Everything you need to know about hiking in Capitol Reef National Park

Everything you need to know about hiking in Capitol Reef National Park by BoozingAbroad

While it isn’t the most popular of the parks in Utah, there is some incredible hiking in Capitol Reef National Park which definitely makes this a park to add to your bucket list. 

Capitol Reef National Park, originally named “Wayne’s Wonderland” because it is partially located in Wayne County, Utah, was established as a national monument in the 1930s and later a national park in 1971.  

The park didn’t open to the public until 1950 and it wasn’t until the early 1960s that a more passable road was constructed through the park.

The park’s current name comes from two references: early settlers thought that the white dome formations in the park resembled the dome on the US Capitol, and the “reef” is a reference to the rocky, coral-like landscape of the Waterpocket Fold (the canyons, buttes, and cliff formations) that was initially seen as a massive barrier to travel.

Capitol Reef, though one of the least-visited Utah national parks, is actually the second-largest national park in Utah in terms of acreage (behind Canyonlands). 

With really only one main (and paved) road within the park, it’s relatively easy to cover this park in a day or two despite its size.  

Read on below for your full guide on where to stay, the best hiking in Capitol Reef, and pie!

Psst: Looking for more info on the National Parks in Utah?  Check out our road trip guide for Utah’s National Parks

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Best Time To Visit Capitol Reef National Park Utah 

capitol reef landscape

If you’re looking to do some hiking in Capitol Reef, you’ll want to keep an eye on the weather.

The most popular months to visit are in the summer months from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but those are also the absolute hottest months of the year in the Utah desert. 

Highs in the 90s and even into the triple digits can make your hiking in Capitol Reef sticky, uncomfortable, and dangerous if you’re not prepared.  

We’d recommend visiting Capitol Reef in the shoulder seasons of either spring (April-early May) or fall (late September-early November).  Not only will the temperatures be more moderate, bearable, and perfect for hiking, but there will be far less people to deal with too. 

Even though Capitol Reef is one of the least-visited of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, it can still get crowded in the small park with only one main road.  

You shouldn’t have to worry too much about any rain washing out your days completely as this area of Utah receives less than 10 inches of rain a year on average.  For the most part, you can expect blue and sunny skies!

How To Get To Capitol Reef 

capitol reef sign

The small town of Torrey is only about 11 miles from the Visitor Center and has a few hotels, restaurants, and RV parks. Hanksville is about 50 miles to the east.

Since the park is relatively small and could be done in a day (if you only have limited time and are trying to visit all 5 parks in a short time), most people make a day trip from either the Moab/Arches/Canyonlands area (140 miles and 2.5 hours) or Bryce Canyon (120 miles and 2.5 horus).

Capitol Reef is situated in the middle of all of the Mighty 5, making it an easy stop if you are completing the circuit. See our guide to the Utah Mighty 5 road trip here.

Capitol Reef is also about 75 miles north (1 hour and 45 minutes) of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through the small town of Boulder, and is another popular stop on an adventure through Utah’s beautiful national parks and monuments.

Where to stay at Capitol Reef 

Torrey Utah Hotels

If you’re not visiting Capitol Reef National Park as a day trip from another location, you’ll probably want to stay in Torrey since it’s the closest town to the park. 

Here are some of the hotels in the area that we’d recommend for different reasons.

Luxury: Capitol Reef Resort

This is one of the top hotels in the Torrey area and has some really unique “room” options in addition to your standard hotel rooms.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can stay in a teepee or even a Conestoga covered wagon!

Other amenities include an outdoor pool, hot tub, and WiFi.  Many rooms even include those gorgeous mountain views of Capitol Reef’s red rocks.  An on-site restaurant makes this a one-stop shop! Book your luxury stay here!

Western experience: Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse

While the name sounds like it came straight out of an old Western movie, the Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse is another great option for your visit to Capitol Reef National Park. 

A seasonal indoor pool and hot tub along with WiFi are some of the amenities.  Some rooms have a private balcony and spa bath or you can be adventurous here too and go for the Conestoga wagon option.

