Capitol Reef National Park might be the most underrated of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks. I’ve lived in Utah for most of my life and never really thought about visiting Capitol Reef until the pandemic has forced me to explore local. I know lots of Utahns who similarly haven’t been. What a mistake! I’ve managed to visit 4 of Utah’s 5 National Parks during the pandemic, and so far, Capitol Reef National Park is my favorite. It offers the spectacular scenery you can expect in any Utah National Park, but the sites are so varied, it’s less crowded than the more popular parks, and there is some really good food in the area. Let me show you all that Capitol Reef National Park has to offer.
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Where is Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National park is located in south central Utah, a 3.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City. For Utah visitors trying to hit as many of the Mighty 5 National Parks as possible in one trip, Capitol Reef is almost equidistant between Bryce Canyon NP and Arches NP. It would take about 2.5 hours to drive from each.
The Waterpocket Fold is What Makes Capitol Reef Unique
The key feature of Capitol Reef National Park is Utah’s Waterpocket Fold. I won’t get into complex geography here, but it’s basically a 100 mile stretch of the earth’s surface that wrinkled up when certain tectonic plates collided millions of year ago. One side raised higher than the other. Then over time water eroded the earth’s surface both revealing and reshaping the Wrinkle. The Park is named for the large white sandstone domes along the Waterpocket Fold that resemble the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Capitol Reef National Park Orientation
Highway 24 is the main east-west highway through this section of Utah, and traverses the Park. There is no entry fee when driving this road. Several of the Park’s most popular sites – the Hickman Bridge, Chimney Rook, Sunset Point, and the Petroglyphs – are easily accessed off this highway.
At the historic pioneer settlement of Fruita, about midway through the Park on Highway 24, sits the Park’s Visitors Center. Here a paved side-road follows the Waterpocket Fold as it turns south. This road is called the Scenic Route and there is a $20 fee to access it (via a self-pay kiosk). The paved portion of this road extends 8 miles along the Waterpocket Fold and offers – you guessed it – scenic views! The dirt road turnoff for two of the Park’s most popular hikes – Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash – is few miles down this road.
The park extends north of Highway 24 for about 30 miles, but this part of the park is only accessible off-road with a high-clearance 4X4. This is where you’ll find the spectacular Cathedral Valley – an area I believe to be one of the most beautiful spots in Utah.
Our Lodging near Capitol Reef
We stayed in a great vacation rental for our 4 nights in the area. The Sweetgrass Studio is located in the small town of Bicknell (pop 325), about 20 minutes west of the park. Torrey Utah (pop 180) sits closer to the Park’s entrance and consequently has more hotel choices. But regular readers know that if I can find a good vacation rental, I will always take that option.
The Sweetgrass Studio is located in one of Bicknell’s pioneer buildings dating to 1873. It was originally the town’s mercantile and has been beautifully restored. It now houses the owner-artist’s studio, a coffee shop, and a large vacation rental apartment on the top floor. The woodwork throughout the apartment is clearly the work of a master. The hosts were very nice and the location was great. Although there are more dining options in smaller Torrey (due to its proximity to the Park), Bicknell is located only 10 minutes away. Learn more about The Sweetgrass Studio by clicking this VRBO link
The Capitol Reef Resort is a popular hotel option located east of Torrey with views out across the Park. And for those who prefer camping, there are several area campgrounds and RV Parks – including camping options inside the Park
Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park
During our stay, we hiked the Park’s three most popular trails as ranked by AllTrails.com
Hickman Bridge Trail
The Hickman Bridge Trail is the Park’s most popular hike. The parking lot and trailhead is located right off Highway 24, two miles past the Visitors Center. This hike is 1.8 miles round trip and AllTrails reports a 442 foot elevation gain. It’s rated moderate. Most of the climbing is at the beginning, with only mild elevation gains during the latter half of the hike. The end point is Hickman Bridge – a natural arch. The trail takes you directly underneath and through this arch, and then around the other side in a loop.
It took us an hour to complete the round trip Hickman Bridge hike, though we usually hike fairly quickly. (More accurately, Mrs. Thorough Tripper usually sets a blistering pace and I work hard to keep up. It is not intentional that she is so far in front of me in any hiking picture that includes her). But I also stop often to take pictures.
Cassidy Arch Trail
The Cassidy Arch Trail is the Park’s second highest rated hike on AllTrails.com. It’s unquestionably more challenging than Hickman Bridge. The parking lot and trailhead is located down a dirt side road accessed off the Scenic Drive.
The hike is 3.6 miles round trip. AllTrails lists it at 3.1 miles, but that doesn’t include the flat walk through Grand Wash from the parking area to the trail head. At the trailhead, a sign indicates a 3 mile round trip hike with a 950 foot elevation gain. AllTrails rates this hike as moderate. I would disagree. There is a lot of climbing, some of it steep. After all, almost 1000 feet is gained in 1.5 miles – most of that in the first mile. If Hickman Bridge is moderate, then this hike is Moderate Plus.
