Utah’s Secret Park
With the trifecta of superstar parks Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches vying for the crown, the competition is fierce in southern Utah’s red rock beauty pageant.
Jostled among this lineup, Capitol Reef National Park, whose natural arches, water-carved canyons, and red rock ridges would draw hordes of oglers anywhere else, too often gets passed over. The underappreciated stunner gets less than a fifth of Zion’s annual tourist stampede.
But think of this as others’ loss and your gain―a chance to grab a peaceful spring weekend in this quiet corner of canyon country, where right now the snow has given way to desert wildflowers and summer’s heat has yet to gather.
Your home base? The unusually cool gateway town of Torrey, an artsy oasis that is, yes, in the middle of nowhere, but also just 10 miles from the park. We’ve mapped out a slam-dunk weekend―all you have to do is hit the road.
48 hours in Torrey and Capitol Reef
3 p.m. Roll into town on State 24, which turns into Torrey’s mile-long main drag lined with huge cottonwood trees. Spend a laid-back afternoon poking around the shops.
6 p.m. Head to Cafe Diablo, the only gourmet restaurant around, for dinner on a patio set in a garden of 3,000 tulips.
A mix of locals and out-of-towners makes a scene that’s far more casual and friendly than you’d expect from a place with upscale dishes like baby back pork ribs slow-roasted with a chipotle, molasses, and rum glaze. $$$; opens Apr 14; 599 W. Main.
8 p.m. Three miles west of town, check into the sprawling Lodge at Red River Ranch on the banks of the Fremont River. Butch Cassidy reportedly stayed here, and the lodge still has plenty of Wild West charm, with Navajo rugs, antiques, and an oversize stone fireplace.
Grab a book or game from the library and hang out on the wraparound porch before hitting the hay. From $160; two-night minimum; 2900 W. State 24.
8 a.m. Fuel up for a day of hiking Capitol Reef. At the lodge’s Cliff-stone Restaurant ($), fresh eggs, homemade granola, and chilaquiles with avocado and salsa come with views of the Boulder Mountains.
9:30 a.m. Pick up picnic supplies at Austin’s Chuck Wagon General Store in Torrey, where you’ll find deli sandwiches, fresh brownies, and water bottles. 12 W. Main.
10 a.m. Drive 10 miles along State 24 to Capitol Reef National Park. The visitor center has free trail maps. One easy start is the flat 4.5-mile round-trip Grand Wash Trail, which threads through a canyon.
For more of a challenge, try the dramatic (and steeper) 2-mile round-trip Hickman Bridge Trail to see bright fuchsia and red cactus blooms and a 133-foot-long natural bridge.
1 p.m. You no doubt noticed the blooming fruit trees just beyond the visitor center in an area of the park aptly named Fruita. Head back this way and pull over anywhere you see an open orchard gate for lunch under the spring blooms.
Fun fact: These cherry, peach, pear, apple, and apricot orchards were originally planted by Mormon pioneers more than a century ago.
3 p.m. In the afternoon, check out the park’s out-and-back Scenic Drive, which branches off State 24 at the visitor center.
The historic 25-mile tour has sweeping panoramas of sheer-walled canyons, multilayered domes, and views of the famous 100-mile-long rock Waterpocket Fold. Factor in a good 90 minutes, including stops to ogle. $5 per vehicle.
6 p.m. On the way back to Torrey, stop at the Rim Rock Restaurant for the best views of any area restaurant―especially nice from the patio.
Watch the sun setting over the park while digging into hearty comfort food like steak and smoked ribs. $$$; 2523 E. State 24.
9 a.m. Grab coffee and a pastry from Robber’s Roost Books and Beverages in Torrey, where you can see the desertscape from the back windows. 185 W. Main.
9:30 a.m. To explore the more remote reaches of the park, try a pioneer-style trip by horseback.
Capitol Reef Backcountry Out-fitters leads you through the canyons to see Ancestral Puebloan ruins, rock art, wildflowers, and wildlife like desert bighorn sheep. $120 for a 5-hour ride.
3 p.m. You can’t take off without a piece of pie from Gifford Homestead, a pioneer home turned pie shop south of the visitor center. Dig into a slice of berry at a picnic table outside. 435/425-3791 ext. 106.
Pit stops along the way
Have more time? State 12, a real stunner of a drive, winds from Torrey to Bryce Canyon. Here’s where to pull off.
1 hour from Torrey
Boulder: You’ve just found paradise for solitude seekers and nature lovers, with great hikes in nearby Dixie National Forest.
In town, the Anasazi State Park Museum ($4; 460 N. State 12) shows off a collection of native artifacts and ruins. The Burr Trail Outpost (Burr Trail at State 12; 435/335-7565) has maps, hiking gear, and guides.
And if you’re hungry, the food at Hell’s Backbone Grill ($$$; 20 N. State 12) is fresh from a nearby farm.
1½ hours from Torrey
Escalante: Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is famous for slot-canyon hiking and canyoneering. Book a guide from Excursions of Escalante (from $125; 125 E. Main St).
In town, kick back on the great deck at Escalante Outfitters ($; 310 W. Main) for the best pizza and microbrews in canyon country. Spending the night? Canyons Bed & Breakfast (from $125, including breakfast) has four quiet rooms off a garden courtyard, plus melt-in-your-mouth stuffed French toast.
2½ hours from Torrey
Kodachrome Basin State Park: Given that you’re heading from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon, you might think you don’t need any more colorful rocks.
You are wrong. Kodachrome Basin’s stone spires are so amazing, it would be a crime to be this close and not see them. $6 per vehicle; off State 12, 9 miles south of Cannonville.