Capitol Reef Hikes: how to see the best of the park in just one day

In a state spoilt with stunning national parks, Capitol Reef is often overlooked for its more glamorous neighbours, Bryce and Zion. It’s a shame because Capitol Reef is a really unique and beautiful place to explore. We fell into the trap that seems to effect most people visiting, we underestimated how good it was going to be and only gave it one full day.

Luckily we still managed to pack a lot in but if you can spare it we’d recommend more time. As well as excellent hiking trails, it also has a lot of history with really fascinating Mormon buildings, orchards where you can eat the fruit for free and even some 19th Century graffiti from pioneers at the time.

No matter where you go in this park, there’s something to keep you interested. Add to this a lot fewer people than the big ticket parks in Utah and you get the kind of place we love.


Orientation

Capitol Reef is quite spread out, but the majority of things to see are based around Highway 24, Scenic Drive in Fruita and Cathedral Valley (a dirt road which is only accessible by 4WD).

It doesn’t take long to get from one side of the park to the other, so you can comfortably pack a lot into just a day.

We’ll start with our favourite hikes in Capitol Reef, but also take you through some of the other things that this park has to offer.


Capitol Reef National Park Hikes

There are several hikes to choose from in Capitol Reef, but we managed to whittle it down to 3-4 trails you can do in 24 hours. You may want to have a look at the National Park newspaper to check out all the trails you can do if you are blessed with more time.

Hickman Bridge - A rock arch that rivals Moab

Type of walk - Loop at the end of an out and back trail

Distance - 2 miles (3.2km) total

Elevation - 122 metres

Difficulty - Easy - moderate (our rating not the NPS)

Starting & End Point - Hickman Bridge Trail Car Park

The Hickman Bridge

Whilst everyone looks to Moab for beautiful natural arches, Capitol Reef has a stunner of its own. Hickman Bridge is tucked into the valley along a 0.9 mile hiking trail (one way).

The trail starts gently alongside the river, before sharply rising uphill. Within 5-10 minutes you’re on top of the cliff and taking in the gorgeous views.

The start of the trail

The trail heads away from the road and the terrain becomes a lot more rugged. The path to Hickman Bridge is along sandstone rock, so whilst it isn’t the longest walk you’ll have a little workout from the ups and downs along the way.

After taking you through the yellow sandstone landscape, the path opens up to the Hickman Bridge, one of the biggest arches we saw in Utah. It’s a great place to stop, have a drink or some lunch and admire what nature can do in these parts. We also saw loads of chipmunks when we sat down by the bridge which are so much smaller than their Asian counterparts!

Read more: 5 stunning walks in Zion National Park

We visited in winter when it was easy to get a parking space but we were told by the ranger that it gets incredibly busy in peak season. If you’re visiting in the warmer months it is probably best to try this hike early morning or late afternoon as the car park is tiny.

Read next: The best hikes you can do from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and Phantom Ranch: a hike of a lifetime to the bottom of the Grand Canyon



Chimney Rock - for some of the best views in the park

Type of walk - Loop at the end of an out and back trail

Distance - 4 miles (6.35km)

Elevation - 180 metres

Difficulty - Moderate

Starting & End Point - Chimney Rock Trailhead Car Park

When we first looked at the Chimney Rock trail we weren’t so sure. The trail notes suggested it was for views of Chimney Rock which we could already see from the car park and we felt there may be a few better options. After talking to the ranger who said it offered some of the best views of the park we gave it a go and we’re glad we did! It ended up being our favourite trail in the park.

The first third of the Chimney Rock trail is primarily uphill, taking you to the top of a cliff that overlooks the highway (not normally our thing but what a beautiful road it is!), the canyon and the surrounding red cliffs. The view from the top is pretty special and Chimney Rock itself is just a minor part of this beautiful walk.

The highway that cuts through Capitol Reef

The trail then begins to weave gently downhill and back towards the start, showcasing the multi-coloured cliffs and gorgeous snow capped mountains as well as interesting rock formations that have formed over millions of years of erosion.

There’s always something to keep your interest on the Chimney Rock Trail, especially when you’re out of breath from the uphill climbs!

This trail is known as a great spot for sunset but if you only have one day in the park we have a better sunset recommendation coming!

As with Hickman Bridge the car park is small but it’s not as popular a trail so it should be easier to get a spot.

