Capitol Reef National Park

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.


82 thoughts on “Capitol Reef National Park

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. We had some struggles finding our way on a few of the trails, but it was all part of the adventure! It made us more mindful to pay more attention to our surroundings on the trail.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The desert landscape looked beautiful and barren. It was surprisingly lush in the valley though. It was wild to hear how a small community tried to live off the land here given the extreme temperatures and harsh climate. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live here back in the day.

  1. kagould17 says:

    Much better to spend your time hiking under blue skies than trudging through snow. We did not have time to visit this one, as we only had a week, but we were lucky to have more time at Bryce. You have presented it well and perhaps there will eb a next time for us. Have a great weekend Linda. Allan

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. It’s too bad that we weren’t able to spend more time at Bryce Canyon, but we didn’t want to take any chances with the snow, especially since we were with a rental car that wasn’t equipped with winter tires. It worked out well as this meant we got to spend more time exploring the trails at Capitol Reef and enjoying the sunshine. Hope you enjoyed the weekend as well. Linda

    • Bernie says:

      You must take great notes to back up your stunning photos. Wow such interesting geography and so diverse. I bet that wind made it awful – it’s the one element that drives me inside. Bernie

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        I typically try to write up a few notes throughout the day, otherwise it’s hard to keep track of everything. I also take way more pictures than is probably necessary, but it helps me remember certain details sometimes. It’s neat how the desert landscape at each of the national parks in southern Utah is so different. Capitol Reef was one of my favourites.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! I’m not sure why Capitol Reef isn’t more popular as the desert landscape is stunning and there’s a nice mix of hiking trails and scenic viewpoints. No complaints as we had the park mostly all to ourselves. It is definitely worth checking out if you ever take a road trip through southern Utah.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It is definitely good to know your limits! While it would have been nice to make it to the end of Cassidy Arch, it was not worth risking an injury or getting stuck somewhere on the icy rocks. We’ll just have to save it for next time for when we return someday!

  2. wetanddustyroads says:

    I love seeing rock formations in nature … the Hickman Bridge is beautiful, as are your panoramic views of the canyon. It’s amazing how blue the sky was on your second day in the park and the colourful rocks are definitely a sight to behold!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s pretty amazing how some of these rock formations have formed and how they seem to just defy gravity. The Hickman Bridge was pretty spectacular, as was the weather. It’s always nice to enjoy blue skies and sun while hiking, which brings out the colour in the landscape.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I’m not sure why Capitol Reef isn’t as popular as some of the other parks in southern Utah as the scenery is equally as stunning. It was actually one of my favourites that we visited, maybe because we had the trails mostly all to ourselves. We saved the best hike for last with Cohab Canyon. The colourful rocks were beautiful, as were the overlooks and hike through the hidden canyon.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We sure did. Capitol Reef was one of my favourite national parks that we visited on our road trip. We practically had the park all to ourselves. The hiking was fantastic, as was the beautiful desert scenery.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The desert landscape is all very stunning, isn’t it? And here I thought it would be totally barren, which wasn’t the case at all. The towering sandstone cliffs at Capitol Reef were stunning. It was neat to even hike through a couple of the narrow canyons.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks so much! It was neat to see the petroglyphs along the walls of the cliff and learn more about their history at the visitor centre. It’s hard to believe how old they are and that many of them are still visible today. You used to be able to walk to the base of the cliff and see them up close, but due to an increase in vandalism, the park closed the area off and built viewing platforms instead.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. The desert landscape in southern Utah is beautiful, which makes for some scenic driving. It’s also nice that there’s so many national parks nearby to better admire the views and stretch our legs.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad that we mostly had nice weather during our road trip through southern Utah, otherwise I don’t think we could (or would) have attempted half the hikes that we did. Scrambling on the rocks when they are icy or wet does not seem like it would be much fun. It’s good to know our limits.

  3. Ab says:

    It’s amazing how much adventure and beautiful scenery you packed into your visit to Utah.

    The red, yellow, smooth, jagged textures of the rock, especially under the sunlight are so beautiful to look at.

    Hickman’s Bridge and Cassidy Arch both look very cool. I can only imagine what they were like to experience in person. The petroglyphs and the old Fruita schoolhouse and farm also seemed cool.

    I definitely wanna visit Utah one day with the hubby and T. Looks like such a great adventure.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Oh I know. Even the drive between national parks is incredibly scenic. Capitol Reef was one of my favourite parks that we visited. The colourful cliffs are beautiful and it was neat to hike through some of the narrow canyons. The natural bridge at Hickman’s Bridge was pretty cool and looks like it’s defying gravity. Hopefully you’re able to visit someday. There’s no shortage of attractions, activities and adventures.

      • Ab says:

        The scenic drives are the best. We’re leaning towards Banff this summer if we can pull it off. But we shall see. So many places to visit, so little vacation time. 😆

        Enjoy the commute today. Ugh. I’m dreading the icy commute home later. Stay home if you can.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        I hear yah about needing more vacation days! Given that you want to travel in the summer, Banff is probably a better choice in terms of the weather. I have no idea how people can handle the heat in the middle of summer in Utah! There is zero protection from the sun. Happy trip planning!

        I’m glad I didn’t go into the office yesterday. It pretty much snowed here all day. I’ve already shovelled twice and need to go back out this morning for another round. It looks gnarly out there. Hopefully you made it back home okay.

      • Ab says:

        The snow was a bit much. Did an hour of shoveling before work this morning but thankfully got to stay home. 🙂 hope you’re rested from the shoveling.

