Bunny Does Capitol Reef in One Day
Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah is one of the “Mighty 5” of Utah’s National Parks.
Its desert landscape encompasses a long “wrinkle” in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold, and the surrounding scenery includes spectacular canyons, domes, bridges, striking rock formations and layers and layers of colourful sandstone.
Despite being as gorgeous as it is interesting, Capitol Reef is often overlooked as it is not as well-known or iconic as its popular siblings in Utah, such as Zion and Arches National Park.
Bunny also almost skipped Capitol Reef on her Utah road trip. Luckily, she made a last-minute decision to stop at Capitol Reef for a day and she is happy to have done so. Capitol Reef is absolutely worth visiting.
Read below what Bunny managed to do and see during her (less than) 24 hours in Capitol Reef National Park.
Bunny arrived at the park in late afternoon and started off by checking out the views at Panorama Point, just off Highway 24, before the park’s entrance. She was duly impressed with her first sight of the park.
Next, she headed to the Capitol Reef Visitor Centre, where she was able to obtain a handy map and some information about the hikes and other features of the park.
The Visitor Center is open every day (except some major holidays) and has extended hours from spring to autumn. It is an obvious place to start your visit, Bunny says.
Entrance fees to the Capitol Reef National Park are collected only for the Scenic Drive, which is past the Visitor Centre and Fruita Historic District (see below).
The good news is that the fees are cheaper than the neighbouring parks: only 5 USD per car and its passengers.
Fruita Historic District
One mile further inside the park, Bunny arrived at the Fruita Historic District. This is the most popular part of the park and also what distinguishes Capitol Reef from the other national parks in the area.
Capitol Reef is not just about the stunning scenery but about getting acquainted with the human history behind the place as well.
The Mormons first settled in the area in the 1880s. They built irrigation systems to water orchards and pastures, sustaining self-reliant agricultural life for decades. The Gifford House in the Fruita District is a classic example of an early 20th century rural Utah farm home.
Today, it houses a small museum and a shop that sells local handmade items, such as quilts, aprons, rag dolls, soap, butter churns, candles and toys. There is also a selection of books, historic postcards, jams, jellies and dried fruit.
Most importantly, the Gifford House sells the famous pies the park is known for. Naturally, Bunny made a beeline for the pies right after arrival, with Mr. Bunny tightly in heel. To their disappointment, it soon transpired that the pies usually sell out within the first morning hours. Damn.
But the orchids in the middle of the Fruita District, originally planted by the Mormon settlers, remain to this today. There is an abundance of apple, peach, cherry, pear, plum and apricot trees whose fruits visitors can sample for a small fee. Unfortunately for Bunny, it was too early in the growing season for that.
So, no pie, no fruits, but yet Bunny strangely loved this place!
Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive
Instead of eating, the Bunnies headed for Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive. This 8-mile scenic route was a perfect introduction to the park in the golden afternoon light.
The road is fully paved and drivable in any car. You will catch many of the park's famous formations from the road and the Visitor Centre provides a handy guide for the drive.
Off the main route, there were further dirt spur roads into Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash. However, Bunny decided to leave them for the following day and headed for her accommodation in nearby Torrey.
Capitol Reef Hikes Bunny Did
When Bunny returned to Capitol Reef the next morning, she knew exactly what she needed to do: head straight for the famous pies at the Gifford House.
She opted for a strawberry-rhubarb flavoured pie and enjoyed a nice little picnic breakfast in the Fruita District. And the pie? It was tasty, for sure, but nothing earth-shattering. Bunny much prefers cinnamon rolls anyway…
After fuelling up on pies, the Bunnies were ready and determined to do some hiking. They had only half a day before needing to continue their road trip, so they selected two easy hikes, instead of tackling one of the more time-consuming routes, such as Cassidy Arch.
Capitol Gorge Trail
You will have to drive a gravel road (Capitol Gorge Road) from the end of the Scenic Drive for 2,4 miles to the Capitol Gorge trailhead. It is a bumpy but very scenic road that can be done in a normal vehicle in dry weather. Expect slow going though!
The hike itself is only one mile one-way and can be done in an hour or so. Walking is flat and easy, deep inside a picturesque slot canyon.
There are some petroglyphs at the beginning of the hike on the left-hand side of the canyon which are difficult to spot despite a sign. Right across from the petroglyphs on the other wall of the canyon you can spot the Pioneer Register - names of early inhabitants that were engraved in the rock in 1911.
The waterpockets, called Tanks, at the end of the one-mile hike are a bit of a scramble. You will need good footwear but they are interesting to see and worth the extra effort.
The return leg of the hike is basically coming back the same route. A very interesting and easy hike, Bunny says.
