Capitol Reef National Park Road Trip

In May of 2022 we drove to Capitol Reef National Park from Phoenix. Capitol Reef was the last of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks for us to visit, and it really blew us away. Going into the trip we weren’t really sure what to think. We saw some pictures of photogenic spots, but we weren’t sure why the National Park existed; where did it get its name from? It’s significant enough to become a park, but why? Oh we learned and we loved it! The park is this awesome geological timeline. Layers and layers of earth’s history exposed. It’s quite fascinating thinking about the millions of years of history on display. The park is mostly within the Waterpocket Fold, a nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust. We’ll leave it at that and encourage you to visit and learn more!

We went over the Memorial Day weekend and only used one day of PTO! We left Phoenix on Thursday night and stayed in Flagstaff at the Green Tree Inn because it is relatively cheap. We worked from our hotel on Friday and made the drive from Flagstaff to Torrey, Utah after work. We stayed in Day Inns because it was the cheapest hotel we could find and it was close to the National Park entrance on the west side! There were not a ton of places to stay in the area as much of the land is used in farming. Torrey, UT is a very small town with some restaurants, hotels and gas stations, enough to support you if you don’t want to camp in or near the National Park

Map from Phoenix to Capitol Reef National Park

From Phoenix, Capitol Reef is a little over 8 hours. We drove to Flagstaff on Thursday night to help break up the drive. Since we went over a holiday weekend we were able to get out of work a little earlier than normal and finished the drive to Torrey, UT. Because of the time change, we didn’t get to our hotel outside of Capitol Reef until 9:30pm. We ended up making a Mountain House meal in our hotel room for dinner because nothing else was open. Small town problems!

Hotel in Flagstaff
Working in Flagstaff hotel
Hotel in Torrey, Utah
Hotel in Torrey
Day 1: Saturday

On Saturday we were out the door by 7:00am! We stopped at the Visitor Center first to talk to a ranger about Cathedral Drive Road. Our main goal that day was to visit Cathedral Valley on the north end of the park. This is where the famous monolith rock formations are, Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun, but we learned there was so much more too! The fastest way to start the drive is from the western entrance off Hartnet Road, but that requires fording the Fremont River. The drive starts outside of the park’s boundaries. Weather can make the river impassable because of water height or depth, and the sandy river banks into mud. We didn’t want to get stuck so we figured it was best to check in with the Park Ranger for the latest conditions. Once we found out that the road was fine to drive down we were off! Do not enter when the river is high! 

Don’t forget to ask for a free pamphlet guide from the visitor center. There are a lot of stops along the way that coincide with numbers on the guide . The information is brief, but extremely interesting. For us, it made the drive so much more rewarding and engaging. We did the loop clockwise because we started from the river. There is an eastern entrance that also starts outside the park and takes you counter clockwise. Throughout the drive we stopped at scenic views like in the Bentonite Hills, hiked out to viewpoints and overlooks, and took our time enjoying the almost extraterrestrial-like landscape. Amazing views and geological formations are in Cathedral Valley. We highly recommend this loop. You can easily spend all day on this drive!  

We finished around 4pm and attempted to drive further east to a massive bentonite field outside of the park near Hanksville on BLM land. However, once we were there the wind was so strong and dark clouds were forming in the distance so we decided to head back to town. We had a delicious burger and shake at Slacker’s Burger Joint that evening!

There are no trails through the Bentonite Hills. The surface is easily damaged; scars from footprints and tire tracks take many years to heal. Please only drive on the road and limit foot travel to firm, previously disturbed areas and wash bottoms Remember to leave no trace while visiting ~ NPS.

Day 2: Sunday

On Sunday we had a couple more spots on our list to get to so we started early to beat the crowds and afternoon storms. We drove straight to Grand Wash where the trailhead is for Cassidy Arch and started around 7:40am with just a few more parking spots left in the small lot. There are other parking spots along the road, but it adds more distance and they’re just as limited. Side note: Cathedral Wash is known for flashfloods!! Please be careful. In the summer of 2022 there was a bad flash flood that washed away many vehicles.

The hike to Cassidy Arch is beautiful and makes it really easy to see where Capitol Reef gets its name inspiration from. We sat across from the arch for a bit and enjoyed our morning before heading back to our car. From Grand Wash we drove further down the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge. At the picnic area we enjoyed a Mountain House breakfast meal after building a shield to stop the wind. After breakfast we drove down the dirt road into the gorge and parked at the trailhead for Capitol Gorge Trail. We went past the Pioneer Register and made it near the tanks, but were informed that they weren’t full so we turned around and headed back.

After a quick stop at the visitor center gift shop we went to the trailhead for Hickman Bridge, a natural bridge carved out of rock, formed from erosion and time. Hickman Bridge is about 2 miles out and back with moderate incline. This is a popular trail and can feel crowded. Please pack your patience and trail etiquette. We got back to our car around 2:30pm and afternoon storms were rolling in. It ended up hailing for a short period of time that afternoon! 

Day 3: Monday

From the start of our trip planning, we knew Monday would be a long day of driving. We were up early again for one final stop in the Fruita area of the park, where the historic homestead and orchid are. It was a beautifully peaceful morning with a slight chill around 7am. A nice moment of quiet on an otherwise busy holiday weekend.

We decided to go home a slightly different way through Utah, something more scenic and in our opinion more rewarding. We went the “back” way through Hanksville around the northeast side of Glen Canyon Recreation area just behind the southwest side of Canyonlands National Park. We took Utah State Route 95, also known as the Bicentennial highway and it was majestic! For more information check out the Wikipedia page here. We highly recommend this route. The soft twists and turns of the road carving through canyons, between mesas, and over the Colorado River is spectacular. There are many outdoor recreation opportunities that venture off from this highway.

The Utah SR 95 took us to outside Natural Bridges National Monument, another must visit if you haven’t before; we went in 2021. From there we traveled south on Utah State Route 261, down the Moki Dugway and towards Mexican Hat and the intersection of US Route 163 which takes you through Monument Valley and into Arizona. We eventually caught up with US route 89 near Tuba City, AZ on the Navajo Reservation and were on our way to Flagstaff and our final destination of Phoenix. 

It was an incredible weekend nonetheless. We were taken aback by the beauty of Capitol Reef National Park and fascinated with its rich geological history. And because aesthetics and rocks weren’t enough, we were captivated by the human history of the area. Pioneers settled in one of the most remote parts of the country, and it is still very remote to this day. They found a fertile oasis among some of the coolest rocks in the southwest.

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