Capitol Reef National Park is the least visited national park in Utah but is just as beautiful as the other parks!. I like to think Capitol Reef is underrated and, in a sense, a hidden gem!
Driving around in Capitol Reef National Park was one of those experiences where you are constantly saying “WOW”. Everything is SO BIG in the park, so the drive is incredible! If you have a day to spare, I would highly recommend visiting this beautiful park!
Time needed to explore: Realistically, you don’t need a lot of time in Capitol Reef National Park, so I would recommend only allocating a day. Alex and I saw and did everything on our list, including a few hikes, in a day! However, if you plan on doing some off-roading, I would plan another day or two!
Where to stay: If you plan on spending a night near Capitol Reef, I would recommend staying in Torrey. It is a short drive from the park entrance and has a few hotel and Airbnb options. The grocery store is relatively small, but it is what you would expect in a small town! There are also a few good restaurant options, so you won’t starve!
Things to know before you go: Hiking is, in my opinion, necessary in Capitol Reef if you want to experience the park. Most of our favorite attractions in the park had to be hiked to, so I recommend giving yourself some time to hike. With that being said, these hikes, similar to other hikes in Southern Utah, do not have shade. You will be in direct sunlight for most of the hikes, so make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks with you!
Tips and Tricks: There are two things to know. 1. You only need to pay the park entrance fee if you want to drive and explore the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive (which I highly recommend). 2. Be prepared for any kind of weather. The weather in Capitol Reef can change instantly. At the beginning of our day in the park, it was a beautiful, 80° day with a cloudless sky. During one of our longer hikes, the wind picked up quickly and brought in rain clouds. We were heading down when they rolled in, so we were lucky! Everything happened so fast, and it suddenly down poured! Then it was back to a beautiful day! THEN the clouds rolled back in as we approached sunset, and it rained AGAIN. The changes happened so quickly, so be mindful of that when in Capitol Reef!
OH - And don’t forget to visit the Gifford House Store! They are known for their cinnamon buns!
Things to See:
1. Hickman Natural Bridge
Hickman Natural Bridge is one of the first attractions in Capitol Reef National Park. The bridge is 125 feet tall and 133 feet long, making it one of the largest spans of rock in Capitol Reef! The trailhead is east of the entrance, so you don’t have to pay to experience this beautiful trail.
With the trail being relatively easy and short, the hike to Hickman Bridge is one of the most popular hikes in Capitol Reef. With that being said, the parking lot is very small at the trailhead, so keep that in mind when planning your hike here. This isn’t a hike where people stay at the viewpoint for very long, so you should be able to find a spot, but you never know!
The hike to Hickman Bridge is a very easy 2-mile loop. The first part of the hike is where you gain the most elevation, but there are switchbacks, so it is gradual. Once you get past the switchbacks, the rest of the hike is relatively flat. You will know when you reached Hickman Bridge because it is HUGE and hard to miss. The trail goes under the bridge and loops you around back to the trail. Once you experience the epicness of the bridge and are hiking back to the car, make sure you take a pic of Capitol Dome (straight ahead once you are on the switchbacks) and Pectols Pyramid (across the street from the parking lot)!
2. Scenic Drive
The scenic drive in Capitol Reef is the only part of the park you have to pay to experience. The beautiful drive is 8 miles one way and provides plenty of things to see and hikes to do!
NOTE: Most of this drive is prone is flash flooding, so PLEASE make sure you do your research on the weather before you explore here.
The first part of the drive brings you through the historic Fruita. The pioneers created the settlement and fruit orchards in the late 1800s! There are a few historic features here, so if you can, make sure to take a few minutes and explore Fruita! This is also where the Gifford Homestead is. If you like cinnamon buns, Gifford House is for you! People RAVE about their baked goods. After you have some yummy treats, you can continue on the drive to get to some hiking spots!
The first pull off is the Grand Wash. This is a paved road that brings you to one of my favorite hikes in Capitol Reef! Cassidy Arch is a beautiful arch located high on a canyon. It is EPIC. I gave Cassidy Arch its own section in this post, so keep reading to learn all about that hike!
The rest of the drive doesn’t have too many hiking opportunities, however, the picture opportunities are endless. There is so much to see, so I would recommend taking your time driving down this beautiful road.
Capitol Gorge is at the very end of the scenic drive. This is NOT a paved road, so you need a 4x4 to explore this. The road used to lead to Capitol Gorge, however, the road now comes to an end and requires a short hike. The 2-mile road leads to the Capitol Gorge trailhead where you can hike 2 miles to the gorge! On the way to the gorge, the trail passes the Pioneer Register which has 150-year-old inscriptions made by Pioneers. Pretty cool! You then pass through Water Tanks which are natural water basins essential to the desert ecosystem. This is where the trail usually ends for most hikers making it 2 miles roundtrip. The trail does continue further into the canyon, if you are feeling adventurous, to the park boundary tacking on another 3 miles roundtrip.
