Capitol Reef is Utah’s underrated national park. It is not right next to another park like Arches and Canyonlands or Zion and Bryce Canyon so it takes a little more effort to visit, but it is worth any extra driving you may need to do. Even though the Mighty 5 Utah National Parks are spread out a bit, Capitol Reef is located approximately halfway between the other two park groups.
It is a unique park with three areas to explore that are all quite different. It is easy to get off-the-beaten path here and it has hikes great for all difficulty levels. This Capitol Reef National Park itinerary will help you experience all the park has to offer in an unforgettable 2 days.
Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in the below article are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. All opinions on this 2 days in Capitol Reef Itinerary are our own. Click here for the full disclosure statement.
Is Capitol Reef Worth Visiting?
Yes, absolutely! Capitol Reef National Park is incredibly beautiful and while it may not officially be the least visited national park in Utah (that is Canyonlands) it feels like it is a lot less visited. It is easy to get away from crowds here and the park has a variety of beautiful landscapes to see as well as a historical center where you can learn about the early pioneers that settled in this area of Utah.
What if You Only Have One Day in Capitol Reef?
If you just have one day in Capitol Reef, focus on driving the Cathedral Valley Loop. It requires a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle, but the remote and rugged section of the park is the best way to get away from crowds and enjoy the space-like landscape.
Directions to Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is almost halfway between Moab and St. George, right in the center of southern Utah. There are no major towns nearby, but it is very easy to get to and right at the end of one of the best scenic drives in the country.
Salt Lake City to Capitol Reef National Park
The drive to Capitol Reef National Park from the Salt Lake City International Airport is just 3 hours and 40 minutes, covering 228 miles (366 km), half on Interstate 15 and half on quiet back highways. It is an easy drive that takes you through some beautiful scenery. There are plenty of rental car options in Salt Lake City. Check out RentalCars.com for a comparison of all the top brands to find the best price for your trip!
Denver to Capitol Reef National Park
The drive from Denver International Airport is the longest at just over seven hours, but you get to drive through the Rocky Mountains, so at least it is very beautiful. You will drive 460 miles (740 km) through the Rockies and down to the desert of southern Utah. RentalCars.com is a great site to compare prices amongst the top brands for Denver International Airport.
Las Vegas to Capitol Reef National Park
There are two options for the drive from Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas to Capitol Reef. The first is almost all Interstate and the same back roads as the drive from Salt Lake City, and it takes 5 hours and 40 minutes over 341 miles (548 km), and the second option is the one we would recommend.
The other route takes longer but is worth every extra minute on the road. It is almost 7 hours and covers 383 miles (616 km) on the Interstate and then back roads until you get to Scenic Byway 12, one of the best scenic drives in the country. It will take you right to Torrey, the town outside of Capitol Reef. Check out RentalCars.com for a comparison of all the top brands to find the best price from Las Vegas for your trip!
Ultimate 2 Days in Capitol Reef National Park Itinerary
This 2 day Capitol Reef National Park itinerary will take you to the two best parts of the park: the Fruita District and the Cathedral Valley District. These two days will be packed with plenty of hiking and adventure, seeing the best sights in the park.
Day 1 of 2 Days in Capitol Reef National Park Itinerary
There are two main areas of the park and day one of this Capitol Reef National Park itinerary will be spent in the Fruita area along the main scenic drive. This day will be spent hiking and enjoying views in the unique Fruita District.
Optional: Goosenecks Viewpoint if Arriving from the West
If you are coming from the west, like from Torrey, or Zion and Bryce Canyon, make the quick side trip to the Goosenecks Viewpoint. To get here, it is just a short drive on a dirt road off of the main Highway 24 that runs through the park. It is a nice short stop to enjoy a beautiful overlook of Sulphur Creek winding 800 feet (243 m) below.
Location on Google Maps: Goosenecks Overlook
What to Bring: Nothing special here, but keep any pets and small children near.
Helpful Tips: This is a dirt road but any car can make it. It is worth the short drive and even shorter hike to the view. This would even be a great place to enjoy the sunset, or at nearby Panorama Point or Sunset Point.
