles from Canyonlands National Park, it’s a perfect side trip from the I-15, or a very special stop while touring Utah’s fantastic nature. Although spending 3-4 days in the park is preferred, here’s what you should see if you’ve only got one day in Capitol Reef National Park!
About Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park was named after two distinct landforms found within its diverse terrain. The park’s first showpiece is its Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long buckle in the earth’s crust, which historically blocked westward explorers as a reef blocks a ship from continuing passage. The park is secondly named for its gargantuan domes, with one, in particular, echoing Washington, DC’s Capitol Dome. Visitors flock to Capitol Reef for its superb hiking trails, 4WD roads, petroglyph panels, and the orchards and Gifford House found in the village of Fruita (pronounced “Froo-tuh”).
If visiting the park for just one day, utilize the town of Torrey neighboring to the west of Capitol Reef as a home base. Here, you’ll be able to access food, gas, and other amenities and services prior to and after your park visit.
Starting from Torrey, you’ll be able to follow Highway 24 into the Fruita Rural Historic District, a remarkable Mormon settlement that commenced in the 1870’s as a site for religious refuge. You’ll also have easy access to the Scenic Drive which ventures south of the visitor’s center. Between these two roads, you’ll have plenty to see and enjoy during your one-day trip to Capitol Reef National Park!
Getting to Capitol Reef National Park
The closest airport to Capitol Reef is Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), located just over three and a half hours away from the park entrance. If you are road triping thru several of the nearby Utah, Colorado, Nevada or Arizona National Parks, airport options include Las Vegas (LAS), Denver (DIA) and Phoenix (PHX). The park only has one visitor center, located at the intersection of UT-24 and the Scenic Drive. The park is accessible via the I-70 and the I-15.
Estimated Drive time to Capitol Reef National Park
- Salt Lake City, Utah – 3.5 hours
- Las Vegas, Nevada – 5.25 hours
- Denver, Colorado – 7 hours
- Phoenix, Arizona – 8.25 hours
Capitol Reef can be reached by public transportation but options are limited.
Currently, there is no public transportation within Capitol Reef National Park.
Best Guided Day Tours in Capitol Reef National Park
If you want to make your trip to Capitol Reef as easy and simple as possible, check out these amazing Capitol Reef Day Trips:
How many days in Capitol Reef National Park
How long do you have? Honestly, there is no right answer to this question. Capitol Reef is a hiker’s paradise. As it is the overlooked national park of Utah’s Mighty Five, it has the smallest crowds and has the best chances to get into the backcountry and hike without having to see lots of other people. If it’s your first visit or that all you have time for, one day is plenty of time to get a highlights tour and do some scouting for your next trip to the park.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you HAVE to spend a specific amount of time in Capitol Reef. Ideally, I would spend at least 3-4 days in the park on every visit but that is not always possible. A day trip to Joshua Tree can be a perfect way to enjoy the area. Make the most of the time you have.
Best time of year to visit Capitol Reef National Park
While Capitol Reef National Park can be visited at any time of the year, the temperatures are the most comfortable from April to May and September to October. The park is busiest during the summer but that being said. Busy is relative. Capitol Reef sees about a quarter of the visitors of Zion National Park.
Spring and fall bring mild days and cool nights. The temperatures are comfortable and the crowds are down.
During the spring and early summer, the fruit trees start to bloom. Late summer and fall are perfect for those who want to harvest fruit in the historic orchards.
Where to stay in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef has three campgrounds. One is developed and two are primitive campgrounds. There are limited camping options beyond the park.
Torrey is the primary outpost for visiting Capitol Reef National Park. Though sparsely populated, Torrey has several inns and resorts to offer accommodations fit for anyone’s needs.
- Capitol Reef Resort: A upscale resort with a range of rooms from cabins to teepees to Conestoga wagons. Highest Rated on TripAdvisor. Book Now.
- Broken Sput Inn: A western-themed hotel with modern rooms. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
- Austin’s Chuckwagon Lodge and General Store: A tranquil hotel with a sun terrace. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
What to pack for a day in Capitol Reef National Park?
- America the Beautiful National Parks Pass: Capitol Reef National Park costs $10 for a 7-day pass. If you intend to visit more than 3 National Park Services sites in a year, the American the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself.
- Water bottle or bladder: No matter how much or how little you are hiking in Capitol Reef. You need to be carrying water with you. For short hikes, a liter water bottle should be perfectly fine. I prefer the Nalgene bottle because they are lightweight. If you would like to keep your water cooler, the Hydro-Flask would be perfect. For longer hikes, I recommend a 3-liter hydration reservoir.
- Water Storage: There is no water in Capitol Reef National Park once you leave the visitor center. You should plan on carrying a gallon of water per person per day. Personally, I keep a 5.3-gallon folding water cube in my car for extra water. I keep it so I have extra water plus enough to help someone out if I come across someone in serious trouble. Be sure to cover the water cube with a towel or shirt when leaving it in the car. Sunlight reflecting thru the container has the ability to start fires.
- Snacks: There are no services in the park. So pick up all your snacks before you go. Pack a couple of different options so you are prepared for any craving.