Read next: Sedona Hikes that will make you never want to leave and Cathedral Rock: what to expect from this beautiful hike



Capitol Gorge Trail - for a bit of history

Type of walk - Loop at the end of an out and back trail

Distance - 2.2 miles (3.6km) total

Elevation - 20 metres

Difficulty - Easy

Starting & End Point - Golden Throne Trailhead Car Park

Just getting to the start of the Capitol Gorge Trail feels like an adventure. You turn off the main highway and drive down a scenic road for half an hour before hitting a dirt track which winds through a canyon to the start of the hike. It’s utterly spectacular and one of the prettiest roads we drove on in America, and that’s saying something! The steep walls will follow you until you make the climb to the water tanks at the far end of the trail.

The Capitol Gorge Trail is famous for the Pioneers Register, a section of canyon where Morman pioneers left their names and date etched into the walls. Normally graffiti would be an annoyance, but these are the names of people who hiked around the area in the 1800’s, so that technically makes it history! What’s also interesting is that all the graffiti is a lot higher up now that erosion has made the ground level a lot lower.

The flat, easy trail continues through the canyon before the path takes a sharp turn left and you start heading up the cliff to find the water tanks (if you want to keep the trail easy you can just skip this bit as it is the only uphill section on this hike). The rocky trail skirts along the top of the cliff for approximately 0.2 miles before you reach “the watertanks”. We thought these would be more remnants of the early pioneers, but it was actually just natural waterholes that had formed and stored water most of the year.

We really enjoyed this trail and as it is just two miles you can easily squeeze it into an hour or so.

Read next: Awe-inspiring things to do in Page Arizona and Upper vs Lower Antelope Canyon: we compare these two stunning slot canyons



Sunset Point for sunset - for stunning contrast views

Type of walk - Loop at the end of an out and back trail

Distance - 0.4 miles

Elevation - 10 metres

Difficulty - Easy

Starting & End Point - Goosenecks Overlook Car Park

The aptly named Sunset Point is the place to go at the end of a day exploring. There’s a very short trail from the Goosenecks Car Park which takes you along to one of our favourite views in the whole of Utah.

It’s hard to pick where to look as on one side you’ll see a huge gorge, one that would be famous in its own right in any other part of the world. It drops so far that you can hear the roar of the river below but not see it. It is a beautiful spot to look directly into the sun setting on the horizon.

However, the star view for us is in the other direction and of the snow capped mountains in the distance with the red rock of Capitol Reef in the foreground. Add in the soft hues at sunset and you get a truly special place.

The views from Sunset Point in Capitol Reef National Park

The path is well formed and it’s an easy trail, albeit uphill most of the way. We were really tired at this point but so glad that we didn’t miss out on this spectacular spot. It’s a very popular spot for photographers.

If you have time you can also walk a few minutes from the car park to the Gooseneck Lookout which also has excellent sunset views. We liked this one too but it didn’t beat Sunset Point!

Read next: Waterhole Canyon - a brilliant alternative without the crowds and Lower Antelope Canyon - how to beat the crowds


Capitol Reef National Park things to do

Discover the old village of Fruita

Normally we skip the historical buildings in a national park, choosing to pack in as many hikes as possible. However, Fruita is a beautiful place that is the perfect spot for lunch and taking in the humble life of the Mormons who lived here years ago. Many buildings are well preserved, keeping the character of the early settlers.

Fruita Village - things to do in Capitol Reef National Park

A great spot for lunch or a coffee is Gifford House which has picnic benches that overlook the canyon, and orchards. On a sunny day it is a beautiful place to be.

You’ll need to bring your own lunch but you can supplement it at Gifford House with tea, coffee and cold drinks as well as fruit pies and ice cream.


Capitol Reef Orchards

We visited in winter so sadly there wasn’t any fruit around, but in season you can pick and eat as much as you like there and then for free (if you are taking away the fruit there is a small charge). Check out this helpful guide if you want to know more about the orchards at Capitol Reef.


Study the ancient petroglyophs

Ever since seeing the Aboriginal rock art in Kakadu Australia, we’ve loved looking for ancient art on cliffs or caves whenever we get the chance. The Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef are some of the best we’ve seen in the Southwest and have been preserved pretty well over the centuries.

It takes a little bit of searching, but you eventually train your eye and start spotting petroglyphs by the dozen. The first spot on the boardwalk has information panels and shows you what to look out for, as well as binoculars for a closer look. As you move to the other longer stretch of boardwalk keep an eye on the cliffs and you’ll start to see loads more petroglyphs (these ones aren’t signposted).

