It’s so easy to see Capitol Reef in one day! Find out what hikes to do, what to see, where to stay, where to eat, and more in this complete guide
You might think that a comparatively unpopular national park isn’t worth visting, but that simply isn’t true. Capitol Reef and Canyonlands are the two least-visited national parks in Utah and both are absolutely stunning. They just happen to be compared to three icons!
Utah is filled to the gills with national parks, state parks, national monuments, national forests, and more. The southern half of Utah is filled with world-class outdoor spaces and Capitol Reef is no exception.
And as a bonus, you can buy fresh fruit pie in Capitol Reef, too!
Are you wondering what to do in Capitol Reef National Park in one day? Find out everything you need to know – including where to stay and dine! – in this complete guide.
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Everything you need to know about Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is located in the southern half of Utah near the center of the state. It is nearly halfway between Bryce Canyon and Moab – the area that includes Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park – so it’s arguably less convenient if you’re only visiting one region of Utah. However, if you’re planning on doing a comprehensive Mighty 5 Tour, Capitol Reef is very easy to access!
Capitol Reef is located in “Waterpocket Fold”, a geologic abnormality that includes canyons, bridges, cliffs, domes, and more. You don’t have to know what that means. You’ll just know it’s unique when you see these interesting structures!
Capitol Reef National Park isn’t just a beautiful geologic area, it’s also an historic fruit orchard. Aptly named Fruita, explorers and Mormon pioneers tended to the earliest orchards here. Capitol Reef was occupied before this, however – you can find petroglyphs in the park!
While driving through Highway 24 or the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, you’ll stumble upon historic buildings where these settlers lived their lives. It’s really cool to imagine what life would have been like in this harsh desert environment.
Speaking of the desert environment – yes, this is a desert! This means that the region is prone to high heat, flash flooding, and more. Check the weather before you venture out and go prepared. Pack water, snacks, sunscreen, and proper attire.
This is a more low-key national park, so enjoy the smaller crowds and the lovely scenery!
Where to stay to see Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is more isolated than the other Mighty 5 National Parks. Bryce Canyon and Zion are pretty close to each other. Arches and Canyonlands are also pretty close to each other Capitol Reef, on the other hand, is literal hours from any of these other parks.
Because of that, you will want to plan on staying in Torrey, just a little bit northwest of Capitol Reef and right on Highway 24, the main access route to the park.
Fair warning – Torrey is LITTLE! And no, not like “3,000 permanent residents” little – there are literally less than 400 residents.
If you wanted to continue on closer to the other national parks, you’ll have to spend about 2.5 hours driving either towards Bryce Canyon City or Moab. Honestly, that’s not a terrible plan – you won’t spend a ton of time in Capitol Reef – but Torrey does offer some really cute experiences!
For a more budget-friendly experience, The Rim Rock Inn is a great option. You can rent either a hotel room or a cabin, all serving up stunning views of the surrounding mesas.
If you want a more extravagant experience, Capitol Reef Resort is the best lodging in all of Torrey. This is where I stayed and I loved being able to sip coffee on my mountain-view balcony, watch the sunrise at night, dip in the beautiful pool, and enjoy breakfast at the on-site restaurant.
What to do in Capitol Reef National Park in one day
This itinerary assumes you are coming from the east. If you’re driving in from the west, it may make more sense to reverse the itinerary!
Drive on Highway 24 and see the Behunin Cabin & the Fruita Schoolhouse
Highway 24 intersects Capitol Reef and is practically a scenic drive in itself. You enter the park via Highway 24 so you’ll have to drive through it to get to the park entrance and all the other main attractions in Capitol Reef!
There are two main sites on Highway 24: the Behunin Cabin and the Fruita Schoolhouse.
The Behunin Cabin is where some of the earliest settlers lived. The Latter-Day Saints (LDS, aka Mormon) settled this area and the quaint Behunin Cabin is where it all started!
It’s a really quick stop – honestly, the cabin can’t be much larger than 100 square feet – but it’s so cool to see where settlers lived back in 1883.
The Fruita Schoolhouse is another stop on Highway 24. This building is equally quaint as the Behunin Cabin, having served as a one-room schoolhouse from elementary school to middle school-aged children. Housing up to 22 students, it’s just the size of a small cabin – but it opened in 1896. So cool!
There are many other scenic pullouts on Highway 24. Check out the ones that interest you before heading to Hickman Bridge!
Hike Hickman Bridge and see the Waterpocket Fold up close
Hickman Bridge is one of the most popular hikes in Capitol Reef, so you’ll definitely want to get here early if possible!
Hickman Bridge is a moderately-difficult, two-mile roundtrip hike with a moderate, 400 foot elevation gain. Although it was flagged as moderately difficult, it definitely felt longer than I expected! Pack your water – you should plan about an hour to complete this hike.
The Hickman Bridge hike provides fantastic canyon views and the opportunity to see a natural “bridge.”
Wondering what a bridge is? It’s basically a really long arch! How long is really long? Well, in the case of Hickman Bridge, about 133 feet.
