25 Sep Don’t skimp when visiting Utah’s Capitol Reef
One of Utah’s “big five” national parks
I’ve vacationed in Utah 14 times. There’s a lot to see and explore in the state. But in past visits, I’ve pretty much ignored Capitol Reef National Park, reducing it to a simple “drive thru” and a couple of stops for scenic overlooks.
The other “big four” national parks in Utah deserve a lot of attention – they’re spectacular: Zion, Bryce, Arches and Canyonlands. My family and I have spent a lot of time in these destinations. And now I’ve finally spent enough time in Capitol Reef to better understand why this region deserves being one of our nation’s 63 national parks.
My brother-in-law and I visited Capitol Reef National Park for three days in late March. Perfect timing. Fewer tourists, clear blue spring skies and ideal hiking temperatures, 40 degrees in the morning and highs of 70 by afternoon.
Our favorite hike? Easily, the three-mile roundtrip trail from Grand Wash up to Cassidy Arch. We soaked up beautiful views of surrounding cliffs and rock formations and then savored the finale – standing on top of the arch, one of the few that the National Park Service allows people to cross. Our second favorite – the shorter two-mile roundtrip hike up to Hickman Bridge, also framed by gorgeous views along the trail. Both hikes featured modest elevation gains managed by people of all ages.
We added a mix of other shorter and longer hikes to The Tanks in Capitol Gorge, the Chimney Rock Loop Trail and the Cohab to South Fruita Trail. The park contains 120 miles of trails for day jaunts and backpacking. In addition, plenty of four-wheel drive roads take explorers into the Waterpocket Fold, Strike Valley and other remote regions of Capitol Reef.
The road labeled “Scenic Drive” does indeed live up to its name. We enjoyed this winding road several times because it’s the route to several popular hiking trails. We also drove the less traveled Cathedral Road to Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. You can make this a loop route by connecting to Hartnet Road, for a total of 71 miles. Just be sure to first talk to visitor center staff about road conditions and the status of a creek crossing. We used an all-wheel-drive SUV which easily handled the dirt road, in dry conditions.
The park also features cultural sights including petroglyphs and historic buildings including a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and the Gifford Farm and House Store where you can buy one of their famous pies made in the tradition of the homestead’s original owners. In between hikes, we ate our box lunches here in the picnic area.
The park features great spots for sunrise and sunset photography. We choose Panorama Point, Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point, which are all clustered together just off Highway 24 that splits the park in half.
We stayed in Torrey at Austin’s Chuckwagon Lodge, which was right next to an incredible deli and bakery. We ate there several times and, in the evening, ordered box lunches for pick-up the next morning because we planned to stay in the park all day.
We eventually transitioned south from Torrey along the Million Dollar Road (State Route 12) to the town of Escalante. There, we explored the northern section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which I’ll write about in the upcoming months.