There is another trail at the beginning of the Capitol Gorge trail called the Golden Throne Trail. The Golden Throne is a 7,000-foot sandstone dome that is an incredible sight, especially when it is in the sunlight! The 4-mile roundtrip trail is moderately difficult and gains over 700 feet of elevation. It’s a fun side hike if you have the time!
3. Cassidy Arch
The hike to Cassidy Arch is INCREDIBLE. It is hands down my favorite hike in Capitol Reef. It was our most difficult hike as well but very rewarding. The trailhead is at the end of Grand Wash which is a beautiful road bringing you through huge canyons. There is a viewpoint of Cassidy Arch along the road, and it will make it seem like the arch is super high. And… it is! BUT don’t let that deter you from hiking to it! I swear the hike is worth every step.
Cassidy Arch’s hike is 3.5 miles roundtrip and gains almost 700 feet of elevation. You gain the elevation along the entire trail, so it never becomes too steep, but it is a moderately difficult hike. Ascending the trail felt so much longer than it actually was. The heat does that to you, so lots of water is essential.
The trail is very easy to follow except when you approach Cassidy Arch. There were a few times when we knew where to go but didn’t know the best route to get there. The rock cairns are very helpful, so I would recommend keeping an eye out for them. The trail is also sort of… sketchy lol. I felt completely safe hiking it, however, there are a few points where the drop-off on one side is long. Just don’t look down lol!
As you approach the Arch, the hike runs along slabs of rock. If rain was in the forecast, I would NOT recommend hiking to Cassidy Arch. These rock slabs would be very slippery wet. The trail ends abruptly with no signage to the arch, but it is hard to miss! You can walk on the arch from the left. There is also an amazing view of the canyon if you follow the cliff to its end. It is a LONG DROP-OFF, so please be smart. I sound like a hovering parent, but I saw some people making risky moves up there and had slight anxiety watching them.
As Alex and I were enjoying the views at the top, we saw a massive storm approaching. And it was approaching FAST. The winds were picking up, so we made sure we had all of the pictures we wanted and then hustled our butts down the trail. We made it down the trail in a half-hour, and as we reached the bottom, we saw the storm completely changed directions, so we were safe. PHEW.
4. Goosenecks Overlook & Sunset Point
Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point are some of the last viewpoints in Capitol Reef National Park if driving from east to west. These viewpoints will not disappoint! They provide some of the best views overlooking canyons and only require short hikes.
Goosenecks Overlook is a short hike from the parking lot and provides a beautiful view of Sulphur Creek running through the canyon. I wouldn’t even consider this a hike. It is only 600 feet from the parking lot to the viewpoint and is very easy. For anyone who doesn’t like to hike, this is the spot for you! Beautiful views don’t always require a strenuous hike.
After you finished admiring the multi-colored layers of Goosenecks Overlook, head back to the parking and continue to the right to Sunset Point’s trailhead. If you are looking for “the spot” for sunset, here it is! Sunset Point is what its name says it is!.
From the parking lot, it is a short, 0.3-mile hike to the overlook. It is very easy to get to, so I highly recommend hiking to it if you are here! And the view is breathtaking! It features views of the Waterpocket Fold, which is a known feature of Capitol Reef National Park, and Sulphur Creek Gorge. This is the perfect spot to end your day at and watch the golden light shine on this beautiful view. There is plenty of space at the lookout, so even on a crowded day, a peaceful spot can easily be found.
5. Cathedral Valley Road
Cathedral Valley Road is the one place Alex and I wanted to venture to but didn’t have the time or a 4x4 to do so. This road is in a remote part of Capitol Reef National Park and connects to High 24 in Caineville. I would recommend taking an entire day if not more to explore this road since it is 60 miles long!
There is plenty to see and do along Cathedral Valley Road with the most well-known features being Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. If you only want to see these beauties, you only have to drive 15 miles via Caineville Road. The Temples are monoliths and are pretty epic because they stand alone in the valley. If you want to experience them in their prime, sunrise is the best time to see them. We have seen incredibly beautiful pictures of them during sunrise. It is well worth the early wake-up call!
If you have the time and a 4x4, I would highly recommend driving through Cathedral Valley. Because it is so remote and the road so long, we have heard it is a very peaceful and rewarding experience!
Have you been to Capitol Reef National Park? If so, did you get to go off-roading? Leave some tips for us in the comments below! We are definitely going to off-road here when we revisit the park in the future!
Make sure to check out my post for Bryce Canyon National Park, too!