Length of stay: 2 days
Visited: January 2023
Capitol Reef National Park is located in the desert in the heart of red rock country in southern Utah. It encompasses a large section of the Waterpocket Fold, a wrinkle or one-sided fold in the Earth’s crust that extends nearly 100 miles, running north-south from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. It was created over time millions of years ago from the gradual processes of deposition, uplift and erosion, creating a dramatic landscape of towering sandstone cliffs, narrow canyons, natural bridges and other interesting rock formations. It is the least visited of the “Mighty Five” national parks in Utah, but has plenty to offer in terms of stunning vistas and scenic hiking trails.
Day 1: Clues from the Past
We were initially planning to return to Bryce Canyon National Park for the morning, but due to a snowstorm overnight, we decided to skip it as we weren’t sure what the conditions would be like on the road or trails. Instead we drove straight to Capitol Reef. We arrived at the Fruita Historic District section of the park just after 10a.m. We started off at the visitor center to get our bearings and ask for some hiking recommendations since we’d be spending more time here than initially expected.
We then headed to the trailhead for Hickman Bridge (2.8km round trip, rated moderate). The first portion of the trail follows the river before leading up a series of steps through a sandstone side-canyon. There were impressive views of towering sandstone cliffs in the background. The trail reaches a junction and connects with the Rim Overlook Trail and Navajo Knobs trails (to the right), we turned left to continue to Hickman Bridge.
The trail is signed with a series of numbered posts. And at first they were easy to spot. But after passing a small natural arch near post #13, we weren’t quite sure where to go. Surely this wasn’t the impressive natural arch promised in the trail description. So we scrambled over some of the rocks to see what lay further ahead. We then spotted the real Hickman Bridge and headed towards it.
We joined up with the actual trail again and walked underneath the natural bridge. From here we weren’t quite sure where to go, so we turned right as we saw some footprints in the sand. Except it led to a dead-end. Clearly we need to work on our navigational skills. There are no blazes or markers on the trees to rely on, but instead little cairns and footprints in the sand (which sometimes lead in the wrong direction). We retraced our steps and then went left. If we had stayed on the main path from the beginning, we would have come across a helpful map of the trail to help with navigation. Oh well, it was a bit of a choose your own adventure.
Afterwards we drove to the Petroglyph Panel. From the parking lot there are two short boardwalks that lead to a viewing platform to get a better look at the carvings etched on the walls of the sandstone cliffs. These were created by the Fremont people who once lived here over a thousand years ago. The petroglyphs depict maps and journeys, clan symbols, deities, animals, humans and other features.
We then went to the nearby Fruita Schoolhouse to learn more about the early days of life in Fruita, which was once a small town inside the park. In the 1880s a small group of Mormons settled here along the Fremont River Valley. They planted thousands of fruit trees, including apple, peach, cherry, plum, pear and apricot, some of which still exist today, and tried to make a go of things by living off the land. The one-room schoolhouse was built in 1896 and was Fuirta’s only public structure. It served as a school, church and community center. However the population of the town declined and the school eventually closed in 1941.
The park has restored the schoolhouse. While the building is not open to visitors, you can peer through the windows to see the furnished room. As for the fruit trees, park staff continue to maintain the orchards. Visitors are welcome to pick and eat the fruit from the trees, free of charge.
One of the other historic buildings in the park is the Gifford farmhouse. The Giffords were the last residents of Fruita and eventually sold their home and land to the National Parks Service. The park has renovated and restored it to showcase what a typical farmhouse would have looked like in the early 1900s. It was unfortunately closed when we visited. We were able to walk through the homestead, which included a barn with a few horses.
After eating some lunch, we drove along the Scenic Drive. The paved road is eight miles long and provides a number of viewpoints of the Waterpocket Fold and access to a few hiking trails in this section of the park.
At the end of the road, we turned left to drive along the narrow dirt road to get to the Capitol Gorge Trail (3.2km round trip, rated easy). The road was in pretty good condition. It was narrow in a few places, especially through the gorge, but we had no issues getting to the parking lot with our rental car. The trail follows a dry streambed through a deep canyon that was once the historic path of the pioneer road through Capitol Gorge, one of the main gaps in the Waterpocket Fold. Remnants from early day travellers can still be found along the walls in the canyon, which include petroglyphs and the “pioneer register”, a collection of signatures and dates carved into the rocks.
The trail then provides a turnoff to hike to “the tanks”, which are waterpockets and potholes carved into the sandstone rock by erosion that collect rainwater and snowmelt. We scrambled up some rocks, paying close attention to the cairns to find the water tanks. We only found one, which was partially filled with water.
Darker clouds were starting to roll in and it got windy real fast, so we picked up the pace on the return journey. Within seconds of climbing back into the car, it started to rain. While our navigational skills in the desert are still a bit questionable, at least we were smart enough to know the dangers of flash flooding, especially around a canyon. Needless to say we kicked the car into high gear and headed back to the paved section of the Scenic Drive.
We drove to the western entrance of the park towards Torrey and decided to hit up the two short hiking trails since they were both rated easy. It looked like we were moving away from the rain, but there was no avoiding the wind. We first went to the Goosenecks Overlook (0.4km round trip, rated easy), which required driving down another unpaved road, but it’s short. The path leads to a lookout of a dramatic canyon that’s been carved by Sulphur Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River. The bends along the river are known as Gooseneck.
