When I was telling people all about the Utah National Parks trip I had planned, of course they knew all about Zion and Bryce Canyon. And everybody ooohs and ahhhs over Moab, but when I said I was including a stop at Capitol Reef, I got…blank stares.
“What’s that? It’s a National Park? I’ve never even heard of it!”
Whether it’s the least visited National Park in Utah is debatable (I’ve seen some numbers that suggest that Canyonlands in Moab is actually the least visited), but I’m going to say that Capitol Reef National Park is definitely the least well known.
So now that I’ve done the Utah MIGHTY FIVE and can compare them all, here’s my answer to a question I’ve been getting…
(Plus read to the end for logistics on how to spend a day in the park, where to stay, etc.).
Is Capitol Reef Worth Visiting?
I’ll be honest…I’m a National Parks bucket lister, so of course I think every national park is worth visiting. I will NEVER not go to a National Park when I’m nearby. I must collect those stamps in my passport.
If you’re doing the big 2 week “Grand Circle Tour” of southern Utah and Northern Arizona, then of course you’ve GOT to stop at Capitol Reef. You’re not going to visit four of Utah’s National Parks without visiting the fifth.
But I don’t think people who are doing the full trip are usually the ones asking this question.
I think people who are doing a week-long trip and either focusing on one side or the other of Utah are the ones who wonder if it’s worth it.
The Details: Utah is a big state and its five National Parks are strung out across the southern end. Zion and Bryce Canyon (with the Grand Canyon and Page, AZ) are clustered more on the western side within a 2.5 hour drive from Vegas.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks sit just outside of Moab (also close to Monument Valley and the parks in southwestern Colorado) on the eastern side of the state.
And Capitol Reef National Park is right in the middle. Too far to really do as a day trip if you’re staying in either area. If you’re doing ALL the parks in one trip, it’s a pretty easy stopover as you’re moving from Zion/Bryce over to Moab.
But if you’re only focusing on the Zion/Bryce/Grand Canyon area OR Moab, then a visit to Capitol Reef probably means packing up the car and moving camp.
So in that scenario…is it worth it?
Well, let me tell you what I liked about the park (and what I didn’t like so much) so you can decide…
What I Liked about Visiting Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef isn’t crowded at all. I visited during the third week of August (still considered the busy summer season), and after battling the crowds in Zion, Capitol Reef practically felt like a ghost town.
There’s a really great scenic drive. I LOVE a good scenic drive. While Capitol Reef isn’t nearly as dramatic as Zion, it’s definitely a lot more scenic than Bryce, from the car.
It was one of Butch Cassidy’s hideouts. The famous outlaw (born Robert LeRoy Parker) grew up in the part of Utah and it’s rumored that he even hid out in parts of what are now Capitol Reef National Park. The park’s famous Cassidy Arch is named after him.
Torrey, UT is the small gateway town for Capitol Reef and it’s a charming little town with a great hotel and a fantastic breakfast/coffee spot. If you’ve done much National Park travel, you know sometimes the logistics of these little towns can make a trip more (or less) enjoyable.
There’s pie! Yes, the National Parks are known for their natural beauty, but I always appreciate a bit of culture too. Early Mormon settlers settled a valley (now inside the National Park bounds) with orchards of fruit trees and the tiny settlement of Fruita is still there today.
Some of the orchards are open for picking during season, and there’s always homemade pie (and ice cream!) at the Gifford House.
What I Didn’t Like about Visiting Capitol Reef
Before I visited, I’d read that most people just end up driving through the park on their way in between Bryce Canyon and Moab, aaaaan now I kind of know why.
The park is long and skinny, but the main road just cuts across a tiny portion of it.
A lot of what this park is best known for (Cathedral Valley in particular) isn’t very accessible. Besides the main part of the park around the visitor center (along the highway that cuts through), most roads aren’t paved and aren’t well maintained. So you’ll need a high clearance vehicle for sure (not necessarily 4WD although maybe sometimes).
But the bigger problem is how remote it is. There’s not really any cell service in the park. And since it’s not a very visited park and the majority of people just stick to one area, when you get off the main roads and venture out in the backcountry it’s pretty desolate.
IF something were to happen to your vehicle, you’re pretty much on your own. The NPS warns to be prepared for all situations and to know that help could be hours (or days) away. For your casual park visitor, I think that makes most of the park pretty off limits.
- That means if you want to see what’s probably the best of Capitol Reef, you’re going to want to pay for a Jeep tour. And this isn’t a three hour tour. These are pretty much all day affairs that take you deep into the backcountry. So…they’re expensive.
Also, because of the location of Capitol Reef (Torrey, UT) is the closest town, if you’re spending most of your time around Zion/Bryce or Moab, you’re going to have to pack up and stay in another hotel to visit Capitol Reef. Not a deal breaker, but if you’re already staying in a couple different places between Las Vegas, Zion, and Bryce, then you may not want to bother with it logistically.
And lastly…I really enjoyed Capitol Reef. It was beautiful, I had a great day, saw amazing things, etc. BUT if I have to rank the five Utah National Parks, it’s probably at the bottom of my list.
