The aptly named Scenic Drive winds through the heart of Capitol Reef National Park, with gorgeous views of sheer cliffs and geologic interest in every direction. The paved Scenic Drive begins near the visitor center and winds for about eight miles, giving access from the road to many of the park’s most popular sights and trailheads. There are 11 viewpoints marked along the scenic road, providing an overview of the geologic history and formations. Read more about Capitol Reef National Park.
After the visitor center, the first stop on the Scenic Drive is the historic town of Fruita, where pioneers planted orchards in the late 1800s. The Gifford Homestead still stands as an example of an historic Utah farmhouse. You won’t want to miss the fruit pies for sale during summer season! Impressive rock formations along the Scenic Drive include the 950-foot thick Moenkopi Formation, which shows banded layers of reddish-brown, grey, and burgundy sandstone and shale mixed with volcanic ash. The Chinle Formation is 700-feet thick and contains massive amounts of petrified wood. The Waterpocket Fold’s layers of sediment and rocks are clearly visible at the second stop on the Scenic Drive, telling Capitol Reef’s complex geologic history in its varying colors and textures. View a Capitol Reef map.
The next landmark along the Scenic Drive is the spur road into the narrow, steep Grand Wash. You can drive for about one mile, and then hike the trail a couple miles further—highly recommended if you have the time and ability. The trail leads north to the massive Cassidy Arch, named for famed outlaw Butch Cassidy who used the rugged Grand Wash as a hideout. The Cassidy Arch Trail extends your hike even further, to the cliffs above the arch, for a 3.5-mile round trip strenuous hike. You can also catch a glimpse of the now-defunct Oyler Uranium Mine, which dates back to 1901.
The geology is diverse in Capitol Reef, as evidenced by the contrast of the sheer Wingate sandstone cliffs, the deep red shale of the Moenkopi formations, the Slickrock Divide, the yellowish-gray Shinarump sediments containing uranium that make up the Chinle formations, and the massive white Navajo Formation which stands over 1400-feet tall. At stop 10 you can see how Capitol Reef earned its name, with a white rounded dome that recalls the U.S. Capitol building, and the steep Waterpocket Fold monocline that early explorers considered a “barrier reef.”
The paved Scenic Drive road ends where the unpaved Capitol Gorge Road begins. This dirt road continues for about two miles into Capitol Gorge, where you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle to continue on to Pleasant Creek Road and South Draw. There is a great 2.5-mile hike in Capitol Gorge, where you can find ancient petroglyphs created by the Fremont people, and see the famed Pioneer Registry carved into a canyon wall. The Tanks are pockets of eroded rock that hold rainwater, and they mark the end of the trail. If you’re up to the extremely strenuous 4-mile hike to the Golden Throne, you’ll be rewarded with dramatic views of the massive rock formation.
Visitors will pay normal park entrance fee or use their America the Beautiful Pass to access the Scenic Drive. A normal passenger vehicle is usually fine for traveling the Scenic Drive, unless you are continuing on the dirt spur roads. Check with the visitor center for road conditions before entering the Grand Wash or other canyons.