A good breakfast is included here at the steakhouse which is served until 10AM.  After that, the steakhouse opens back up at 5PM for the traditional steakhouse offerings. Book your western experience here!

Budget/Mid-range: Days Inn by Wyndham Capitol Reef

Located right next to the Broken Spur Inn, this Days Inn is a no-frills hotel option for Capitol Reef.  You’ll find pretty much all of your standard hotel amenities here, including an indoor pool, WiFi, and continental breakfast. Book your budget-friendly stay here!

Capitol Reef Camping

Will you be traveling to Capitol Reef in an RV/camper?

Do you just love the feeling of sleeping under the stars with only a tent above your head?

You can camp right inside Capitol Reef National Park at the Fruita Campground (you can be first in line for pies/cinnamon rolls – more on that later). Reservations are available from March 1 to October 31. From November 1 to the end of February, campsites are first-come, first-serve.

No electrical hook-ups here, but there is an RV dump station and potable water is available as well. Restrooms are available, but no showers.

If you prefer a little less primitive RVing/camping, there are several RV parks and resorts nearby with full-hookup RV sites and/or cabins.

We stayed at Wonderland RV Park in Torrey which was just 10 miles from the Visitor Center.

Capitol Reef Hiking Tips / Gear Suggestions

Packing for a day hike - the ultimate list for day hiking essentials by BoozingAbroad header

Practice “Leave No Trace”

If you’re unfamiliar with “Leave No Trace”, it means to keep the land as you found it. Don’t leave trash. Stay on the marked trails. Don’t feed/pet wildlife.

Sunscreen, layers, and hats

The sun and weather can be intense on hikes and shade isn’t always available. Always carry sunscreen with you. You’ll never catch us without it.

Water, water, water

Don’t underestimate how quickly the body can dehydrate on a hike. We typically hike with our hydration bladders and suggest a minimum of 1 gallon per person, per day, depending on the length/difficulty of your hike(s).

>> For more tips and what to buy, read our Packing for a Day Hike guide. We’ve included all the essentials you might need, no matter what type of weather/hike you are planning for.

Map of Capitol Reef National Park 

The interactive map of Capitol Reef National Park below has all the trailheads and other things to do in the park marked. 

 

HOW TO USE THIS MAP: To view the layers and see the names of the places on this map, click the tab in the top left corner. You can select the check marks to show or hide certain layers. If you select the icons on the map, you will get more information about the point of interest.

HOW TO SAVE THIS MAP: If you select the star icon next to the map name, you can save this map to your Google Maps account. To view it, open Google Maps in desktop or on your phone, select the menu button, go to “Your Places,” scroll to the right to Maps, and you will see this map.

Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park 

Cassidy Arch Trail

capitol reef
  • Distance: 3.5 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 670 feet
  • Trailhead: Grand Wash signs off of Scenic Drive (gravel road on the left about 3.5 miles from Visitor Center)

Ascending high above the Grand Wash, you will find a large stone arch named after Butch Cassidy, the notorious outlaw and train robber. From the parking lot, walk 0.2 miles through the Grand Wash to get to the trailhead.

From here, you start a steep ascent into the cliffs following the edge of the wash below.

About a mile in at the Frying Pan Trail Junction, continue left another 0.5 miles, walking along colorful slickrock to reach the Cassidy Arch, which is some of the most popular hiking in Capitol Reef. 

During the day, this hike will have minimal shade so make sure you carry at least 2 liters of water per person. 

PRO TIP: We did this hike in the late afternoon after getting off of work and the shadows made picture-taking very difficult.  We’d suggest doing this hike in the morning so it’s cooler and your lighting is better for photography (if you care about that).

Frying Pan Trail

frying pan hiking in capitol reef
  • Distance: 6.0 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 800 feet
  • Trailhead: Grand Wash signs off of Scenic Drive (gravel road on the left about 3.5 miles from Visitor Center).  Shares the parking area with Cassidy Arch or Cohab Canyon trailhead

The Frying Pan Trail is considered a connector trail of sorts as it links the Cohab Canyon and Cassidy Arch trails. 