- Fruit: Pick hard fruits such as apples or pears. These hold-up in the heat and in packs without getting squished to mush. Another option is freeze-dried fruit. Freeze-dried strawberries are the BOMB. They are crunchy, sweet and the best part is they are lightweight and yummy. These are my new favorite trail snack.
- Vegetables: Cucumbers and carrots hold up well during hiking and in a hot car.
- Granola Bars: Take your favorite non-coated in chocolate granola bars. Anything coated in chocolate will melt and be a sticky mess. My favorite is a selection of Cliff Bars. They are great even when squished.
- Cooler: If you want to keep anything in your car remotely cool, bring a heavy-duty cooler with you. Put a bit of ice and a snack and a drink in the cooler and it will at least be not burning hot when you get back from your hike.
- Sunscreen: Be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen, the sun can be brutal and protecting your skin is important.
- Sunglasses: Similar to sunscreen, you need a good pair of polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare of the sun.
- Hat: A good sun hat can double you sun protection on your face and neck. I would recommend a wide brim safari style hat. For added protection, I would go with sun hat with a cape.
- First Aid Kit: As with any outdoor adventure, accidents happen. It is better to be prepared and have a compact first-aid kit ready to help with any accidents.
- Flashlight: A flashlight is always nice to keep on hand for spontaneous sunrise or sunset hikes. I keep one in my day pack just in case I get distracted and stay out longer and later than planned. Here is a great all-weather flashlight.
- Day Pack: A good day pack can carry all your snacks, water, and other gear while exploring Capitol Reef National Park. I have had great use out of the REI brand day packs.
- Sturdy Hiking Shoes: Hiking in Capitol Reef requires sturdy sturdy pair of hiking boots. The trails are rough and rocky.
- National Park Obsessed T-Shirt: Get your National Park Obsessed “Leave It Better Than You Found It” Shirt to celebrate your trip to Capitol Reef and support our National Parks.
24 hours in Capitol Reef National Park
- Hike Hickman Bridge Trail
- Viewing of Panorama Point and Gooseneck Overlook
- Pick Fruit in Fruita Orchard
- Eat Pie at Gifford Homestead
- Scenic Drive
- View the Fremont Petroglyphs
Take a hike on the Hickman Bridge Trail. The Hickman Bridge Trail (my personal favorite) is a 1.7 “moderate” out and back trail located off the UT-24. It features a series of wiggles and structured inclines, beautiful wildflowers, and views of the Capitol Dome, Fremont River, and Pectols Pyramid. The Hickman Natural Bridge is, of course, the highlight, at 133 feet long and 125 feet high. The feature is named after Joseph Hickman, who was a Utah legislator and early advocate for protecting the lands of Capitol Reef. This trail provides little shade, so beware of the hot sun and prepare accordingly!
View spectacular vistas from Panorama Point and Gooseneck Overlook. Located two miles west of the visitor’s center, these overlooks are quick and rewarding stops. In geological terms, a “gooseneck” refers to sinuous canyons and valleys resembling the S-shape of a goose’s neck. Here, the dried Sulphur Creek curves dramatically along the canyons, and exposed rock layers by erosion.
Pick fresh fruit straight from the orchards of Fruita. This park is highly unique as it hosts 2700 cherry, apricot, apple, peach, and pear trees! If visiting between the months of June and October, travelers may eat whatever fruit they pick inside any unlocked orchards. Baskets can also be brought away from the orchards for $1 per pound.
Have a picnic! The easiest spots for a picnic area near the visitor center or next to the Gifford Homestead. The picnic area near the visitor center provides tables, fire grills, restrooms, and water access.
Snack on some pie at the historic Gifford Homestead. Famous for its fresh fruit pies, this homestead museum also sells ice cream, artisan jams and bread, coffee, and other treats. I personally would recommend their strawberry rhubarb pie topped with vanilla ice cream! It’s best eaten right outside at the picnic table area.
Take the Scenic Drive. Spend about 90 minutes taking in the spectacular views found on Capitol Reef National Park’s Scenic Drive. Beginning at the visitor’s center, it’s a 7.9-mile paved road that includes dirt spur loop roads into the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge areas.
Marvel at the ancient stories told by the Fremont Petroglyphs. A quick stop off the UT-24, the petroglyphs left by the “Fremont people” (ancestors of the Hopi tribe) are worth a gander. Following a boardwalk toward the base of a high cliff leads visitors to see petroglyphs.
Add on Activities
Take a jeep tour or horseback riding tour through Utah’s backcountry: This could be a fun and convenient way to view Cathedral Valley (which otherwise requires 4WD and involves crossing a river), or the more intricate parts of the park that are not accessible by car. Hondoo Rivers and Trails (located in Torrey) have several different trips and time-length options available.
Give canyoneering a shot. Cassidy Arch, one of the park’s most popular hikes, involves canyoneering that may not be recommended to beginners. If you’re new to the daredevil lifestyle, go out on a day tour with Redrock Adventure Guides (located in Torrey). The guides employed here will help you feel secure and confortable while canyoneering through slot canyons.