Visit the Capitol Reef Visitor Center
The best place to start your Capitol Reef itinerary is the visitor center which leads to the main area of the park. You can stop for the last facilities, talk to park rangers, and browse the great gift shop. While you are here, check with park rangers on road conditions for the Cathedral Valley area as you will be driving that the next day in this 2 Day Capitol Reef Itinerary.
Location on Google Maps: Capitol Reef Visitor Center
Facilities: Bathrooms, water, gift shop
What to Bring: Any questions you may have for the park rangers
Helpful Tips: Ask all of your questions here as there is limited connectivity elsewhere in the park.
Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
The scenic drive in Capitol Reef is 7.9 mile (12.7 km) with incredible red rock scenery along the way. Still in the Fruita area, you will pass historic buildings and orchards. The orchards are not always open but when fruit is ready, they are and you can go in to pick it. Along the way you will get to see the varying geology of Capitol Reef including Moenkopi Formations, Wingate Sandstone, Shinarump in the Chinle formation, and Navajo Sandstone.
Capitol Gorge is at the end of the scenic drive and you can take a short hike in a wash to see the Pioneer Register, where early Mormon Pioneers recorded their passage through the canyon. The first road through here was cleared by the pioneers in 1884. There are not a lot of pullouts along the scenic drive like some other parks, but the drive is still very beautiful. On the way back, take the Grand Wash side road for a hike and even more spectacular scenery.
Location on Google Maps: Capitol Reef Visitor Center (starting point)
Facilities: Picnic area shortly after the visitor center, vault toilet at Capitol Gorge
Helpful Tips: The scenic drive is paved but has two dirt side roads you can take that are very worth it. There are washes that cross the paved drive and they may be impassable during or after heavy rain. Do not try to cross them if there is water flowing in them.
Hike to Cassidy Arch
Cassidy Arch was named after Butch Cassidy, the famous bank robber and leader of the outlaw group called the “Wild Bunch,” who often used the area as one of his hideouts. The drive to the trailhead is down a winding gravel road just off of the main Scenic Drive, however it is smooth and easily driven in any car. The hike to Cassidy Arch is a moderate 3.1 mile (4.9 km) out-and-back trail and it is one of the best hikes to have on your Capitol Reef National Park itinerary. Not only do you get to see a beautiful arch, but you will get amazing views of the canyon below.
Location on Google Maps: Cassidy Arch Trailhead
Facilities: Vault toilet
Helpful Tips: Begin the hike by walking through the Grand Wash. If you look back towards the you’re your drove in when you arrive at the parking lot you can see the final destination of your hike high up on the cliffs. Do not do this hike in the rain or if there are storms nearby due to the possible danger of flash floods.
Picnic Lunch at the Gifford Homestead
The Gifford Homestead is one of the historic buildings in the Fruita Valley. It was originally built by polygamist Calvin Pendleton in 1908 and, with his family, he lived there for eight years. The Jorgensen family moved in next, living there from 1916 to 1928 before the Gifford family moved in and stayed for 41 years. In 1954, they also built a small motel for visitors to Capitol Reef. The family ate what they raised and grew at the farm and carried water in from the Fremont River. Over the years, additions were made to the home and property, then in 1969, they sold the home to National Park Service and moved away.
The non-historic addition to the original home has been turned into a little store for the Natural Historic Association. They now sell reproductions of old utensils and household tools used by Mormon Pioneers and made by local craftsmen. Quilts, aprons, soap, jams, jellies, and salsa are among the items sold in addition to fresh-made mini fruit pies, cinnamon rolls, and ice cream. They make great desserts after a picnic lunch.
Location on Google Maps: Gifford Homestead
Facilities: Water, a few picnic tables
Helpful Tips: There are only a few picnic tables here, but if you drive toward the visitor center, you will pass a bigger picnic area and some open pasture areas that could be nice for enjoying your picnic lunch, too. If you are set on getting pie or cinnamon rolls, stop on your way into the park because they can sell out, especially when it is busy, but stop back later for lunch and an ice cream treat.
