Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park

Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park

After our haphazard trip across mid-central-south Utah, we ended up in Capitol Reef National Park and wanted to chill for a few days in the relative warmth. Much to our surprise, so did a few hundred other people. Capitol Reef is always listed as one of the least visited, quietest National Parks. What happened? Was it becoming a victim of its own success, like the North Rim of the Grand Canyon? I asked the campground host what was going on. He said that the campground had filled up every day since its official opening on April 1st — and that it was usually booked well before noon. This was something he’d never seen before. I commented that the park must have been featured on a popular travel show or something. He said, “Now that you mention it, someone did tell me that it was written up by some travel chap in LA, he called it a hidden gem.” I groaned. He agreed: “When I heard that, I said, oh no, that’s the death knell!”

On a previous visit, we spent just a few hours in the park, hiking to Hickman Bridge — a breathtaking natural bridge. The rock around the bridge is covered with red handprints likely of Native American origin. Capitol Reef preserves an interesting combination of human history and natural beauty. This time we wanted to explore a little more. Unlike other parks (and like the campground), most of the trails we sampled in Capitol Reef were pretty busy. The hiking is not easy, but large ranges of people were giving it a try. Only a small section of the park is easily accessible via passenger car. Next time we visit southern Utah, we’re bringing a Jeep, and we’re going in deep.

Fremont Overlook

The Fremont River Overlook is a great trail for getting a relatively easy overview of the Waterpocket Fold, the most prominent geological feature in Capitol Reef. Even after you read about how the earth’s crust folded over on itself, it’s still hard to visualize. You can spend some time up here just looking at the Fold, trying to puzzle it out.

Cohab Canyon

This hidden canyon is OK — but I’m a little canyon spoiled, and it wasn’t dramatic enough for me. But the views from the overlook are spectacular. This is another good place to contemplate the Fold and our impact on wild places.

Grand Wash

Grand Wash is a fun place to pretend to be a water droplet.

Capitol Gorge

Capitol Gorge has it all. Petroglyphs and handprints can be seen shortly after you leave the trailhead. A little farther, pioneers passing through the canyon in the late 1800s and early 1900s scratched their names and journey dates in the rock. We were wondering how the natives and the pioneers managed to scratch into the rock so far above our heads, picturing them standing on one another’s shoulders or on rocks or cars, until we realized we were actually seeing evidence of the gorge floor eroding over the past centuries.

There’s a spot where you can climb up out of the gorge to see some tanks, deep pockets in the rock where rainwater collects and an important source of water for wildlife. When I was here with my family as a kid, we saw some disturbingly fresh mountain lion tracks in the sand in a tank, but Paul and I didn’t spot any tracks this time.

In addition to all this, it’s also a really interesting gorge.

To top this hike, I wanted to hike the Navajo Knobs trail to get a panoramic view of the entire park from the very top, but we felt too lazy for a 9 mile strenuous hike on our last day in the park. We’re trying to decide whether it’s good to leave things undone or whether we should try to push to fit in everything we want. If you like a place, it’s never horrible to have a reason to return…