Once you reach one end of the trail (either Cassidy Arch/Grand Wash or Cohab Canyon) you’ll either have to turn back and walk back or have planned a shuttle system of cars/bikes at both ends.

We’d recommend, if you can, getting dropped off at the Grand Wash trailhead.  From here, it’s about 0.25 miles in the Grand Wash, about a mile to the Cassidy Arch Trail junction, 3 miles on the Frying Pan Trail, and about 1 mile in Cohab Canyon, which will drop you back at the Fruita campground (where you hopefully have transportation waiting). 

Of note, there are spur trails to Cassidy Arch (1 mile round-trip) and a hike into the base of a huge 400-foot wall in Frying Pan Canyon (1 mile round-trip) that will make this longer than the 6-mile round-trip hike mentioned above. 

Hickman Bridge Hike

capitol reef - hickman bridge
  • Distance: 1.8 miles round trip, out-and-back (with small loop under and around the bridge)
  • Elevation Gain: 400 feet
  • Trailhead: Off of Highway 24, about 2 miles east of Visitor Center

Hickman Bridge starts along the Sulphur Creek while climbing up to a plateau with canyon views.

From there, you continue to climb through a sandstone canyon until you reach the 133-foot natural bridge. Continue under the bridge to stay on the loop trail until you reach a dramatic cliff dropoff with views of the road below. 

Much like our recommendation on the Cassidy Arch trail, try to go in the morning or early afternoon for the best lighting. We went late afternoon and all the photos were very dark due to the shadows. 

Capitol Gorge Trail to Tanks Trail

capitol reef capitol gorge
  • Distance: 2.4 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: very minimal if not climbing to the tanks – mostly flat
  • Trailhead: Located at the end of Scenic Drive where the paved road turns to a gravel road (gravel roads starts about 8 miles from Visitor Center)

Of all the hiking in Capitol Reef, the short and easy Capitol Gorge Trail probably offers the most variety with a few different features that are fascinating and fun for the whole family. 

This trail used to be the main route through the national park until Highway 24 was built in 1964, which will blow your mind once you drive in on the bumpy gravel road. 

The trail passes through the canyon gorge for the entirety and takes you past some old petroglyphs (on the left) after only about 0.25 miles. 

From here, another short walk along the rocky and sandy trail (about 0.25 miles) will get you to the Pioneer Register, which is where surveyors etched their names into national park history during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  

Though this classy graffiti is now considered historical, don’t even think about writing on the walls today…not classy and carries a hefty fine.

Another half-mile into the gorge and you’ll reach the spur trail for the famous water “tanks”. 

tanks trail capitol reef

These are really just several water-filled potholes (or if you visit when we did, just big holes in the rock with no standing water) that (sometimes) hold the water that animals, plants, and indigenous people relied on to survive.

The short climb up to the water tanks (about 100 feet in elevation gain) involves switchbacks and some rock scrambling but is relatively easy. 

This portion of the trail isn’t as well-marked, especially when the water tanks are empty (and there is no clear end to the trail), but follow the cairns to find your way.

Grand Wash Trail

grand wash trail
  • Distance: 4.4 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 200 feet
  • Trailhead: Grand Wash signs off of Scenic Drive (gravel road on the left about 3.5 miles from Visitor Center)

Sharing the same parking lot as the Cassidy Arch trailhead, the Grand Wash Trail is a longer, but still easy and family-friendly hike that goes through a narrow section of the canyon.  

The hike shares the same sandy wash bottom trail as Cassidy Arch trail for the first 10 minutes or so, before the Cassidy Arch trail goes up and to the left. 

Stay in the sandy wash bottom to continue on the Grand Wash trail, which traverses through the canyon and gets deeper and more narrow along the way.

You’ll continue bending around and through the canyon, marveling at the scenery along the way.  Once the wash begins to open up a bit and you can see Highway 24, you’ll turn around and return back to your starting point.

