Capitol Reef National Park is the most underrated of Southern Utah’s Mighty 5. Most visitors simply drive through between Bryce Canyon and the parks near Moab. But stay a little longer and you’ll discover a land of red-rock cliffs, colorful sunsets, challenging trails and deep backcountry. Whether you’re a hiker or a road tripper, you can design a Capitol Reef itinerary to suit your interests.
Capitol Reef has a more chill vibe than Zion or Arches. The trails aren’t crowded, and you don’t need permits for much (and when you do need them you can get them at a moment’s notice). In some corners, you’re as likely to spot a mountain goat meandering along the road as you are another human.
In this post, I’ll share itineraries for Capitol Reef if you have one, two or three days.
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FAQ’s for your Capitol Reef itinerary
Let’s go over some logistics before we dive into the itinerary ideas.
What is the best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park?
The climate of Capitol Reef is pretty similar to that of Zion National Park, but a little cooler because it’s a couple thousand feet higher.
The best time to visit Capitol Reef is March-May or October-November. Mornings can be frigid at these times, but you’ll have pleasant daytime temperatures for hiking. Bring a 15-degree sleeping bag if you plan to camp.
Starting around Memorial Day weekend through September, Capitol Reef gets unbearably hot. I visited in early June and had three straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It cooled down in the mornings and evenings, but hiking during the day was not pleasant.
Winter is a viable time to visit the park if you plan to stay in the frontcountry. It’s very cold in the mornings and moderate during the day. You’d need a four-season sleeping bag if you’re camping. The park does get some snow each year (although not as much as Bryce Canyon). The gravel roads through the backcountry would be super dodgy in winter conditions.
Whatever time you visit, be sure to check in with the Visitor Center each day about flash flood conditions. Never enter a canyon (or the Grand Wash) if it’s raining, and stay out of the Cathedral Valley in muddy and wet conditions.
Do you have to pay admission?
If you’ve been road-tripping around the southwest and you’re sick of waiting in long lines (or needing reservations) to enter parks, I have good news. At Capitol Reef there are no lines.
You still have to pay an entrance fee to enter the scenic drive and access many of the trails — it’s $10 for a pedestrian or cyclist and $20 for a car. You simply drop your payment into the dropbox at the entrance of the scenic drive or pay online in advance.
The America the Beautiful Pass covers admission to Capitol Reef, and is the best bargain for folks planning to visit multiple parks on the same trip. It costs $80 for a year. You can purchase it at all national park visitor centers, or buy it online here. If you purchase online, note that it can take 6-8 weeks for your pass to arrive.
All other national park passes, such as the senior pass and 4th grader pass, are also accepted at Capitol Reef.
Where to stay near Capitol Reef National Park
The gateway town for this park is Torrey, Utah — a 10-minute drive from the park gates. It’s a pleasant town with a few decent eateries, a general store, and lodging options.
Your best bet if you plan far enough in advance is the Fruita Campground. The location can’t be beat — you can even walk to many popular trailheads. It’s a nice facility with decent privacy at the tent sites. Reservations open 6 months in advance. Alternative BLM campgrounds line the highway into Torrey if Fruita is full.
I couldn’t get a spot at Fruita so I camped at Sand Creek Campground. It had reasonable privacy, the facilities were good, it was very affordable, and I appreciated that it was on the small side — so not overcrowded. The sunset views from the campground were awesome.
You can camp on the BLM lands around Capitol Reef. But you need a 4WD/high-clearance vehicle to access most of the sites, and the best camping is at least a 30 minute drive away from the park.
Expect to pay between $150-$200 for a room in a 3-star hotel in Torrey. Camping is for sure the better option.
Where to buy food and supplies
If you need to pick up camping food, lunch supplies, snacks, fuel, or other typical vacation items, your best bet is Chuckwagon General Store. They also sell palatable coffee, and they even have a small selection of fresh fruit. Bonus: they open at 7 am so you can still get into the park at a decent time. They’re closed in winter.
There are a couple of gas stations in Torrey, including one at the intersection of Highway 12. Gas is a little cheaper than in Escalante, so fill up before you head south/west.
