Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles.
About Capitol Reef National Park
Even considering Utah’s many impressive national parks and monuments, it is difficult to rival Capitol Reef National Park’s sense of expansiveness, of broad, sweeping vistas, of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless landscape, or of limitless sky and desert rock. While Bryce and Zion are like encapsulated little fantasy lands of coloured stone and soaring cliffs, the less-visited Capitol Reef is almost like a planet unto itself. Here you get a real feel for what the earth might have been like before life appeared when nothing existed but earth and sky.
You’ll experience a combination of mountain and desert climates. From May–October, expect dry, warm weather in the 70°– 80°F range, and significant nighttime dips down to the 40°s. November–March is the coldest time, with daytime temperatures peaking under 50°F in November, 39°F in January and freezing overnight. We visited the Park between Christmas and New Year. There had been some snow so it was beautiful to see the red rocks contrasted with the white snow. It was chilly at night and in the mornings but it was pleasant during the daytime especially when we were hiking.
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Utah’s Scenic Byway SR-24 through Capitol Reef National Park
Scenic Byway 24 runs east and west between Loa and Hanksville, Utah. This incredibly scenic 75-mile drive winds between the Fishlake and Dixie National Forests, through Capitol Reef National Park, between the San Rafael Swell and the Henry Mountains and near the canyons of the Dirty Devil river basin.
As the park runs through Capitol Reef National Park there are a few places we recommended stopping to take a look or a hike. The sequence below starts driving west to east along SR-24.
- Chimney Rock
- Castle Rock Formation
- Visitor Centre
- The Petroglyph Trail
- Fruita Schoolhouse
- Hickman Natural Bridge Trail
- Grand Wash Hiking Trail
1. Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock, an impressive pinnacle of Moenkopi Shale that rises from the desert.
There is a 3-mile loop trail that starts in the parking lot at Chimney Rock. The first part of the trail is moderately difficult, with switchbacks that carry you up on to the mesa. After that, the going is a lot easier. It will take about 2-hours to complete this loop trail.
2. Castle Rock Formation
Everyone who drives through Capitol Reef National Park sees the Castle. Many of those people stop to photograph it. From a number of different points, the Castle is impossible to ignore, but it is perhaps most impressive when seen from the park’s visitor center, where it rises directly across the road, towering over cottonwoods and the bends of the Fremont River. It is not the largest or the highest of Capitol Reef’s formations, but it is one of the most recognizable and arguably the most spectacular.
It is worth pulling over in one of the many lay-bys and gawp at the Castle in all its glory.
3. Visitor Centre
Chimney Rock, an impressive pinnacle of Moenkopi Shale that rises from the desert.
There is a 3-mile loop trail that starts in the parking lot at Chimney Rock. The first part of the trail is
Just east of the Visitor Centre on SR-24 is the Petroglyph trail. It has a small parking lot that will become full in the busy season.
This boardwalk trail passes through a scenic grove of cottonwood trees while offering a close-up view of ancient petroglyphs. The boardwalk is level and suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. The trail is suitable for children and adults of all ages and skill levels.
Along, the trail there are plenty of petroglyphs to see. Many are very clear, but if you pay attention and spend some time you will be rewarded with seeing many more that are higher up on the cliff face or simply more faint.
5. Fruita Schoolhouse
In 1880 a group of Mormons decided to settle in what is now Capitol Reef National Park. They named their community Junction, which later became Fruita around 1902 due to the success of its large orchards. Fruita was abandoned in 1955 when the National Park Service purchased the town to be included in Capitol Reef National Park.
The one-room schoolhouse was built and opened in 1896. The few students were instructed mainly in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but when the teachers were capable, they also studied other subjects such as history or geography. The room was also used for balls and religious services. It was renovated in 1966 by the National Park Service and is open to visitors.
6. Hickman Natural Bridge Trail
Capitol Reef National Park is home to 20 plus natural arches. One of the most accessible of these is Hickman Natural Bridge. The parking lot for the trailhead to Hickman is right off of SR-24. The lot is quite small, and even when we were there in the winter is was busy. The ease of reaching this natural arch makes this one of the busiest trails in the Park! I can only imagine what this is like in high season.
The trail is only a 1.8 in and out journey. The first short section is flat and follows the river. Soon, you will start to climb up towards the canyon rim. This is quite steep and uneven in places. We were here in the winter and the trail was quite icy in places – so if you visit this time of year we would recommend good hiking shoes and traction grips. Once on the rim the rest of the way is flat with some spectacular views. Before you know it you are at Hickman Natural Bridge – it is not the most spectacular arch in Utah’s National Parks but you get to walk right under it. It is well worth the hike in and out.