There is limited parking at the northern trailhead which isn’t within the fee area of the park, but to get to the main parking lot (which also includes Cassidy Arch parking), you’ll need to pay your entrance fees.

Cohab Canyon Trail

capitol reef
  • Distance: 3 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: about 800 feet
  • Trailhead: Across the street from the Fruita Campground (near the Gifford House)

The Cohab Canyon Trail starts out with a pretty steep climb (400ish feet in about a half-mile) so you’ll be able to work off that delicious fruit pie from the Gifford House that you just woofed down!  More on that below. 

After the short ascent, you’ll head back down and be surrounded by the beautiful red rock canyon walls. 

You’ll eventually come to a junction with the Frying Pan Trail before descending again towards the main road, Highway 24, which is just east of the Hickman Bridge trailhead.

Red rock canyons, hoodoos, a hidden natural arch, and even a few spur trails that climb to some great overlooks of the Fremont River and Fruita area await you on this hike.

As legend has it, it’s called Cohab Canyon because when federal officials were sent to the area to investigate and stamp out plural marriages, Fruita’s polygamists hid their many wives in this nearby canyon (Cohab for “cohabitation”).

Chimney Rock

chimney rock - hiking in capitol reef
  • Distance: 3.5 miles round trip, loop
  • Elevation gain: about 600 feet 
  • Trailhead: About 3 miles west (towards Torrey) of the Visitor Center along Highway 24; less than a mile from Panorama Point

The Chimney Rock trail is the hiking in Capitol Reef that you’ll want to do if you want those spectacular high-elevation views. 

The trail starts by quickly climbing switchbacks along the side of the mesa. Once you complete this 300-foot climb in about 0.5 miles, you’ll be at the beginning of the loop trail.

Since the trail loops around the top of Mummy Cliff (which is to the south of Chimney Rock, but part of the same formation), you can go whichever way you want at the junction, but going right (counterclockwise) will get the additional climb to the cliffs over with earlier.

If you take our advice and go right at the beginning of the loop, your steep elevation gains are mostly done after only about a mile on the trail. 

You’ll also get to Chimney Rock, which is a pillar of red sandstone, quicker if you go this way. 

Don’t worry though, the trail passes colorful badlands, the beautiful red cliffs, and a narrow canyon even after you’ve passed the trail’s namesake.

Fremont River Trail

capitol reef national park hike
  • Distance: 2.1 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 450 feet
  • Trailhead: On Scenic Drive, about a mile from the Visitor Center; just before Gifford House

The Fremont River Trail starts out by walking through the Fruita campground and is a relatively easy walk along the Fremont River before a fairly steep climb up to a summit where you’ll get panoramic views of the surrounding cliffs and historic Fruita area.

Fremont Gorge Overlook

  • Distance: 4.5 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 feet
  • Trailhead: Parking area located along Scenic Drive, just before Gifford House
    • Coordinates of parking area and trailhead: 38.286616, -111.249205

    This is some of the most strenuous hiking in Capitol Reef for the shorter hikes because of the elevation gain.  You’ll start out from the parking area and immediately start climbing up the hill and along the side of the slope.  

    Most of the climbing comes at the beginning and end of the outward trip, and although you’ll continue to get gradually better views of the surrounding cliffs as you go, the grand prize lies at the end when you reach the actual canyon overlook, which more than makes up for the somewhat lacking variety of the hike. 

Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs Trails

Rim overlook and navajo
  • Distance: 4.6 miles (Rim Overlook) and 9.4 miles (Navajo Knobs) round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 1,110 feet to Rim Overlook; 1,600 feet to Navajo Knobs 
  • Trailhead: Shares parking area with Hickman Bridge Trail; Off of Highway 24, about 2 miles east of Visitor Center

These trails start on the same path as the Hickman Bridge trail, but only for about 0.25 miles. 

From there, both trails follow the same path as each other until the Navajo Knobs trail continues on for another 2.5-ish miles.

Both of these are some of the harder trails for hiking in Capitol Reef because they are each pretty consistent climbs to their respective lookouts. 