If you want a break from campfire food, the pizza at Rim Rock is good. (I might have devoured a whole one after hiking 21 miles?) Vegetarians will appreciate the post-hike veggie burgers at Slackers. Cueva Mexican Restaurant gets good reviews, but it seemed a little overpriced so I gave it a miss.
One Day in Capitol Reef: Scenic Drive, petroglyphs and a hike
This Capitol Reef one day itinerary assumes you spent the night in/near Torrey. If you’re driving through from elsewhere, you’ll need to prioritize.
Start your day before sunrise and take an early morning drive along Highway 24 to reach the national park entrance. The red cliffs glow in the pre-dawn light. Plenty of pull-offs along the road allow you to stop for photos.
Your destination this morning is Capitol Reef’s best hike: Cohab Canyon. It’s a roughly 3-mile trail depending on which route you take.
Cohob Canyon hike
To maximize views, park at one of the pull-outs along Highway 24 in the Fruita area and walk along the road past the horse stables. You’ll see a sign to the left marking the Cohob Canyon trailhead. It starts with a steep climb from the canyon floor, but it levels out after less than half a mile.
From here, you’ll enter a wash, where wildflowers bloom in abundance in spring and the canyon walls are full of holes. It’s a flat stroll along the canyon floor for about a mile.
Finally you’ll see a sign marking a left turn for a couple viewpoints — take the turn and go up to the overlook. You’ll have a panoramic view of Fruita and the red rock cliffs along Highway 24. When you finish, return the way you came.
Back in Fruita, you have a little time to wander around the historic district. This area has been inhabited for thousands of years — first by the Fremont tribes, later by Mormons who settled in the valley.
Check out the Gifford House, the old school, and the orchards. You can even pick your own fruit if you visit in-season!
But the real highlight of exploring Fruita is visiting the petroglyph panels. You’ll find them signed, shortly after you pass the old schoolhouse, on Highway 24. (You’ll need to drive here.)
A boardwalk takes you past a vast wall of ancient carvings. It’s pretty easy to pick out bighorn sheep, human figures, and more. Good signage describes the culture and history of the Fremont people and the stories of the petroglyphs.
Drive the Scenic Drive
The Scenic Drive is probably the single most popular aspect of a Capitol Reef itinerary — but that doesn’t mean you should skip it! Just save it for late afternoon/early evening, after the day-trippers go home.
The drive starts from the Visitor Center, and takes you to a bunch of pull-offs along the way. (Please do not stop in the middle of the road or pull off in an undesignated area!) The first pull-off provides a great view of the Moenkopi Formation, a unique rock formation nestled in the cliffs. Others provide views of the cliffs, rocks full of holes, rare vegetation, and more.
You can take the spur road to the Grand Wash if you’re comfortable driving maintained gravel and conditions are dry. This diversion provides access to the Grand Wash trailhead and Cassidy Arch. It’s well worth a quick stroll through the wash, but the arch is a difficult and steep hike. Do not enter the Grand Wash by road or on foot if there’s even a distant possibility of flash flooding.
At Stop 8, you can see some old uranium mines cut into the cliffs. Shortly afterwards you’ll reach the intersection with the Capitol Gorge, another gravel spur. If you continue, you’ll come across additional petroglyphs and nice views of Navajo sandstone formations. Do not enter the gorge if there is a possibility of flooding.
When you finish the scenic drive, turn around and head back the way you came. Some of the stops are worth a second photo op as the light hits the rocks differently the later in the afternoon you get.
Watch the sunset and stargaze
At the end of your one day in Capitol Reef, find a good spot to take in the sunset. Sunset Point and Chimney Rock are the classic options — both require short hikes. The hike to Chimney Rock is somewhat steep. Be sure to bring a headlamp if you plan to hike down after dark.
The sunset turns the red cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park spectacular colors. Stay for about 15 minutes after the sun goes down and your photos will come out even better.
If you’re in no rush to get back to camp, hang around for awhile until the stars come out. The Torrey area is an international dark-sky destination. It’s largely free from light pollution, nowhere more so than within the park itself. It’s one of the best stargazing destinations in the southwest — making it the perfect end to your trip to Capitol Reef National Park in one day.