One Day at Capitol Reef
All of that being said, if you do decide to visit Capitol Reef National Park, here’s how I spent one day in the park:
We arrived in Torrey, UT at the end of the day after spending the day in Bryce Canyon. We booked two nights in Torrey so we’d have one FULL day to explore Capitol Reef.
Honestly, since I’d done so much at Zion and Bryce and had a big finale planned with Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon down in Arizona, we planned to take it easier at Capitol Reef.
As I’ve mentioned, if you’re not going out on a guided tour, there’s definitely less to see in the park. So we slept in a bit and had breakfast at Wild Rabbit Cafe in Torrey.
I LOVE this place. They had great coffee and drinks, hearty breakfast sandwiches, plenty of sweets plus you could order sandwiches to go for later.
Our first stop was the visitor center to get my passport stamped and talk to a park ranger. They helped us lay out a pretty good plan for the day.
First we headed to hike to the Hickman Natural Bridge. It’s the most popular hike in the park, but it’s not terribly far and since it was already mid morning at this point (and fairly toasty) we figured we would only squeeze in one hike and wanted to make it a good one.
This is where we saw the most people by far! We waited a bit to get a parking spot at the trailhead, but ended up with a spot in the shade. And that’s the last of the shade we saw for a while.
The hike only took about an hour round trip, but the first part of it is a pretty decent climb and almost entirely in the sun.
Once we gained some elevation, we found little pockets of shade here and there and once we got back to the arch there was some shade.
It’s definitely worth the hike! The scenery and conditions were really different from the other parks and we had a great view of the Capitol dome.
My only “note” is that once you get to the natural bridge, you can go underneath it and loop around back to the main trail. In hindsight, I wouldn’t do the loop again. The bit of the trail beyond the arch looked like RATTLESNAKE CITY. I never saw (or heard any) but I was on red alert and just powered through really fast. I would hike up under the arch and then just retrace your steps the way you came.
After our hike, cooling down in the AC sounded like a good idea so we did the 8 mile scenic drive to Capitol Gorge.
This is really the highlight of the park if you’re not going to go offroad into the backcountry.
After the scenic drive, we drove across to the other side of the park to see if the view changed much. It doesn’t really, the best (drivable) part of the park is from Torrey to the visitor center and then the scenic drive.
And then it was time for pie! We spent some time in Fruita checking out the settlement. There’s an old school house plus a barn with horses near the Gifford House. And there really are fruit trees everywhere!
The Gifford House has some really nice pioneer-centric souvenirs and the pie was seriously so good. We had the cherry and berry and both were great. Plus they have little ice cream cups in a freezer that you can add on.
And by that time we were pretty much ready to pack it up and head back to Torrey. We stopped at the general store to stock up on some snacks for our long drive the next day.
The night before we had dinner at the Broken Spur Steakhouse which was really good, but if you’ve only got time for one dinner, I think I’d go with the Rim Rock Patio out at the Capitol Reef Resort. They have wood fired pizzas and great views of the park!
Last Word: Is Capitol Reef Worth Visiting?
Okay, so is Capitol Reef worth it? All things considered…if you’re doing the full grand circle trip and visiting both the Zion/Bryce AND the Moab site of Utah, of course!
If you’re sticking to one side and trying to decide whether adding on a day or two at Capitol Reef is worth it…I think I would probably only do it if you’re going to pay for a Jeep tour into the backcountry so you’ll be able to see the best of the park. Otherwise, I think you can see the park in about 3 hours, unless you’re a mega hiker. And honestly, if you’re visiting during the summer, the conditions for hiking here are a little extreme to be hiking midday.
Staying in Torrey, UT
If you do find yourself planning a stopover at Capitol Reef, here’s what I would recommend in Torrey, UT…
This boutique hotel just opened in March 2023 and it is PERFECT. It’s chic and aesthetic, but most importantly it’s really thoughtfully designed. I stay in a lot of hotels (a lot of times with three adults) and I can’t tell you how few hotels are designed to accommodate more than two people.
There are fewer than 20 rooms in the hotel, but they’re really large and well laid out. Our room had two queen size beds and there were tables and outlets ON ALL SIDES.
There’s also a rooftop lounge where you can go stargazing at night. Torrey is Utah’s first designated International Dark Sky Community so the conditions are perfect. I was so bummed that it was cloudy both nights we were here!
Wild Rabbit Cafe
I mentioned this earlier, but this place is a gem! Their coffee and tea are great and they serve a pretty hearty breakfast. Their breakfast sandwiches are served on biscuits and they are GOOD. Plus everything sweet in the dessert case looks phenomenal. I tried a mulberry scone which was fun and their chocolate chip cookies were divine.
If you’re looking for more of a destination place to stay, check out the Capitol Reef Resort. They have some pretty spectacular looking glamping in wagons and teepees plus their cabins look downright dreamy.
If you’re going to stay for a couple of days and enjoy some R&R in the area, I would stay at the Capitol Reef Resort. If you’re just passing through or you’re going to be adventuring pretty hard in the park the whole time, you can’t beat the Skyview Hotel.