You’ll climb along the slickrock ledges of the cliffs along the way.  The trail is mostly marked by cairns and maybe some remnants of paint.  

Most people will turn around after reaching the Rim Overlook which has great views all around and down below you. 

Approach the edge of the cliff at your own risk….it’s a long way down!

If you’re up for the challenge, trudge on for another 2.5 miles to Navajo Knobs. 

Once you reach the end, which requires more climbing in elevation, you’ll have a different perspective of Capitol Reef from high above looking down onto the roads and canyons than the average person does looking up into the magnificent red rocks.

Panorama Point, Goosenecks Overlook, and Sunset Point

Panorama Point

  • Distance: maybe 100 yards
  • Elevation gain: minimal
  • When to go: midday/late afternoon
  • Trailhead: About 5 minutes west of the Visitor Center, heading towards Torrey, UT

This doesn’t really qualify as a hike because it is oh-so-short, but the views are spectacular, as you might expect from a spot named Panorama Point. 

From this point, you can see the gorgeous red rocks in all directions and even read about the exceptionally clean air found in the park that contributes to these incredible views.

After you’re done here, head up the gravel road a little further for Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point.

Goosenecks Overlook

gooseneck trail hike
  • Distance: 0.2 miles round trip, out and back
  • Elevation gain: minimal
  • Trailhead: At the turnout for Panorama Point; about 1 mile down gravel road – shares parking area with Sunset Point

The short trail starts in the small parking area and climbs a short distance to an overlook above the bends of Sulphur Creek Canyon hundreds of feet below.

The S-shaped creek resembles that of a goose’s neck, hence the name.  Be careful when walking around at the top as there isn’t a fence or railing in every spot and it’s a pretty LONG way down!

Sunset Point

capitol reef - sunset point
  • Distance: 0.6 miles round trip, out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: minimal
  • When to go: an hour before sunset
  • Trailhead: At the turnout for Panorama Point; about 1 mile down gravel road – shares parking area with Sunset Point

This short hike will weave you along a small cliff terrace to a point that is perfect for sunset.

While this point is not to watch the physical sunset, it’s to showcase the spectacular changing of colors among the rocks that sweep through the valley.

The sun, before finally setting for the night, puts on a show as the rock colors change from brown to yellow to orange to burnt orange.

From slickrock to sand and minimal rock scrambling, this hike has a little bit of something for everyone.

Other Things to do in Capitol Reef 

Historic Fruita

historic fruita

The historic town of Fruita could be considered a ghost town since nobody really inhabits the area (technically, the National Park employees do have their temporary residences here), but today, it’s the heart of Capitol Reef National Park and where the administrative headquarters are located.

Fruita was established way back in 1880 by a group of Mormons but was later abandoned in 1955 when the National Park Service purchased the town to be included in the park. 

Today, very few buildings remain from the original Fruita settlement, the Gifford House and the old one-room schoolhouse being the only remnants of the old town.

As its name suggests, Fruita was/is home to numerous orchards (now preserved and operated by the National Park Service). 

These orchards, which now have about 2,000 trees, were the source of food and income for those living in Fruita. 

Everything from apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, and plums grew on these lands.  You’ll pass by numerous orchards as you drive from the Visitor Center towards the Scenic Drive.

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

capitol reef scenic drive

The Scenic Drive begins at Visitor Center and is about an 8-mile one-way drive through the heart of Capitol Reef (this distance is contrary to what many signs say within the park – but we used our odometer).  

This drive is where you’ll find much of the hiking in Capitol Reef (Cassidy Arch, Grand Wash, and Capitol Gorge to name a few) and obviously some great views of the towering rocks. 

It’s an entirely paved road and is suitable for vehicles up to about 27 feet in length (there are some tight spots through canyons and around turns). 

Of note, the pavement runs out once you reach the Capitol Gorge area and gets pretty bumpy!  

If you’re going to want to stop at the various pullouts for pictures and/or do any of the hikes we’ve listed above, you’ll want to allot a little bit more time.  Otherwise, if you’re just driving the route out-and-back, you’ll need about 40ish minutes.   