Two-day Capitol Reef National Park itinerary
If you have more than one day in Capitol Reef National Park, you’ll have time to check off some more hikes.
Navajo Knobs hike
Start your second morning early at the Hickman Bridge parking area — it’s small and fills up quickly. The parking lot has long-drop toilets.
Your goal this morning is Navajo Knobs — two large rock formations at the top of the canyon that forms Capitol Reef National Park, providing 360-degree views. It’s a 9.4-mile round-trip, 1600-foot climb to get there.
Along the way, you’ll get a nice view of Hickman Bridge from above (and you’ll confirm that it’s not worth the side trip). Then, you’ll keep climbing up to the Rim Overlook. It’s hard to believe the view gets better from here, but it does!
The trail winds along the side of the rim, with perilously steep drops to your left. But at least the cliffs above you provide some respite from the sun. Eventually you’ll start climbing again — follow the cairns closely to stay on-route.
At the top, the trail gets steep very fast. The final climb to Navajo Knobs is a scramble, and you need a good head for heights to venture out to the extremely exposed cliff edges. Don’t take any risks for the perfect selfie here — I was actually more unnerved by the dropoffs than I was on the Angels Landing trail. Return the way you came.
You will be completely exposed for most of this hike, and it’s very long and hot. Pack at least 6 liters of water. I’d also recommend long sleeves and long pants, and a hat, to protect your skin — this sun hoodie is a good option that won’t feel too hot.
Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch hikes
If you didn’t get a chance to hike through the Grand Wash yesterday, your second day is a great time to do so. The wash’s canyon walls make it a relatively cool option for peak afternoon heat.
This time, park on the Highway 24 side of the trail — I saw baby mountain goats right at the trailhead here. The trail meanders a wide, flat 2 miles to the intersection with the Cassidy Arch trail.
If you’re in the mood for a more strenuous hike, take the steep stairs on the right of the trail and keep climbing 670 feet over the next 1.7 miles to reach the natural arch. There’s no shame in deciding it’s too hot though; I made it about a quarter of the way up before I was tired of being super-exposed to the sun. When you finish, return the way you came.
Alternative (for serious hikers only): Sulphur Creek Canyon
As an alternative to the Navajo Knobs route, if you prefer canyons to views, you could consider the Sulphur Creek Route.
Despite starting from Highway 24, this is a strenuous backcountry hike requiring advanced navigation skills, and often requires swimming deep pools (up to 6 feet deep). It would also be fatal to be in the canyon during a flash flood, so stay out if the weather is remotely iffy.
There are multiple places where you’ll need to scramble down ledges taller than you are — up to 12 feet. This is a route best attempted with a group, and without small children.
If you want to attempt the route, read the National Park Service’s full description before heading out.
Three-day itinerary for Capitol Reef
If you have a third day in the national park, follow the above itinerary for Days 1 and 2. Then, head out to the Cathedral Valley to finish your trip.
Note this route is only possible for folks with 4WD/high-clearance vehicles, and is not advisable in a rental car. Additionally, if there’s even a chance of rain, you have a good chance of getting stuck on the washboard roads. Bring plenty of extra water — like, a couple gallons stashed in the car — and all the gear you’d need to pull your car out of what can essentially be quicksand.
It’s about a 60-mile drive to do the whole loop, and you will need to ford a river along the way. This is not a drive that can be done in an hour. It will take the better part of the day. You won’t have cell service along most of the drive.
The most famous highlights are the Temples of the Sun and Moon, which you encounter around Mile 42.3. There are also a bunch of backcountry hiking options, which are not marked or maintained. You can even camp along the loop if you have a permit, which can be acquired for free from the Visitor Center in Fruita the day before you set out.
For a full accounting of what it takes to drive the Cathedral Valley Loop, check out this post.
Feeling iffy about driving the Cathedral Valley on your own? Consider opting for a Jeep tour instead.
I hope this post has inspired you to explore Capitol Reef beyond a quick drive-through tour of the park!
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