Capitol Reef National Park was our third stop in our Mighty 5 Road Trip and our experience at the park, just like at Canyonlands, was not fully what we expected. While we did anticipate some level of snow, at this point it had snowed for a couple days, so it really limited what we could do.
The route we had planned took us from Moab to the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center and then down to Glendale, UT where we would be spending the next few days. We had decided from the start of our trip not to stay the night near Capitol Reef but next time we’ll stay the night in Torrey or Escalante so we can explore more of the park. Meanwhile, the drive-by like the one we did is perfect for those short on time and still allows plenty of time to enjoy the park.
How to get here
For those following our Mighty 5 Epic Road Trip, you would be leaving Moab heading North on 191 to i70 which will then connect you to Scenic Byway 24 all the way to Capitol Reef. Depending on weather conditions you are looking around 2 hours if you do not stop on the way to Capitol Reef.
Scenic Byway 24
While the drive would only take 2 hours nonstop, we don’t think anyone could do this drive without stopping a few times to admire the scenery. We have taken quite a few scenic byways in our time and while they all do offer something special and normally beautiful; nothing really compares to Scenic Byway 24. This is a must see!
Scenic Byway 24 is the main road in the park and actually cuts right through Capitol Reef and is the main way to arrive at a lot of trails. There is also no fee to drive on Scenic Byway 24 so if you are trying to save some cash and not purchase a National Park Pass then this is still open to you.
One Day Itinerary
Our itinerary changed quite a bit the morning of our trip due to the snowstorm that just would not stop pounding through the night. After hitting the road from Moab, we started settling into the idea that most of the hikes we planned at Capitol Reef would need to be cancelled. As sad as we were to come to this realization we were also excited for the ability to still be able to hit the trail in some parts of the park that where still open.
Even with our adjusted itinerary we think that half a day at the park if following our Mighty 5 Road Trip itinerary is more than enough to tackle some of the best sites at Capitol Reef.
- Stop at Visitor Center
- Hike Hickman Bridge Trail
- Hike part of Cassidy Arch and The Narrows
- Scenic Drive to Capitol Gorge – Continue on Dirt Road
- Picnic at Capitol Gorge for lunch
Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center
Just like every other National park we visit we always stop at the Visitor Center first to check in with the Park Rangers and make sure we are good to tackle the trails we want. This is especially important when you are traveling during bad weather times like we were during the winter season.
Once we checked into the park and talked to the rangers, we realized we would be severely limited on what we could hike since the main road in the park was closed and wouldn’t be plowed until later in the day.
Hickman Bridge Trail
The only hike we were able to do while at Capitol Reef was Hickman Bridge Trail and while not the longest it was pretty amazing.
This is one of the best short hikes you can do while at Capitol Reef and if the weather isn’t too bad, we think most people would be able to finish this hike without issue.
You will start your hike along the Fremont River and gain elevation fast until you reach a breathtaking viewpoint overlooking Scenic Byway 24 and the Cohab Canyon.
Afterwards the hike descends before coming back up to the bottom of Hickman Bridge. There are a few signs that show which way to go around the arch so it turns into a small loop but they are quite easy to miss. Either way there is no real way to get lost on this trail but you might add a bit more mileage if you deviate from the trail.
The actual arch is very impressive and offers a great spot to have a quick snack break before heading down to the parking lot.
Depending on the time of year traction devices for your boots/shoes are highly recommended! While the hike would have been doable without traction devices, we think it would have been quite miserable due to how much snow and ice was on the trail. Gus actually fell quite hard while going down the trail back to the parking lot even with traction chains on. We also love our hiking poles and think they truly make a difference on a trail like this one.
While Hickman Bridge Trail was the only hike, we had access to while at Capitol Reef, the following itinerary was what we actually had planned for the rest of the day.
Cassidy Arch and The Narrows
Cassidy Arch and The Narrows are two very popular trails in Capitol Reef and two trails that complement each other extremely well.
If you are doing a drive thru trip of Capitol Reef while following our Mighty 5 Road Trip Itinerary then you have a difficult choice ahead of you. The choices will depend on how physically fit you and your hiking partners are, as well as if someone in your party doesn’t want to hike and is fine being a chauffeur for the day.
A popular option for many who have a volunteer in the group who doesn’t want to hike is to get dropped off at Grand Wash Trailhead at Byway 64 and hike through The Narrows to Cassidy Arch and then get picked up at Cassidy Arch Trailhead. If you are able to pull this option off, we highly recommend you roll with it! You will get the best of both worlds and see some amazing canyons and a rather impressive arch with minimal mileage.
Now for most of us traveling solo or in a group where everyone would like to hike (neither of us would skip a beautiful hike) you will have two main options that we would recommend.
Option 1 – Grand Wash Trailhead to Cassidy Arch (Out and Back Loop)
This is for the avid hiker willing to put some mileage and ready for a solid day of hiking. You will be hiking almost 7 miles and will be highly rewarded with amazing views, high canyon walls and of course some amazing arches. While an amazing hike, 7 miles is not a walk in the park for many so we can only suggest this for hikers who know what they can do and what gear they will need.
Option 2 – Cassidy Arch Trailhead to The Narrows to Cassidy Arch (Out and Back Loop)
Our preferred option even though you will still be putting some decent mileage in at just over 5 miles is to hike from Cassiday Arch Trailhead to The Narrows then loop back to Cassidy Arch and finish back at the Cassidy Arch Trailhead. Now we know 5 miles is still not a walk in the park for many but at 2 miles less and accessible even to solo travelers we think this is the best of both worlds.
We know we said you only had two options but if you are looking to at least hit the trail we would highly suggest Cassidy Arch over The Narrows since we think you will get much better pictures and who doesn’t love a good arch!
Scenic Drive to Capitol Gorge
The last thing we recommend to do on your drive thru day at Capitol Reef is to continue your scenic drive down to Capitol Gorge Road. Our recommendation if the weather is in your favor (which for us it was not) is to grab lunch at the picnic area at the end of the scenic road before you continue on your adventure!
At the end of the scenic road, you will see the Capitol Gorge dirt road which will lead you to the Capitol Gorge Trailhead. The drive alone will offer enough scenic views to make it worth it, but if you still have the legs and time then the Capitol Gorge Trail should still be a nice ending to the day. While the trail is 5.4 miles round-trip you can hike less than half a mile in to see petroglyphs and some really awesome canyon walls.
The dirt road for the most part is doable on most standard SUV but would definitely shy away from driving a sedan or low clearance vehicle on it. As always check at the visitor center to see if previous days weather could have made the road impassible.
Capitol Reef National Park might be out of the way if you are doing the Mighty 5 Road Trip but is definitely a worthwhile visit. While the park is overshadowed by its siblings over at Zion and Arches, we think it’s a hidden gem that everyone will love. if you are trying to knock out the Mighty 5 Road Trip you can see how even driving through the park offers more than enough opportunities to see the beauty of Southern Utah.
While visiting Capitol Reef in the winter is an option, after our adventure we recommend it more in the summer since a lot of the things in the surroundings towns are closed for the winter season. This is not to discourage anyone from visiting during the winter season but be prepared to run into a lot of closed stores and towns along Highway 24 and 12. The biggest downside of winter season is that the famous Gifford House is closed and you will not be able to enjoy the widely popular fruit pies!