From the same parking lot, we could also access the Sunset Point Trail (1.2km round trip, rated easy) which provides another panoramic view of the canyon and surrounding area.
At this point we hiked most of the easy trails in the park and didn’t feel like tackling something moderate since the rocks were likely going to be slippery and slick from the rain. Plus the wind was still intense and it looked like more rain was on the way. We decided to pack it up and head to our accommodations for the night.
We learned first hand how the weather in southern Utah can change in an instant. While earlier in the day we enjoyed blue skies and sun, the weather quickly took a turn later in the afternoon with intense winds and some rain. The rain then turned into snow in the evening, which was pushed through the cracks of the door of our motel room. This should tell you something about how fierce the wind was (and about where we were staying. Options are limited in the offseason. But hey, at least we weren’t camping.)
Day 2: Canyons
The next morning we had a bit of a late start as we were waiting for some of the snow to melt off our car before returning to Capitol Reef. Thankfully the sun was shining which helped speed things along. We were a bit concerned as to what the conditions would be like on the trails, but were pleasantly surprised to find that there really wasn’t that much snow in the valley. We drove along the Scenic Drive again and turned off on the Grand Wash Road, a gravel road that leads to a parking lot with access to a couple of trails. The road is pretty short, only a couple of kilometres in length and was in pretty good condition.
Along the way, we turned off at an overlook. There was a panel that described how uranium was thought to be found in this area and during the Cold War, many companies were allowed to build roads, dig mines and construct camps, even on park lands, in search of it. It turns out that little uranium was found. As a result, some old mine sites still exist in Capitol Reef. The overlook provided a glimpse of two of these mining sites.
We drove to the end of the road to access the Cassidy Arch Trail (5.6km round trip, rated strenuous). But first we had to hike a few hundred metres along the Grand Wash Trail, which follows the dry wash bed through a canyon. At the junction, we turned left at the sign for Cassidy Arch and began to make our way up the side of a sandstone cliff. It was a good way to warm up and we had our jackets unzipped in no time. After climbing up a series of steps and switchbacks, the trail levels out and follows along the rim of a plateau, providing a nice view of the canyon that we drove through down below.
As we hiked along the ledge, we caught our first (and only) glimpse of Cassidy Arch, which was named after the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy. The views just kept getting better and better.
The trail descends down the plateau and passes a junction for the Frying Pan Trail, which connects with Cohab Canyon. We continued to follow the signs for Cassidy Arch, which indicated that we still had half a mile to go. We kept our eyes peeled for the cairns or a series of neatly placed rocks to help figure out where to go next. The path also had some snow and icy patches, which weren’t too bad, that is until we reached a series of slick rocks where it was impossible to safely scramble up or around. Our shoes had little grip on the melting ice and we left our microspikes in the car. We tried to see if we could go around, which somewhat worked until we reached a ledge with a dead end that overlooked the canyon, but no arch. And so we decided to turn around.
Afterwards we planned to hike the Grand Wash Trail, which can be accessed from where we parked on Grand Wash Road or along Highway 24. We wanted to take a bit of a break after our hike to Cassidy Arch, so we decided to just drive to the other parking lot, hitting up the visitor centre along the way to refill our water bottles. As we neared the other parking area along Highway 24, we got a nice view of Capitol Dome. These sandstone white domes resemble the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC and inspired the name of the park.
The Grand Wash Trail (6.2km round trip, rated easy) follows along a dry wash bed through a deep canyon. The gravel path is relatively flat and wide, but features a narrow section that resembles a slot canyon similar to The Narrows in Zion National Park, except there is no river running through it. We turned around once we reached the turnoff for Cassidy Arch and headed back to the car.
We ate a late lunch before attempting the Cohab Canyon Trail (5.4km round trip, rated moderate). There are two access points for the trail, one by the campground and the other along Highway 24 adjacent to the Hickman Bridge parking area. The park ranger from yesterday recommended this trail and starting at the trailhead by the barn near the campground. The path gets down to business right away and winds up a series of switchbacks.
The path levels out and follows along a ledge on the side of the cliff, providing a new overlook of the valley. The path then leads through an opening between the cliff into a canyon. This portion of the path was sandy and relatively flat, and provided a nice close-up of the colourful canyon walls. There was also quite a bit of vegetation in the hidden side canyon. There was a sign to indicate that the area next to the trail contains several rare and endemic plant species and encouraged hikers to stay on the trail to protect the vegetation and soils.
At the junction, we turned left to get to the North and South Overlooks. The other directions lead to the other access point for the Cohab Canyon Trail (straight) or the Frying Pan Trail (to the right). We hiked up and across the smooth sandstone rocks to get to the overlooks, passing interesting coloured rock formations along the way. The overlooks provided a panoramic view of Fruita and surrounding sandstone mountains. It was pretty windy up at the overlooks though and we were eager to turn around and head back through the hidden canyon.
It was getting late in the day so we returned to our accommodations. We planned to wake up first thing the next morning to hit the road again and head to Canyonlands National Park.