Explore the Fruita Historic District
Long before the Mormon Pioneers arrived, the Fremont people inhabited the area. That was approximately 2,000 years ago. Petroglyph panels can be found in the park from that time period and they depict the stories of the people who lived here. Aside from the petroglyphs, which can be easily seen along Highway 24 via boardwalk, there are not many other ways to easily see evidence of their habitation.
Between the visitor center and the Gifford Homestead, you can see a variety of buildings and orchards that are remnants of the once-bustling Fruita settlement. This area is the heart of Capitol Reef. No one settled into what would be known later as Fruita, until 1879 at the earliest. As more people moved in, mail was delivered to a centrally located cottonwood tree, the Mail Tree, that can still be seen in the picnic area today.
Along Highway 24 is a one-room schoolhouse/community center that was built in 1896 and is occasionally open to visitors. Throughout the Fruita area you will also come across quite a few orchards, some have old farm equipment in them, that are still functional. In the spring and early summer you can see the fruit trees bloom, and in the fall you can go in to pick the fruit when it is ready.
Location on Google Maps: Fruita
Facilities: Visitor center, Gifford Homestead Store, bathrooms, water (all depending on where exactly you are)
Helpful Tips: If you are visiting in the fall, definitely set aside some time (and cash, it’s $2 USD per pound to take anything with you) to pick some fruit in the orchards. The ones that are open will have U-Pick signs by them. There are a lot of deer in this area, so keep an eye out for them crossing the road.
Day 2 of 2 Days in Capitol Reef National Park Itinerary
On day two of your 2 Day Capitol Reef itinerary, you will drive through the northern Cathedral Valley section of the park, a remote and rugged area that requires a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle. If you have a properly equipped 4×4 vehicle then you can easily complete this drive in either direction, however if you are unsure, follow the order below so that you complete the river crossing and more difficult off-road sections at the beginning of the drive. If you do the whole drive, it should take between 6 and 8 hours.
Drive Hartnet Road
It is encouraged to start the 57.6 mile (92.7 km) drive through Cathedral Valley on Hartnet Road. It starts along a gravel road, taking you through some stunning scenery. You will come across an old abandoned truck in the middle of the desert, some colorful rocks, and beautiful desert overlooks. You will also pass through the colorful Bentonite Hills here. The Bentonite clay becomes very slippery when wet and may make walking or driving on it difficult or impossible. For this drive, you will want to bring plenty of food and more water than you think you need, just in case.
Location on Google Maps: Hartnet Road River Crossing
Helpful Tips: Do not attempt to cross the river during rain, floods, or other periods of high water for your safety. The river bottom is rocky and the river itself is usually only a foot or so deep. If you are unsure if your vehicle will safely make it across the river, walk out into the river first to confirm the depth of the water before proceeding.
Upper South Desert Overlook
One of the highest points of your drive on Hartnet Road is at the South Desert Overlook, an overlook of a valley that extends 20 miles (32.2 km) southeast and runs parallel to the Waterpocket Fold. From here, you can see Jailhouse Rock towering 500 feet (152 m) from the valley floor. This is a beautiful view and a stop that shouldn’t take too long.
Location on Google Maps: Upper South Desert Overlook
Helpful Tips: There is a short trail over Morrison hills, a type of rock layer, that will take you to the best view of Jailhouse Rock, which is made of Entrada Sandstone.
Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
This will be your first view of the stunning Cathedral Valley, the areas namesake. The valleys below are dotted with incredible stone monoliths. Enjoy the view from here before the bumpy drive down into the valley itself.
Location on Google Maps: Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
Facilities: Picnic area (no water)
Helpful Tips: Not long after the overlook is the turnoff to continue onto Cathedral Road. It will be a right turn. There is an easy hiking trail to the view.
Continue driving down the rough and bumpy road into the Cathedral Valley where you will be between the towering monoliths you just saw from above. This is the area of the loop drive with most of the sights. If you are camping, this is also where you will find the Cathedral Valley Primitive Campground.