The end point is another Arch – Cassidy Arch. It’s named after the outlaw Butch Cassidy who supposedly roamed these parts. The Arch is located high on top of a plateau with commanding views of the surrounding area. And once you get there, you can actually walk across Cassidy Arch.
It took us about two hours to complete this hike. I’ve written a blog post entirely dedicated to the Cassidy Arch Trail. For more pictures along this awesome hike, check it out.
Grand Wash Trail
Grand Wash Trail is the Park’s third highest rated hike on AllTrails. It’s a flat hike along Grand Wash – a dry river bed that runs through soaring 500 foot canyon walls that alternate colors along the route. Sometimes white, sometimes brown, sometimes red. The distance is 4.4 miles round trip and there are two access points. You can either begin the hike along Highway 24 a few miles east of the Hickman Bridge trail where you will find a small parking area. Alternatively you can hike through the Wash from the other direction. This trailhead is accessed from the same parking lot used for the Cassidy Arch Trail, down the dirt road turnoff via Scenic Drive.
We started from the Highway 24 parking area immediately after our Hickman Bridge hike. We didn’t have time to hike the full 2.2 miles from one side of the Wash to the other, but we were able to go most of the way – about 1.7 miles – before we turned back. It’s an easy hike through this narrow wash. There is an elevation gain of several hundred feet, but it’s very gradual and I didn’t notice it. The high canyon walls are stunning due to their height, colors, and closeness. In fact, there is a section called The Narrows. As we passed through The Narrows, I measured about 20 feet from one side to the other.
You might be lucky enough to see wildlife, too. At our turnaround point, we spotted a family of 5 mountain goats.
Other Sites in Capitol Reef National Park
As I mentioned before, Cathedral Valley is located in the northernmost section of the Park – a remote area reachable only via a dirt road called the Cathedral Valley Loop. As I researched the trip and saw the pictures of Cathedral Valley, I quickly concluded that we absolutely needed to see it’s spectacular scenery. But, the road is a rough one. And driver’s must ford a river at the beginning of the loop. For those reasons, a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle is absolutely necessary when exploring Cathedral Valley.
I rented a Jeep for a day from Capitol Reef Jeep Rentals in Torrey, and we spent an eventful 8 hours exploring the Cathedral Valley Loop. Because it is in such a remote area of the park, and because the road is difficult, only about 1% of Park visitors ever see Cathedral Valley. But for the adventurous and patient, other-worldly hills of multi-colored volcanic bentonite clay, unspoiled vistas, giant sandstone monoliths, and valleys circled by tall red variegated cliffs, await.
I have dedicated an entire blog post to our day on the Cathedral Valley Loop, so check it out for a full accounting. In the meantime, here are a few pictures from our day
A true Capitol Reef rite of passage it seems, is eating a pie from Fruita’s Gifford House, which sits at the beginning of the Scenic Drive. Fruita was the first Mormon pioneer settlement in the area, and it’s named for all the fruit trees those settlers planted. Now, only a few buildings from the original Fruita still exist, but the orchards remain. The Park’s largest campground is here, too.
One of Fruita’s remaining structures is the Gifford House. It was the last occupied house in Fruita and is now owned by the National Park Service. Inside, they sell jams, jellies, and pies made with fruit from the area’s orchards.
The pies are delicious and popular. They are small – perfect for two people to share. On our first attempt to buy pie, we stopped in the Gifford House at 3:30 pm, after driving the Scenic Road. No pies remained! Next time, we stopped on our way to Cathedral Valley at 10:00 am, and we found the full selection. The Peach was good, the Berry was outstanding. They were the perfect dessert for our Cathedral Valley picnic lunch.
The Scenic Drive
This is paved road that turns south off Highway 24 and follows the Waterpocket Fold. The Visitors Center and Gifford House both sit at the beginning of this road. There is a $20 fee to access it (you’ll find a self-pay station just beyond Gifford House). It’s 7.9 miles in one direction and features multiple pull-out areas for picture taking. As I’ve previously mentioned, the Cassidy Arch Trail and the south trailhead for the Grand Wash Trail are accessed along this road. At the end of the paved Scenic Drive, you can continue to drive a dirt road into Capitol Gorge – a ravine that cuts through the Waterpocket Fold. The Capitol Gorge Trail – another of the Park’s popular trails – sits within the Gorge.
We drove the Scenic Drive after finishing our hike to Cassidy Arch. Every turnout offered a different beautiful view of the cliffs along this section of the Waterpocket Fold. We spent about an hour driving, stopping, and photographing. We didn’t have time this trip to explore the Capitol Gorge, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive my own car along the rough Gorge road anyway.
The Goosenecks and Sunset Point
These are two overlooks located in the west side of the Park off Highway 24. I’ve listed them together because they share a parking lot.
A short trail westward from the parking lot takes you to the Goosenecks Overlook. From here you look down into the canyon below. The name Goosenecks comes from the shape of the river as it cuts through the canyon. Because we were in the area at the end of the day before sunset, the sun was in our eyes, but it actually made for a cool picture.