Eat Pies At The Gifford House

capitol reef orchard pie

Eating pie at a national park probably isn’t something that you have on your bucket list.  But if you visit Capitol Reef National Park, eating pie is what you absolutely must do!

The only food that is available in the park is sold here at the old Gifford House and comes in the form of delicious fruit pies and huge cinnamon rolls. 

You can also buy utensils and household tools handmade by local artisans and craftsmen, which are crafted in a manner similar to those used by Mormon pioneers. 

The original home was built in 1908 and changed hands a couple of times before landing in the Gifford family, where it stayed until they were the last residents to leave Fruita in the 1960s when they sold the land to the NPS. 

The homestead included the house, a kitchen, and a barn, which is still in use today.

If you want your taste of this delicious pie (made using fruit from the area), get here early. 

They are open from 8AM to 5PM daily (with possible extended hours in the summer) but their pies and cinnamon rolls usually sell out well before closing time!  

Chris was first in line one morning at 7:50 and there were about 10 more people behind him when the doors opened at 8.  Naturally, the Gifford House opens for the season on Pi Day (March 14) and stays open until October 31.

Highway 24

Highway 24 cuts right through Capitol Reef National Park from east to west and is how you’ll access pretty much everything you want to do in the park. 

There are several trailheads right off of Highway 24 (Hickman Bridge, Chimney Rock, Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point) and it’s also how you’ll access the Visitor Center and Scenic Drive.

Petroglyphs

petroglyphs in capitol reef national park

Right off of Highway 24 about 1 mile east of the Visitor Center is where you’ll find some old petroglyphs, or images carved into stone. 

These carvings were done by the Fremont Culture, who were named as such because of their proximity to the Fremont River.

It’s really unbelievable to see these ancient carvings (this culture lived from 300 – 1300 AD) right alongside the road and so visible! 

There are two boardwalks that will get you closer to the petroglyphs.  Bring some binoculars or use the tower viewers provided to get more up close and personal and see the details in the carvings.

The sun and shadows could make these more or less difficult to see at certain times of the day, but since it’s so easy to access, you can always come back earlier/later as needed.

Where to next? 

Capitol Reef to Moab

arches - double arch

If you’re coming from the south and completing Utah’s Mighty 5, your next stop after Capitol Reef is likely going to be the city of Moab, Utah, where you’ll find Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

Moab is about 140 miles and 2.5 hours from Capitol Reef and passes right by Goblin Valley State Park.

Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon

bryce canyon - yovimpa

If you started your Mighty 5 adventure in Moab (Arches/Canyonlands) and you are continuing south towards Bryce Canyon after Capitol Reef, it’s about 120 miles and 2.5 hours from Visitor Center to Visitor Center.  

Driving an RV? 

This will take you a little bit longer as you’ll head further west to Route 89 before shooting south towards Bryce.  Plan on about 3 hours.

Capitol Reef to Goblin Valley

goblin valley utah

If you’re on your way to Moab from Capitol Reef, you’re going to be passing Goblin Valley State Park, which is definitely worth a stop. 

Goblin Valley is about 60 miles and 1 hour and 15 minutes from the Capitol Reef Visitor Center.

Overall Hiking in Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef doesn’t get the same recognition that its other Utah national park neighbors do, but it’s not because this place isn’t beautiful!  

Capitol Reef, along with Canyonlands, is one of the oft-forgotten national parks in Utah. 

Maybe it’s because the park is located in the middle of the state, so unless you are doing the full Mighty 5 parks road trip, you may not make this a destination. 

Or maybe it’s because the hiking in Capitol Reef isn’t as thrilling, intense, or jaw-dropping as some of the other hikes in Utah.

The reason doesn’t matter. 

What does matter is that this is a relatively easy park to cover on your road trip and that the hiking in Capitol Reef is mostly fun and easy-to-moderate for the entire family. 

Plus, there is pie! 

For more info on Utah, click on the image below:

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