Location on Google Maps: Cathedral Valley
Facilities: Campground, bathrooms
Helpful Tips: Between the overlook and the Gypsum Sinkhole, stop at Glass Mountain to see selenite crystals, just remember collecting anything (rocks, plants, animals, artifacts) in the park is illegal, so just enjoy it while you are there.
Visit the Gypsum Sinkhole
Next is the Gypsum Sinkhole. This sinkhole really comes out of nowhere and is both wider and deeper than we imagined! The sinkhole was formed in the opposite way of Glass Mountain. Groundwater dissolved a buried gypsum plug and the cavity left behind collapsed in on itself, leaving a hole nearly 50 feet (15 m) across and 200 feet (61 m) deep.
Location on Google Maps: Gypsum Sinkhole
Helpful Tips: Enjoy the view, but do not get too close to the edge here because the rock is soft and unstable and could collapse at any time.
The Monoliths – Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon
The highlight of the Cathedral Valley Loop and one of the main draws for most visitors to Capitol Reef National Park are the stunningly beautiful Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. The large monoliths are made of Entrada Sandstone that was deposited here 160 million years ago. There is not much to do here other than view the beautiful monoliths from a variety of angles. Take some photos and enjoy the view!
Helpful Tips: If you are camping in Cathedral Valley, seeing the monoliths either at sunrise or sunset is a must, both would be great if you can. If not, just take your time to enjoy this beautiful area any time of day.
Drive Back to Highway 24 Along Cathedral Road
After taking this Cathedral Road back to Highway 24, you will have completed a full loop in the backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park. This road is gravel and manageable by most cars. There are some beautiful rock formations and colors along the way. If you have the time, be sure to take your time and enjoy them.
Location on Google Maps: Where Cathedral Road meets Utah SR 24
Helpful Tips: If you want to see the Monoliths and cannot or do not want to drive the full loop, you can always start from this side and turn back after Cathedral Valley. This is also a better option if you are not confident in offroad driving, or do not have a vehicle capable of the rougher sections of Hartnet Road.
Detailed Utah National Park Itineraries:
Best Time to Visit Capitol Reef National Park
There is no bad time to visit Capitol Reef National Park, but some seasons will be much more enjoyable and comfortable. Like a lot of the Utah National Parks, fall is one of the best times to visit and you should be able to easily do everything on this Capitol Reef National Park itinerary then.
Winter in Capitol Reef National Park
Winter is a great time to visit Capitol Reef but you will not be able to go inside the Gifford Homestead. Temperatures will be lower and it can be windy making it even colder. The crowds are much smaller so you will be able to experience hikes without a ton of other people. If you want to drive the Cathedral Valley Loop, keep an eye on the weather and definitely check road conditions. It is not advisable to drive it if it is snowy or rainy.
Spring in Capitol Reef National Park
Spring is a great time to visit Capitol Reef but it can be extremely windy which makes hiking a little uncomfortable with sand blowing in your eyes. It is not as busy as summer and the temperatures are very reasonable. The Gifford Homestead opens for the season on March 14th (Pi Day because they have delicious pies!).
Summer in Capitol Reef National Park
The most popular time to visit Capitol Reef is in the summer, but we do not necessarily recommend it because it is much busier and the temperatures are very high making hiking uncomfortable. Everything is open in the summer. If you are driving the Cathedral Valley Loop check road conditions, especially for the river crossing, because it is not good to drive in the rain. July, August, and September are monsoon season, so be aware of possible heavy rain and flash floods during this period.
Fall in Capitol Reef National Park
Fall may be the best time to visit Capitol Reef for a few reasons. The park is not as busy as summer but the temperatures are much more comfortable making hiking more enjoyable. You will also probably get to see the park painted yellow as the leaves change and you will be able to pick fruit in the orchards, which is easily one of the best things to do there since orchards in national parks are few and far between. The Gifford Homestead closes for the season on October 31st.
Best Place to Stay Near Capitol Reef National Park
There are not a lot of hotel options near Capitol Reef but there are two main towns, one on each side of the park. Torrey is much closer, but Hanksville is more convenient if you are coming from Denver or the Moab area.
