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Utah is home to five National Parks, and a large number of National Park Service managed National Monuments, Historic Trails, and Recreation Areas. The state also boasts roughly nine million acres in seven National Forests. This abundance of public land makes Utah a popular destination for outdoor recreation of every kind. Twice now, Clarissa and I have had the opportunity to explore the state; we’ve been to Arches, Zion, Dixie National Forest, Bears Ears National Monument, and Bryce Canyon. They’ve all been wonderful, but I found our experience at Capitol Reef National Park special and unique.
Capitol Reef National Park
I believe all National Parks are wonderful, and that we can find amazing experiences in any park, regardless of how crowded they might be.That said, during our visit to Capitol Reef, we weren’t plagued by the crowds of tourists that we experienced at Arches, Zion, or Bryce Canyon. The park certainly wasn’t empty, but we never felt boxed in by throngs of people. We had room to breathe, rove, and wander. To be fair, we explored Capitol Reef in October, which isn’t the most popular time to visit the park, but other Utah parks we visited in the same time frame had far more guests on their trails.
Hiking in Capitol Reef
Arches National Park is know for, of course, arches. Bryce Canyon is a forest of stone hoodoos, and Zion (Utah’s first National Park) boasts the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. Next to its siblings, Capitol Reef may seem to come up wanting, but I didn’t feel that way at all. Instead, I found a playground of day hiking trails suitable for a variety of skill levels. Our visit was brief, only a few days, but we did our best to maximize time spent hiking, and while we wore ourselves out good and proper on some of the strenuous trails, there really is something for everyone here.
Regardless of the trails you select, I recommend sturdy footwear, plenty of water, and sunscreen; even in October, it got pretty hot on every trail we took. Proper preparation will mean the heat, sun, and rocky uneven terrain will challenge you, not leave you miserable.
We started our hiking adventure doing the Chimney Rock Loop. The trail is about three and half miles long, with almost six hundred feet of elevation gain, most of which comes in the first half mile or less.
You’ll find the trailhead for Chimney Rock right off of UT-24; it’s a small parking area with restrooms available. The path sets out directly from the parking lot, across sandy mounds before ascending roughly three hundred feet. At that point, you’ll reach a junction on the edge of a plateau; this is a loop, so feel free to take either direction. We went to the right, and immediately started climbing for another three hundred feet along the edge of Mummy Cliff. It’s quite a steep drop off, so exercise caution.
As your ascent ends and the climb levels out into a mesa, you’ll see Chimney Rock, the westernmost formation atop the narrow ridge that stretches off of the main plateau.
From this high point the trail will descend past a number of good overlooks, through a stretch of ups and downs, and then drop down into Chimney Rock Canyon. Here you’ll essentially follow a stream bed, surrounded by motley assortment of boulders and irregular, uneven layers of rock. This whole section of the trail is framed on both sides by vertical canyon walls.
Continue walking, and the path will gradually rise, taking you back to the the loop junction, and then back down the hillside to the trail head. The Capitol Reef trail map/guide lists this as a strenuous hike; it was challenging, but the most taxing part is definitely the quick elevation gain early in the hike.
Another trail that we enjoyed during our visit, Cohab Canyon is a moderate hike that starts near the Fruita Campgrounds, and a short walk from the Gifford Homestead. Once you start out hiking, you’ll gain elevation quickly on twenty-two switchbacks. Once you’ve surmounted those, take a look back; it’s not a shabby view!
Keep hiking and in about one third of a mile you’ll enter the canyon. Here you’ll walk through sand and over slickrock. Follow the arroyo, and you’ll eventually come to an interesting hoodoo jutting up from the stone. Continue on, and soon you’ll come to the trail spur leading to the Fruita overlooks.
You’ll be met with more switchbacks, then a fork in the trail. The right tine leads to the North Overlook, with lovely views of Walker Peak, Fremont River Canyon, and an expanse of sandstone across UT-24.
The left tine will take you to the South Overlook for a better bird’s eye view of Fruita, the area where you started the hike.
After visiting the overlooks, we followed our footsteps back the way we had come from the trailhead. You do have the option, however, of continuing on and meeting up with the Frying Pan Trail junction, which leads to Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash trails.
Though not abundant, you will find a few arches here in Capitol Reef. The easiest to find is Hickman Bridge. The trail is less than two miles, out and back, and is listed as moderate on the Capitol Reef trail guide. You’ll face roughly 400 feet of elevation change (each way), and a few challenging spots; inexperienced hikers may struggle a little, but overall this trail is a great way to see some interesting formations in the park, regardless of your skill level.
The trailhead sits two miles east of the Visitor Center, with parking right off of Highway 24. This lot can fill up fairly quickly on busy days, so come early to make sure you’ll get a spot. Setting out from here, your path will parallel the perennial Fremont River, before passing under a stone outcropping; signs will warn of rockfall hazard suggesting that perhaps one shouldn’t linger under this red roof. Soon you’ll switchback upward, quickly gaining roughly one hundred feet.
Once ascended, you’ll see a nondescript, dusty trail leading off to the right. This spur was closed during our visit, but it leads to the remains of a Fremont pit house. Definitely worth checking out if you have a moment to spare. Back on the main path, you’ll have a brief respite of easy walking before ascending to a trail junction; to the the right you can take the longer, more arduous, trails to Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs. We continued left, however, and carried on toward the bridge.
Keep your eyes peeled for all manner of rock formations as you stroll between boulders. You’ll descend into a dry sandy wash. The trail will meander along this shallow canyon, and as you hike, keep your eyes peeled for a small natural bridge to your eight. This arch, the Nels Johnson Bridge, is unassuming; Clarissa and I missed it entirely during our hike. Don’t make our mistake!