        Thanks for the tip re: Utah vs Banff. It’s what I suspected and good to hear it validated!

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        Shovelling all that snow was pretty rough. I guess it was good practice because we’re supposed to get a bunch more on Monday! Have a wonderful weekend. Stay warm out there!

  4. michellecj333 says:

    Love it! When we were in Capitol Reef in January 2021, we tried to drive the scenic drive to the Pioneer register but a few miles in were met with a solid sheet of ice on the road! We ended up having to turn around and go back the way we came, and we missed the register. Loved seeing your photos of that especially!

  5. Bama says:

    It’s crazy how fast the weather changed! From a gloriously sunny morning to an afternoon with thunderstorm and a night of snow. Luckily you had blue skies the next day. I agree with Ab about how beautiful those rocks are under the sunlight — they look more ‘alive’. This part of North America really is filled with majestic landscapes shaped by nothing but the forces of nature.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was wild how quickly the weather changed in the afternoon. I’m so glad we made it out of the slot canyon before it started to rain. We were a bit bummed that we left the park earlier than expected, but I don’t think we would have had much fun hiking in those conditions, especially if the rocks were wet and slippery. Thankfully we had beautiful weather the next day and were able to make up for lost time. And I totally agree about the majestic sandstone landscape and desert scenery. It was incredible to see all the natural bridges, pinnacles, canyons and other interesting formations. It looked like we were on a different planet.

  6. usfman says:

    Your lovely photos remind us of the time my wife and I conquered Capital Reef in winter with extreme temperatures and plenty of slow on the ground . Nearby to this is Goblin Valley State Park with its eerie Hoodoo rock formations that I highly recommend you see.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Oh wow. I’m sure the desert landscape looked beautiful with all that snow, but I imagine the hiking would be much more challenging. I initially had Goblin Valley State Park on our list, but we decided to skip it to spend more time at Canyonlands. I have a feeling we’ll be back someday as there are so many areas and trails we have yet to explore.

      • usfman says:

        To me, Canyonlands is one of the most chaotic places I’ve hiked over the years.
        Too many blind caverns and the vast distances of the park are formidable barriers.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        And that’s why we decided to stick with the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Our rental didn’t have four wheel drive, but even if it did, I don’t think we trusted our navigational skills enough to handle the backcountry roads in the other districts of the park.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! I’m not sure why Capitol Reef isn’t more popular than it is as the scenery is stunning. There’s a nice range of hiking trails depending on how much time you have and your ability. Sunset Point was stunning and worth braving the wind to see.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. Agreed, it’s pretty amazing how the pockets, holes and arches have been carved through the sandstone cliffs over time. It totally looked like we were on a different planet.

  7. Diana says:

    Isn’t this park just the coolest? You guys did almost exactly the same things we did on our trip a couple years ago. Looks like much nicer weather than Bryce, too!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I’m not going to lie, I didn’t have the highest expectations for Capitol Reef since it’s not as popular as the other national parks in southern Utah. It ended up being my favourite park that we visited though. We pretty much had the place all to ourselves. And yes, it was nice to leave the snow behind and enjoy some sunshine.

  8. Thattamma C.G Menon says:

    Wonderful place’s mountains so many varieties, Mind blowing photography,colourful rocks and
    all together admiring the beauty of the Mother Earth 🌍 so happy to know that you all went
    Joging as well 👍🏻💕your explanations most interesting 🤔 Thank you for sharing dear friend 🙏

  9. leightontravels says:

    I’d love to visit Utah, mainly for its national parks. Another great article, Linda. The photos are amazing. Hickman’s Bridge and Cassidy Arch are both amazing sights. The tiny old schoolhouse is somehow touching. It really makes me wonder about all the pupils who once gathered there and what their lives were like. Glad you got away just before the rain. A snowstorm being blown into your room sounds awful, hope you managed to stay warm.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s pretty awesome that there are so many national and state parks in southern Utah, and how each one is so unique. It’s a great reason to take a road trip and try to visit them all. Capitol Reef was one of my favourites that we went to. It’s neat that the park has restored some of the buildings from the early pioneers that settled in the valley and still maintains some of the orchards. I imagine it was a tough and very isolating life, but at least the scenery is spectacular. I wouldn’t mind waking up to those views of the colourful sandstone cliffs every morning. We ended up sticking a few towels under our door to prevent the snow from blowing in. It was pretty wild and gave us a good laugh afterwards.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      No doubt. There are so many national and state parks in southern Utah, which is perfect for any outdoor adventure. It was a great reason to take a road trip to try to visit as many of the parks as we could.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That was one of the main reasons why we visited during the winter is that we’re not a fan of the crowds (or the heat), which can take away from the whole experience sometimes. We really did feel alone on many of the trails in Capitol Reef.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. It is pretty amazing how old these petroglyphs are and that many of them are still clearly visible. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live in the desert with such a harsh environment.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      There are so many interesting rock formations in Capitol Reef and surprisingly more vegetation than I was expecting for being in the middle of the desert. It’s hard to imagine what life would have been like for the early settlers though.

  10. rkrontheroad says:

    Somehow I have missed going to Capitol Reef. It looks fascinating and I’ll have to get there. You have captured the colors of the rock and variety of landscape. And you’ve picked a good time to avoid the crowds in these parks.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s too bad that you weren’t able to visit Capitol Reef. It’s often overlooked, which I don’t quite understand why, as the desert landscape is gorgeous. The timing definitely worked out well as we had the park mostly all to ourselves, which is just how we like it.

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