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 park only has one visitor center, located at the intersection of UT-24 and the Scenic Drive. If you’re flying into Utah, your best bet will be to fly into Salt Lake City and then rent a car to take into Capitol Reef. The park is accessible via the I-70 and the I-15.
Where to stay
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. It’s hard to make a bad choice when choosing a place to stay in this tiny town. Well-reviewed hotel choices include the Rim Rock Inn, the Broken Spur Inn, and the Capitol Reef Resort. The Cowboy Homestead Cabins is a great Cabin/ Campground option. The best bang for your buck can be located at the Capitol Reef Inn & Café; a no frills bed and breakfast with decent food on site.
If desired, Capitol Reef National Park also hosts several different campground options. If staying for only 24 hours, I’d recommend staying in the 71-site developed Fruita campground, located just south of the visitor center.
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.
How do you plan on spending your one day in Capitol Reef National Park?
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Chelsea Burge is a 24 year old educational specialist based in San Diego, California. Chelsea loves attending live music shows, going to the beach, reading, journaling, and testing out cool food spots. She loves integrating adventure of all shapes and sizes into her life, from sampling local coffee shops to trekking foreign countries. Since moving to California, Chelsea has particularly taken an interest in traveling to national parks. As an educator, Chelsea likes to take trips during school breaks. This past year, she ventured to Yosemite, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. She even went to Iguazu National park in Brazil and Argentina. To say the least, Chelsea Burge is #nationalparkobsessed!