Read next: The best Joshua Tree hikes and How to get that perfect shot at Alabama Hills in California


Take in the views at Panorama Point

Just by the side of the road, Panorama Point is a great view to take in at the start of a trip to Capitol Reef. You’ll see the red cliffs all around you, the snowy mountains in the distance and glimpses of the canyon nearby.

It was at this viewpoint which was the first thing we did that we already realised we hadn’t given enough time to Capitol Reef, it really is spectacular.

Read next: What Bryce Canyon is like in winter and Upper Antelope Canyon tours - what to expect in this world famous spot


Places nearby and en route

The road to Escalante

We were told by a guy in Escalante that the road to Boulder is one of the most picturesque in Utah and it’s hard to disagree. This winding road curves its way around the mountains and serves up stunning views all the way.

We probably added on an extra half an hour to the journey as we kept stopping and slowing down to take in the epic views that just kept appearing one after the other.


Larb Hollow Overlook

If you’re visiting Escalante before you go to Capitol Reef, make sure you stop at the Larb Hollow Overlook on Highway 12. We were lucky to stop while there was snow around and the views were out of this world.

From here you can look down to Capitol Reef and see the red rock, fringed by the snowy mountains. It was clearly the place to stop as we weren’t the only ones there!



The road to Moab - Goblin Valley State Park

1.5 hours north of Capitol Reef on the road to Moab is Goblin Valley State Park, a place that has some unusual rock formations - hoodoos - that spread out across this unique landscape. Sadly we weren’t able to visit as we arrived pretty late and couldn’t justify the $15 entry fee for a half an hour stop (all the time that was left before sunset).

However, if you go early enough there are three hiking trails here as well as the iconic views to take in. If you give it long enough, the $15 is no doubt worth it. Sadly you can’t use your annual national parks pass to get entry here as it is a state rather than national park.


What to know before you go

Entry Fees

Capitol Reef is one of the cheapest national parks to visit in Utah and costs just $20 USD for a car or $10 USD for an individual if you enter by bike or as a pedestrian.

We’d advise buying a National Parks Annual Pass for $80 if you plan on visiting three or more parks in a year.

Getting to Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef is a fair distance from most other major attractions in Utah, but is a great stop between Bryce Canyon/Escalante and Moab. The visitor centre at Capitol Reef is about 2.5 hours drive from Bryce Canyon and 2.5 hours from Moab.

 

What to pack for Capitol Reef

We recommend stocking up on hiking gear to make sure you’re comfortable on the trails. We both wear Merrells and they have served us well for years. We also use Osprey backpacks and carry a resuseable water bottle to cut down on single use plastics.

You can check out our recommendations on Amazon below.


Where to stay for visiting Capitol Reef


The best town to base yourself in is Torrey being the nearest to the park. Eight miles further on from Torrey is the town of Bicknell which is a cheaper option.

Torrey

Upper End

Currently the best reviewed accommodation in Torrey is SkyRidge Inn and offers a hotel alternative to the motels in the area. It looks like a pretty homely place and where we would have chosen to stay if we had a bigger budget!

Booking.com


Mid-range

Slightly cheaper and also with great reviews is Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse. This place has great views of the surrounding area and is a little step up from your usual motel. It also has nice touches like a hot tub to rest up in after a long day hiking as well as a bakery on site.

Booking.com


Something unique

If you prefer something a little more unusual Capitol Reef Resort has wagons and teepees! If you want something a bit more normal, then the rooms within the hotel are kitted out with everything you’d need including a kitchenette, lounge area and balcony for beautiful views of the national park.

Capitol Reef Resort is also the closest to the national park, so you won’t have to spend long going in and out.

Booking.com


Bicknell

Budget

We stayed at Sunglow Motel and Restaurant because it had the cheapest rates in the area and we thought it was a good deal. It’s very dated but clean and the staff were really friendly. The wifi also worked which we definitely didn’t always find in Utah. If you are just looking for a place to crash after a full day in the park it does the job well.

Booking.com

Your dining options are better in Torrey according to locals. We decided to try the place in Bicknell which specialises in curry pizza! Sadly we went for curry rather than curry pizza and we didn’t love it, whereas everyone we saw with the pizza was waxing lyrical!

Booking.com

Our Camera Gear

Our brand of choice for camera gear has been Canon for many years and we love their L-Series lenses. Whilst they are heavier than some other brands, the image results are worth the additional weight. We’ve also used a few drones in our time (check out our guide to which drone to buy here) but currently own a DJI Mavic Pro.

You can check out the full description of our favourite travel camera and all our gear by clicking on this link.

Here’s the camera gear we use the most:


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