Check out the Fremont Indian Petroglyphs
After you’ve completed the Hickman Bridge hike, continue on Highway 24 until you see signs for the Fremont Petroglyphs. This isn’t really a trail but rather a bridge that takes just a few minutes to cross. There are two sets of petroglyphs and they’re definitely worth checking out. How often do you get to see petroglyphs?
Head south into the park towards the Gifford Homestead
After you’re done exploring Highway 24, drive towards the Scenic Drive of Capitol Reef National Park. Continue a little bit into the park (past the Visitor Center!) and follow signs for the Gifford Homestead. It’ll be located a gorgeous, luscious fruit grove and a campground. The parking lot is really small, so you may need to park across the street.
The Gifford Homestead is actually where the last residents of Fruit lived before selling their land to the NPS!
Today, it is a super cute, historic gift shop… and pie shop!
Yes, it’s probably early in the morning, but you cannot miss out on the freshly-baked pie sold at the Gifford Homstead. Besides, isn’t fruit basically a breakfast food anyway?
Enjoy the Scenic Drive towards Capitol Gorge
When you’ve gotten your fill of pie, hop in the car and drive on the Scenic Drive.
The best way to see the Scenic Drive is to hit the pull-outs on the right side of the road on the way out and then hit the pull-outs you missed on the way back. This keeps you facing the flow of traffic. There are scenic stops throughout the Scenic Drive that are worth checking out, so hit up the ones you like and enjoy the scenery!
You’ll reach the end of the Scenic Drive at Capitol Gorge. There is a great picnic spot here, so if you brought snacks, it’s an awesome place to hang out for a bit!
Stop by the Visitor’s Center on the way out
Head back out the Scenic Drive towards the visitor center. If you aren’t ready to be done, you can hang out at the Fruita Orchard (near the Gifford Homestead!) and just enjoy the peaceful scenery. I read a book here and it was bliss.
Regardless, when you’re done for the day, hit up the Visitor Center and stock up on any souvenirs you are looking for.
Grab lunch before heading to your hotel
Torrey is a super small town with very limited dining options. Despite the limited options, I accidentally stumbled upon a super awesome burger place that I still dream about today.
Want a small town tip?
Food review services (like Yelp) aren’t really that reliable in little towns, so don’t waste your time checking them out. Instead, go looking for the crowded parking lots.
A packed parking lot with a line out the door is how I discovered Slacker’s Burger Joint in Torrey. Imagine a classic burger joint and you’ll have an idea of what Slacker’s is like. Whipping up simply delicious burgers, fresh onion rings and fries, and awesome ice cream choices, it’s a can’t-miss in Torrey.
The line was long but it moved pretty fast. I ordered a traditional cheeseburger with onion rings and fry sauce (definitely get the fry sauce, it’s a Utah staple!) and it was absolutely delicious.
A buttery soft bun, crisp toppings, and crunchy onion rings really elevated this. Look at that! Is your mouth watering yet?
Enjoy a surprisingly high-end dinner before catching the sunset
If you stay at Capitol Reef Resort, you definitely need to hang out by the pool. It’s a gorgeous pool area with stunning views of the cliffs in the background. Regardless, I recommend spending your afternoon relaxing, freshening up, and maybe even napping (depending on how early you woke up!). Before long, you’ll be ready for dinner.
For dinner, you’re going to check out the nicest restaurant in Torrey. Hunt & Gather is a very nice, but unpretentious, restaurant in Torrey that you absolutely cannot miss.
The fresh bread was delightful and my entree – the “Golden Spike Chicken” – was so bright and delicious.
Make an early-ish reservation so that you can catch the Capitol Reef sunset!
Head to Sunset Point to enjoy the sunset
If you love sunsets, you absolutely cannot miss Sunset Point. This is “technically” considered a hike, but it’s super short, so don’t worry about proper hiking gear!
You can check out the sunset at Sunset Point or continue on to the Goosenecks. This requires scrambling on some rocks and boulders, so I opted not to do that – especially since the sunset looks the same at either place.
The sunset really brings out the colors in the surrounding cliffs!
Can you visit Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in one day?
You could technically visit Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in one day, but it would be a really long day. Capitol Reef and Canyonlands are about 2 1/2 hours away from each other which means you would likely miss out on something at one of the parks. For instance, if you check out the sunrise at Canyonlands, you’ll probably miss out on pie at Capitol Reef – or vice versa.
However, if you want to see Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in one day, I would recommend starting at Canyonlands and ending at Capitol Reef. Mesa Arch at sunrise is absolutely unbelievable and was one of my favorite experiences in the Utah Mighty 5.
In order to see both Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in one day, I would recommend:
- Start at Canyonlands and hike Mesa Arch at sunrise
- Drive the scenic route, but skip any other hikes
- Check out the Visitor Cener on the way out to Capitol Reef National Park
- Eat snacks in the car and skip the Hickman Bridge hike, but otherwise follow this itinerary
- Eat a late lunch at Slacker’s
Following this itinerary will probably put you in Capitol Reef between noon-2 pm, so it’s definitely doable!