7. Grand Wash Hiking Trail
Another great hiking option is the Grand Wash Hiking Trail, the parking lot for which is just off SR-24. This famous gorge cuts its way through the upper portion of the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park. The wash connects the Scenic Road as it heads south past Cassidy Arch, to Highway 24 just east of Spring Canyon. The wash is level throughout almost the entire route, though it is full of streambed sediment. Only at the narrow does the trail close in and get tight.
It was very much winter when we trekked the trail and there was a light covering of snow. Luckily, the wash is flat so the snow and ice were no issue.
The bad thing about winter is the days are short, so it gets dark quickly. We didn’t manage to get to the end of the trail before having to turn back. Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun, and empty of most hikers.
A scenic drive through Capitol Reef National Park
The Scenic Drive is a 7.9 mile (12.7 km) paved road, suitable for passenger vehicles. Allot about an hour and half roundtrip to drive the Scenic Drive and the two dirt spur roads, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. These dirt spur roads enter canyons and lead to trailheads, and are usually suitable for passenger cars and RVs up to 27 feet in length. The Scenic Drive, Grand Wash, and Capitol Gorge roads can be closed due to snow, ice, mud, and flash floods. When we visited in December the Scenic Drive was closed due to snow and ice.
Along the Scenic Drive, there are plenty of places to pull over and admire the spectacular formations and learn more about the history of the area. Some of the highlights are:
- The Gifford House
- The Grand Wash & Cassidy Arch
- Capitol Gorge
1. The Gifford Homestead
The National Park Service has renovated and refurnished the Gifford farmhouse as a cultural demonstration site to interpret the early Mormon settlement of the Fruita valley. The house depicts the typical spartan nature of rural Utah farm homes of the early 1900s. In addition to the farmhouse, the Gifford homestead includes a barn, smokehouse, garden, pasture, and rock walls.
The Gifford Homestead is located 1 mile (1.6 km) south of the visitor centre along The Scenic Drive. The Gifford House is open from March 14 (Pi Day) to October 31
2. The Grand Wash & Cassidy Arch
From the paved scenic drive, a twisting dirt spur road takes visitors into Grand Wash. The spur ends after a mile but hikers can follow a marked trail farther, into the most spectacular part of the wash. Along the trail, you will see Cassidy Arch, a photogenic natural arch on the canyon’s north wall. The arch was named for the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy, who is thought to have hidden in Grand Wash on more than one occasion.
The trail goes for 2.25 miles into Grand Wash. It ends at SR-24. You hike out the way you came in, for a total of 4.5 miles.
The Cassidy Arch trail climbs steeply from Grand Wash to cliffs above the arch, providing dramatic views. That hike is 3.5 miles (round trip) and is considered strenuous.
3. Capitol Gorge
The end of the paved road marks the official end of the Scenic Drive, but an unpaved spur continues for two miles and provides access into Capitol Gorge.
Until 1962, you could drive all the way through Capitol Gorge, to its confluence with the Fremont River. Now you can hike along the old roadbed. A short distance in you’ll find a panel of petroglyph rock art created by ancient Fremont people. Nearby, at a place called Pioneer Registry, early pioneers carved their names into the canyon wall.
Another scenic feature in the area is called The Tanks. Here erosion has carved pockets into the rock, and the pockets often hold rainwater. It is a 2.5 mile round trip hike from the end of the spur road to The Tanks.
Another towering rock formation in the Capitol Gorge area is known as the Golden Throne. From Capitol Gorge, a trail winds to the top of cliffs and ends at a vista where you get panoramic views, including a dramatic view of the Throne. The round trip distance on this spur trail is 4 miles. It is considered strenuous.
Where to stay:
At the park
- Fruita Campground – With only 71 spaces in the Fruita Campground, the park has a 100% reservation system from March 1 – October 31. There are a couple of primitive campgrounds in the Park boundaries.
Located at the entrance to , in Torrey, Utah the Capitol Reef Resort features an outdoor pool and . All of the spacious guest rooms include free WiFi. BBQ facilities are available.
A flat-screen satellite TV with extended cable channels is offered every contemporary room at Capitol Reef Resort. Guest rooms include an iPod docking station, a hairdryer and tea and coffee-making facilities. All rooms feature garden and mountain views. The property also offers unique accommodations such as teepees and Conestoga wagons. See listing on Booking.com
The Red Sands Hotel in Torrey makes and excellent base to visit Capitol Reef National Park. It was expanded and remodeled in 2019 and now includes a restaurant and bar, yoga room, meeting space and spa.
There is an indoor pool and hot tub with a garage door opening out to an outdoor patio in the warmer weather. Visit the map room to plan your hiking or outdoor adventures. With so many complimentary amenities you will be sure to enjoy your stay at the Red Sands Hotel.
Check out the listing on Booking.com
In summary …
- One of the “big five” National Parks in Southern Utah
- A little less touristy but nonetheless spectacular
- Hiking opportunities for all abilities
- A good place to stop if travelling between Bryce Canyon and Moab