Grand Wash Trail
Bunny’s second hike in Capitol Reef was Grand Wash Trail which actually has two trailheads. It is possible to access via a 1,3-mile long gravel road (Grand Wash Road) from the Scenic Drive or directly from Highway 24. You can either hike both ways, arrange to be picked up on the other side or turn around somewhere along the route to go back to where you started. Bunny chose the last option.
The hike from one trailhead to another is 2,2 miles. The most interesting scenery, the Narrows, is approximately halfway through the hike. You are inside the deep canyon the whole way but the Narrows is the most dramatic part, with steep sandstone cliffs closely surrounding you. It is very impressive, particularly if you are alone on the path as the Bunnies were.
Shortly after the Narrows, the Bunnies turned back on the trail and encountered a lovely family of mountain goats. Apparently, they are quite common in the park but Bunny felt very privileged about the close encounter, nevertheless.
In the end, Bunny was happy about both of the hikes she did in Capitol Reef although they turned out to be pretty similar. The weather was quite overcast and dull on the day so the more strenuous hikes promising great views would probably have been disappointing anyway. And Mr. Bunny was happy that he was not dragged into more challenging hikes this time.
Petroglyphs by the Road
The last thing Bunny made time for in Capitol Reef National Park was the Fremont Petroglyph panels along Highway 24. These are very easy to see, even you are just driving past Capitol Reef. The only thing you need to do is pull up, park and walk a few hundred meters.
The petroglyphs were made by Fremont Culture Indians 700 to 1000 years ago. They are worth seeing, even if you’re short on time, Bunny says. You may also want to check out the old schoolhouse, on the same stretch of Highway 24, just before the petroglyphs.
Continuing further on the highway, you will drive past Capitol Dome, which reminded early travellers of the US Capitol building and was later incorporated into the park’s name.
Where to Stay
There is a campground inside Capitol Reef National Park but no hotels or motels. The best place to stay is in nearby Torrey, some five miles from the park entrance.
Bunny chose Capitol Reef Resort in Torrey, the closest hotel to the park. Based on lovely photos online, she expected a bit more of the resort. What she found was basically a glorified motel. Admittedly, some of the accommodation options were cool-looking Conestoga wagons and teepees but they were not open in April when Bunny visited.
The best news was the La Cueva restaurant nearby, offering some decent Mexican grub even for lil’ vegetarian Bunnies.
How to Get There
Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah. Utah State Route 24 is the primary access road and basically cuts right through the middle of the park.
If you’re coming to Capitol Reef National Park after visiting Bryce Canyon National Park and planning to go to Moab afterwards, Capitol Reef falls right between the two. You will just have to skip the most direct route suggested by Google Maps and instead opt for the slightly slower Utah Scenic Byway 12.
You will be rewarded with stunning, ever-changing, scenery and interesting stops along the way as the road affords access to a number of national parks, state parks, national monuments and scenic overlooks. You could literally spend days on this route.
Bunny only had half a day for the journey so she first stopped at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center for some local information. She was tempted by the many available options but finally settled for regularly pulling over on the road’s shoulder for photos at scenic spots, which were many, if you ask Mr. Bunny, the slightly grumpy designated driver.
One stop even Mr. Bunny wholeheartedly approved of was that at Kiva Koffeehouse, 15 miles south of Boulder. It was a cute little place, with excellent views and even better coffee. Americans, in general, have no clue what good coffee (or bread) should taste like, Bunny says. Kiva Koffeehouse was an exception. The coffee was excellent and the accompanying cream cheese bagel was not too shabby either…
After Boulder, the Utah Scenic Byway 12 continues to steadily climb up, ultimately reaching 9000 feet at its highest point. The views are amazing but if you travel during the winter months, you had better be prepared for snow. Bunny was there in early April and encountered snowbanks the size of small cars.
Descending down towards Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park, the Bunnies drove through thick pine forests that reminded them of home. The variety of scenery during the day’s drive was simply astonishing.
A Scenic Detour: Burr Trail
If you have the time and energy, there is also a scenic detour that you could take from Boulder: the Burr Trail Scenic Byway.
The Burr Trail winds through a deep slick rock canyon and offers dramatic views along the way. There is a short slot canyon to explore about 11 miles into the drive from Boulder. There are no signs for the canyon, but you can usually spot it from other cars parked along the road.
The Bunnies turned around after the 30-mile paved section of the Burr Trail came to an end but you can continue on the gravel road if you have the right vehicle for it. The paved part alone is well worth the detour, Bunny says.
You should not skip Capitol Reef National Park when visiting Utah. It may not be as popular as some of the other parks in the region but it is equally stunning.
Even if you are short on time, Bunny recommends driving Utah Scenic Byway 12, checking out the main sites in Capitol Reef and even spending the night in Torrey.
Bunny herself spent less than 24 hours in total in Capitol Reef but managed to do two hikes, take the Scenic Drive, check out the petroglyphs, learn about pioneer history and taste the famous pie. It was time and money well spent.