Hotels in Torrey Near Capitol Reef National Park
There are a good number of hotels to choose from in Torrey, but two that stand out are the Sky Ridge Inn, a cute bed and breakfast, and the Capitol Reef Resort. The Sky Ridge Inn has just has a few rooms but it is in a great location, has delicious breakfast, and incredible views. The Capitol Reef Resort is just outside of the park and has both hotel and glamping options. If you want a fun experience, you can stay in a teepee!
Hotels in Hanksville Near Capitol Reef National Park
There aren’t many options for hotels in Hanksville, but the Whispering Sands Motel will get the job done. It’s not terribly fancy but it is in a good location, right in town along the main highway passing through.
Capitol Reef National Park Camping
There is only one campground in the main part of Capitol Reef, the Fruita Campground, and it has 71 spots in a beautiful area with plenty of trees surrounded by red rock desert. It is particularly beautiful in the fall. There is potable water, firewood, fire pits, picnic tables, and bathrooms with toilets but no showers. The campground is open year-round and sites are reservable from March 1st to October 31st and can be reserved up to six months in advance. The rest of the year it is first-come, first-served.
If you are driving the Cathedral Valley Loop and want to spend the night out there, you can camp at the Cathedral Valley Campground which is about halfway through the loop. There is no fee but there are just six spots, each with a picnic table and fire pit. There is no water available here. The campground is open year-round but may be inaccessible due to weather and poor road conditions.
The Next Trip Top 5 Tips for a 2 Days in Capitol Reef National Park Itinerary
Being prepared for a visit to any national park is very important, but these five tips will ensure you have the best time possible during your Capitol Reef National Park itinerary!
Beware of Snakes
Snakes can be very prevalent, especially in the Cathedral Valley area, so keep an eye out for them if you are hiking at all. If you do see one, stay calm and keep your distance. Back away from the snake and if it does not move, turn back. Keep an eye, and ear, out for other snakes in the area. Not all snakes are venomous and rattlesnakes will usually make themselves known if you get too close. Do not throw things at it, tease or provoke it, or attempt to kill it. Here are types of snakes found in Capitol Reef.
Research the Cathedral Valley Road Conditions
The road through Cathedral Valley is not frequently traveled, especially in off-season, so check road conditions before you leave and make sure you are well-prepared, just in case. The road can be very rough in some spots and may be impassable after recent snow or rain. To check conditions, you can call 435-425-3791 and press #1 for information, then #4 for road conditions. This area is incredibly remote and it can take hours, even days, for help to arrive if needed depending on the time of year so be prepared with supplies.
Stop by the Gifford Homestead
The Gifford Homestead is one of the things that makes Capitol Reef so unique so be sure to stop in for a treat. The fresh pies and cinnamon rolls can sell out and they are both a must-try so it is best to stop by earlier in the day if you can. The salsa and ice cream are both delicious, too.
Bring all food and water with you
There are no significant facilities in the park so you will want to bring food and snacks with you, especially if you are driving through Cathedral Valley as there are no facilities at all in that area of the park. The Gifford Homestead has a few snacks but it is still best to bring anything you may want with you.
Stop at the Goosenecks Viewpoint
One of the best views in the park is at the Goosenecks Overlook. There is a short dirt road and a short walk to a unique view the you will not get to see anything like it from the road. As you approach the edge, the drop-off of 800 feet (243 m) below you will review a series of goosenecks, which are U-shaped curves in Sulphur Creek.
2 Days in Capitol Reef National Park Itinerary Summary
This 2 Day Capitol Reef Itinerary will prepare you to explore the best that the park has to offer, in just a short time. The park is one of Utah’s best with its remote Cathedral Valley, the incredible Temples of the Moon and Sun, and so much more to offer. Did we miss any of your favorite stops in Capitol Reef? Let us know in the comments!
Be sure to pin this post to your Southwest USA Pinterest board so that are ready to visit Capitol Reef on your next road trip through Utah!