Capitol Reef National Park, also known as “The Land of the Sleeping Rainbow” for its 100-mile majestic ridge protruding from the earth's crust, is one of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks. If you are looking for Southern Utah beauty with fewer crowds, Capitol Reef is a must-visit. It is located between Moab and Bryce Canyon National Park, only a two-hour drive from either location.
With curvy canyons and colorful cliffs located throughout the park, there is no shortage of things to do. The Visitors Center near Fruita should be your first stop. Grab a park map, talk to a ranger about weather conditions, and read up on the history of the early inhabitants that settled in the area thousands of years ago.
Given one, two, and three days respectively, here’s how to spend your time in this geologic gem of towering monoliths, delicate arches, and serpentine canyons.
If You Have One Day
Take your time through each turn on The Scenic Drive. The nearly eight-mile paved road showcases the limitless beauty of “The Reef.” This geological phenomenon, also known as the Waterpocket Fold (and part of how the park got its name), stretches for 100-miles and will make you feel like you are in a different world surrounded by deep red Entrada Sandstone. Jump out of the car at the end of the road and walk through Capitol Gorge. The two-mile round trip walk leads you through a canyon with ancient Petroglyphs on either side of the walls.
If You Have Two Days
After a morning on The Scenic Drive, take a quick siesta before heading to Chimney Rock for a spectacular hike with panoramic views of the Waterpocket Fold. This seven-mile loop hike is best for sunset. Arrive at least two hours before the sun goes down leaving you plenty of time to reach the top of Chimney Rock just as the sun sets and illuminates the cliffs in every direction.
Spend the night at Fruita Campground inside the National Park. The campground is filled on a first-come, first-serve basis so do your best to arrive before noon to secure a spot and set up camp. If you are looking for a non-tent option, stay in one of the small inns in the picturesque town of Torrey, just eight miles from the main entrance of the Park.
Wake up early for Day Two’s adventure in Sulphur Creek. This five-mile one-way trek will traverse through scenic narrows and deep canyon walls of the oldest exposed rock in Capitol Reef. The route is not a maintained trail and will involve getting your feet wet. Make sure to check with the visitors center about current creek conditions, as sometimes this trek might require a swim. Park at the Chimney Rock Trailhead and hike your way down the canyon to the visitors center. From there, walk the three miles back to your car along Highway 24 or hitch a ride from one of many friendly park visitors heading out for the day. For dinner, enjoy a quick bite nearby at Slackers Burger Joint, a local favorite.
If You Have Three Days
After exploring the Scenic Drive, Chimney Rock Loop, and Sulphur Creek trek, begin day three by visiting The Gifford Homestead. Listed on the National Register of Historic places, the homestead invites you to step back in time and experience what life would have been like in the area over 100 years ago. Walk through the old, one-room schoolhouse and blacksmith’s shop before treating yourself to a few goodies inside of The Gifford House, where they sell homemade pies baked fresh each morning! Save a pie for later or enjoy one for breakfast before heading out to navigate one of three slot canyons in Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold.
Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch are all great options for your last day. Burro Wash is the farthest north of the three (closest to Highway 24) and combines the length of Sheets Gulch with the close proximity of slot canyons that Cottonwood Wash offers. Cottonwood Wash is the shortest and most challenging of the three treks, which often holds standing water that might require a swim depending on the current conditions. Sheets Gulch, a 10-mile round trip trek, is the longest of the three washes and the easiest to explore. With no large dry falls or choke stones, the trail is much easier to navigate. For a shorter trip, hike to the unnamed arch, a popular turnaround spot about halfway in.
Before setting off on any of the three, check in with the visitors center for current conditions as slot canyons are very susceptible to dangerous flash flooding. Top off your last night by heading into the town of Torrey for dinner at the Rim Rock Restaurant and order from a menu full of locally-grown and inspired dishes. Sit outside and take in one last sunset in the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.
In sum, any visit to Capitol Reef, no matter how long, will be a trip you won’t soon forget.