Onward and you’ll start ascending on slickrock, and soon you’ll see Hickman Bridge. Here the trail will make a brief loop, allowing you to hike through and around the bridge.
I should note that while I previously referred to Hickman Bridge as an arch, some geologists and “arch-hunters” would correct me. Usually the term “bridge” is used to describe a natural arch that is carved by the erosive effects of water, rather than wind. I’m using the terms fairly interchangeably here, and I apologize to any geologists who are put off by my doing so. But seriously geologists, it’s not that big a deal.
What is a big deal is the 125 foot tall, 133 foot wide natural bridge that is Hickman Bridge. It’s absolutely lovely, if somewhat difficult to photograph…
After hiking beneath the bridge, the trail gets a little hard to follow, but stay with it as it heads left around the bend. It will lead you to a nice viewpoint, where we stopped to take a few photos.
From here you’ll have roughly three quarters of a mile back to the trailhead, with a little scrambling along the way.
The trail to Cassidy Arch is a strenuous one; certainly not the most challenging hike in the park, but probably the most taxing one we made during our visit. It’s almost three and a half miles out and back, with 670 feet of elevation change each way. It’s also well worth the sweat you’ll put in to get out there. Trust me!
The first step of your journey is turning off of UT-24 and heading south on the scenic drive. Then turn east onto Grand Wash Road. Be warned, this is a pretty rough dirt and gravel road. If you’re into fancy paint jobs, clean cars, or smooth rides, this might not be for you.
The lot fills up fast, and plenty of people park on the side of the road, so exercise caution, and be prepared for a little extra walking before you even hit the trail.
Though the sign doesn’t say so, this is where we picked up the Grand Wash Trail, which we followed for that .3 mile until we reach the Cassidy Arch Trail junction. Just as you’d expect, you start out walking along a sandy wash, but truth be told, it really is fairly grand…
Continue along the wash, and the canyon wall to your left will eventually open up a bit. Soon you’ll find junction to Cassidy Arch Trail.
As you turn and begin hiking the Cassidy Arch Trail, you’re literally making your way up the canyon wall, climbing steadily upward. You’re going to have lots of irregular steps, twists, and turns on this trail, but take your time and enjoy it.
After about a third of a mile, the incline relaxes a bit, and so can you. For a moment anyway, because before long, that trail will start ascending again, though less intensely than before.
Not far from the spot pictured above, you’ll round a bend to the right, and you’ll get your first glimpse of Cassidy Arch off in the distance.
Don’t get too excited yet, as you’ve still got some hiking to do; this is only about halfway to the arch! Keep going! Where the trail seems to dissolve into slickrock, keep an eye out for cairns; they’ll guide the way. There are a few spots where it’s easy to slip in crumbling rock, so be mindful.
At about 1.2 miles in, you’ll come to a trail junction. You can head right to take the Frying Pan Trail which will eventually meet up with the Cohab Canyon Trail. We stayed to the left in order to complete our trek to the arch, which is about a half a mile from where the trail forks!
As you near Cassidy Arch, you’ll notice the trail spreading into open slickrock. At this point, you may lose sight of the arch, but don’t worry. Follow the cairns up a sandstone slope, swing to the left, and then gradually hike down a slight descent across the stone to the rim of the canyon. Here Cassidy Arch will open up before you.
If you so desire, you can head to the left or right, and cross the arch itself; though it appears risky from afar, the arch is thick and wide. We faced a greater risk of fall on the hike to Cassidy Arch than we did while we stood on it.
There’s not much in the way of shade out here, so after getting pictures, chatting with fellow hikers, and catching our breath, we returned the same way we came. We were pretty beat on the way back, but the experience was well worth the effort. I know that the pictures don’t do Cassidy Arch justice, but you’ll have to take my word for it; this is a hike you’ll want to take!
Other reasons to visit Capitol Reef
While in Fruita, near the campgrounds and the Cohab Canyon trailhead, you ought to swing into the Gifford Homestead and buy yourself some pie. You won’t regret having some after a long day of hiking.
I also recommend stopping to check out the petroglyphs in the park along UT-24. The panels in the park depict the stories of the Fremont culture who lived in the area between 300 and 1300 CE.
Camping in Capitol Reef
When you’re planning you’re trip, keep in mind that you’ll find limited camping in the park. The Fruita campground is the only developed campground, and only has 71 sites; it tends to fill up pretty quickly during the summer months.
Fore more primitive camping, you could consider Cathedral Valley Campground, or Cedar Mesa Campground. They both have pit toilets and fire grates, but no running water, and are 36 and 23 miles respectively from the visitor center. Camping is free here, but there are only eleven campsites between these two grounds. They’re first come first serve, and during peak season they too can fill up quickly.
Free backcountry camping permits are available at the visitor center. If you’re thinking about backpacking into the desert, make sure that you’re prepared for the outing, and that you’re ready to practice Leave No Trace principles.
Capitol Reef actively encourages visitors to use alternatives to camping in the park, which we did. During our visit, we spent our days in the park, but our nights in a developed campground in Dixie National Forest. For us, it was the best of both worlds, though it did mean a twenty minute drive both ways. That’s an easy commute, and I have no complaints.
The final word
Fewer people, awesome hiking experiences, great pie, and a good night’s rest in a nearby National Forest made this visit remarkable. I’ve yet to visit a National Park and not enjoy myself, but of all the parks we’ve made it to in Utah, Capitol Reef is by far my favorite. If it’s not on your list of places to visit, make sure that you add it. You absolutely will not regret it.