A Day at Capitol Reef National Park

Travelers coming to Utah to visit the state’s five national parks known as the Mighty 5,  generally plan a day, or less, at each of the parks. They’re on a tight schedule with much ground to cover. Zion is located in the far southwest corner of the state near the Arizona border, Arches near the Colorado Utah state line on the east, Capitol Reef in the middle. These trips are generally five to seven days in length and include additional stops at popular state parks and other scenic attractions along the routes. That’s a lot of ground to cover!

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park, as mentioned above, is located in the center of the five parks and covers 378 square miles, second only the Canyonlands National Park of the Utah parks. Most of the park is considered back country, meaning off the beaten trail and away from paved roads and services. To truly experience the depth of Capitol Reef requires a multi-day trip to explore area’s away from the busier sites near highway 24. For those with limited time the best way to see the back country is to go with a commercial outfitter. Staying on the main routes is what most prefer doing. Here are a few suggestions to help you plan your day.

Two Paved Roads

There are only two paved roads in the park, State Route 24, which is the main road through the park, and the Scenic Drive that takes visitors from the historic Fruita section to Capitol Gorge. We’ll give our recommendations about the places you can visit on these two routes in a day and begin with SR-14.

Highway 24 Sites and Hikes

Starting from the East coming from the Hanksville side. The first stop you can make is at the orientation pullout where there are restrooms, but this really isn’t necessary, we’ll give all needed website links here and information you’ll need for visiting the park. If history is your thing, stop at the Behunin Cabin located at the side of the road three miles from the orientation pullout.  The cabin was built by Elijah Cutler Behunin, one of the park’s first white settlers. A hike we recommend if you’re spending a full day in the park is the Grand Wash, the trailhead is located 1.5 miles from the Behunin Cabin on the left. This hike will give you the experience of walking in a canyon among towering canyon walls. You can walk the full length one-way of approximately three miles, or go just a short distance. Another two miles from the Grand Wash trailhead is a turn-out that offers one of the best views of Navajo and Capitol Domes. This is a great photo stop. Our next stop is one of the most popular hikes in the park called Hickman Natural Bridge. You cannot see the formation from the road so taking the two mile round-trip hike is necessary to see it. This is a good family hike, considered moderate. You can read more about it by clicking here. Because this is such a popular hike the parking lot fills quickly, overflow parking is along the shoulder of the road. Restrooms are available here.

Hickman Bridge, Petroglyphs & Schoolhouse

From Hickman Bridge the next stop is a turnout to see ancient petroglyphs from the Fremont culture etched in the sandstone walls along the side of the road. The park service has installed a boardwalk leading to the panels with a spotting scope to make it easier to find them. Continue on, you are now entering the historic Fruita district where you’ll begin to see fruit orchards planted by the early white settlers. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, Mule deer and wild turkeys are frequently spotted in this area. About a half-mile from the petroglyph site is a historic one-room schoolhouse worth taking a peek at.

Visitor Center & Scenic Drive

Next stop is the visitor center where you can watch a short movie on Capitol Reef, visit the gift shop, pay for entrance fee to drive the Scenic Drive and use the restroom. At the time o f the writing the movie presentation was not playing due to Covid 19 restrictions, but should resume once restrictions are lifted. There is no fee to drive SR-24 through the park but there is a $20 fee for the Scenic Drive beyond the Fruita Campground. Click here for additional details about fees.

The Scenic Drive starts at the visitor center in the historic Fruita district and ends at the beginning of Capitol Gorge where the pavement ends. Before taking off on the drive, we recommend visiting the Gifford pioneer home where you can purchase homemade goods including pies, jams, and bread. This is a very popular stop that’s perfect for having a picnic under the large cottonwood trees.

Two miles from the Fruita Campground is the entrance to the backside of the Grand Wash where the trailhead to Cassidy Arch is also located. There is limited parking at the trailhead and a vault toilet.  Click here for more details on the Scenic Drive.

Take your timing driving this route, there are numerous turn-outs where you can get better views and take photos. At the end of the drive there is a small parking lot with a single vault toilet. This is the beginning of Capitol Gorge. Click here for more information about Capitol Gorge.

SR-24 West of the Visitor Center

From the visitor center on SR-24, drive 2.5 miles west to Panorama Point where 360 degree views of the park are found at the end of a short easy walk up a sandstone slope. If you happen to be in the area at dark, this is a great spot for night sky gazing.

When leaving the Panorama Point parking area, before turning down to the highway, you’ll notice an option to turn right on a dirt road. This option takes you .8 mile to Goosenecks Overlook on a graded dirt road. Goosenecks Overlook offers wonderful views at the end of a short hike of the meandering Sulphur Creek  800 ft. below.

Chimney Rock Trail

For the more adventurous and fit, the 3.5 miles Chimney Rock Loop Trail may be a good option for you. With 590 ft. of elevation gain, the tail is rated strenuous, especially for those who are not used to the higher altitude of the Colorado Plateau. The reward for those reaching the top of the trail are breathtaking views of Chimney Rock, the western escarpment of the Waterpocket Fold, and Boulder Mountain to the west.

Keep Capitol Reef Country Forever Mighty

What is Forever Mighty? It’s practicing responsible travel while visiting Utah and Capitol Reef Country by following the principles of Tread Lightly and Leave No Trace.

Plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, be considerate of others, support local business and honor community, history and heritage. Help us keep Utah and Capitol Reef Country’s outdoor recreation areas beautiful, healthy, and accessible.

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