A 0.4 mile trail eastward from the parking lot takes you to Sunset Point – a fairly broad area on top of a plateau that looks eastward to the Watermark Fold. With the sun behind in the hours just before sunset, the light on the cliffs is at its best.
Note that the sun is setting behind you at Sunset Point, so the idea is to be there in the hours before sunset. You aren’t watching the sunset over the cliffs. Also, I found that shadows were starting creep across the view about an hour prior to sunset
Petroglyphs left by the Fremont Culture of Native Americans are located throughout the Park, but the easiest place to view them is off Highway 24 just 1 mile past the Visitors Center. There is a well-marked parking lot and a boardwalk extending along the cliff wall for several hundred feet. Walk along the boardwalk and spot various patches of petroglyphs on the walls just above. The Fremont people lived in Utah from 200-1300 AD
Another landmark along Highway 24 is Chimney Rock. This formation is easily spotted from a distance and there are several pullouts to stop and photograph it. There is also a popular hike through the area (#4 for the Park on AllTrails) but we didn’t have time during our stay for this one.
Dining Near Capitol Reef
I was very impressed with our food options in this area. These included Indian Fusion, the best Burger I have ever eaten, and one of Utah’s most awarded restaurants.
This is Bicknell’s top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor in a town of few options, but it’s very good. The owner has now branched out to several locations in the Salt Lake City area. They are famous for their pizzas using Indian ingredients, though they also feature more traditional pizzas too, along with standard Indian dishes.
On our first night, we ordered their Chicken Tikka Masala Pizza and took it back the few blocks to our rental. It features a masala curry sauce topped with chicken, green peppers, tomatoes, and other Indian spices. The flavors all came together very nicely and it was delicious.
Because I love Indian food, we also visited another night, and ordered some of our favorite Indian dishes. They were also very good, though the naan was basically a version of their pizza crust rather than a true naan bread.
Capitol Burger is a burger-only food truck that parks at two different locations in Torrey – one for lunch, one for dinner (check their Facebook page for their location schedule.) I’d read the reviews online and made it a priority for our first dinner in Torrey. That night Mrs. TT ordered their regular cheeseburger and I ordered their daily special – a burger topped with homemade Wagyu beef chili. We knew they would be good, but the flavor was even better than expected.
I talked with the owner and chef, who told me that he gets his beef from a local rancher just up the road, and grinds it fresh each day. He actually tries to buy Waygu beef for all his burgers, but there was a shortage this year. I was also impressed with the buns – they were lightly toasted, but soft and slightly sweet and very fresh. Turns out that he gets those from Salt Lake City’s popular Stoneground Bakery. His burger menu features a few standard burgers, but also burgers topped with pulled pork, pastrami, and even mac/cheese. During the off-season, he relocates and serves his burgers to the lucky residents of Richfield Utah – one of the larger towns in central Utah.
We made it a point to go back on a different day and try more from the menu. I’m glad we did, because his Mushroom Burger now holds the title of Best Burger I’ve Ever Eaten. The fresh juicy flavorful burger was topped with garlic cremini mushrooms, caramelized onions and blue cheese dressing. Plus, a garlic aioli was spread across the bottom bun. It was perfection!
Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm
Across a mountain to the south of Torrey, towards Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, sits another small Utah town called Boulder (pop 225). In this unassuming place, you will find one Utah’s most awarded restaurants – Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm. And even though it was an hour each way from our lodging in Bicknell – of course I had to eat there!
The two chef/owners of Hell’s Backbone Grill and Farm are known for being pioneers in the farm-to-table organic local food movement. They grow much of their organic produce on site. The restaurant is consistently recognized by local publications as one of Utah’s best and is regularly featured in the national media. The chefs have been James Beard nominees for several consecutive years including 2020.
The drive across Boulder Mountain from the Torrey/Bicknell area is worth it for the scenery alone. The road skirts the east side of the mountain with views out across Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument while climbing up and through dense pines.
We arrived at the restaurant early as they were not taking reservations during COVID times and were offering outdoor-only seating on their expanded patio. The restaurant is on the grounds of the The Boulder Mountain Lodge – the area’s most popular hotel, and it was already busy at 4:30 pm on a Sunday afternoon. We were quickly seated at the last available table overlooking a small pond, though we would have been content wandering the grounds until a table was ready. The weather was perfect. The service was outstanding. The food was deserving of all its acclaim.
My Hell’s Backbone Meal
Final Thoughts on Capitol Reef
I’m so glad that I finally visited Capitol Reef National Park. It offers so much to see and do. We spent 3 days in and around the Park, and could easily have spent a 4th. If you only had one day in the Park, I would recommend hiking Hickman Bridge and Grand Wash, driving the Scenic Road, and visiting Sunset Point in the evening. Capitol Burger is a must-visit. Peak season is from June-Sept, but it can be quite hot there mid-summer. Late Spring and early Fall offer cooler pleasant temperatures. Winters can be very cold in this part of Utah due to the 5600 foot elevation. Whenever you go, I’m sure you’ll love it!
I would like to read about the other Mighty 5 Utah National Parks, then check out my posts on Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and a visit to Moab Utah including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks