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Dreaming of sandstone arches and stunning desert scenes? Then you need to make your way to Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. Despite not having the same amount of notoriety as other national parks, you won’t be without plenty of things to do. Aside from amazing views of canyons and rocky formations, you can find amazing trails. Today we’re going to introduce some of the best hikes in Capitol Reef to get you inspired.
Table of Contents
- About Capitol Reef National Park
- Capitol Reef Hiking Tips
- The 12 Best Hikes In Capitol Reef
- 1. The Hickman Bridge Trail
- 2. The Grand Wash Trail
- 3. Cassidy Arch Trail
- 4. Cohab Canyon Trail
- 5. Chimney Rock Trail
- 6. Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs Trails
- 7. Sunset Point
- 8. Capitol Gorge Trail
- 9. Strike Valley Overlook
- 10. Slot Canyon Hikes
- 11. Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock Route
- 12. Cathedrals Trail
- Honorable Mention: The Petroglyphs
- Happy Hiking at Capitol Reef!
About Capitol Reef National Park
Familiarizing yourself with the layout and location of the park is half the fun. Capitol Reef National Park is in Utah and stretches out for quite a distance (approximately 241,904 acres). That said, most of the hikes, overlooks, and views are found along Cathedral Valley road and Highway 24. Cathedral Valley is only available with 4WD.
While venturing around Capitol Reef, expect to find basalt boulders, fossils, and amazing wildlife. Birdwatchers can also rejoice, as there are more than 230 species of birds dwelling in Capitol Reef National Park.
If you only have a short amount of time to get hiking done, you’re in luck. Capitol Reef’s best hikes can be done in a day or two. So if you’re stopping by for a single day, this is a great place to check out.
Capitol Reef Hiking Tips
To make the most out of your hiking in Capitol Reef, consider the following:
Always Leave No Trace
Be a good hiker and a protector of Mother Earth. Whatever you bring into the park should leave with you. That means energy bar wrappers and other garbage. Be sure to refresh your memory on the seven principles of Leave No Trace before adventuring through Capitol Reef.
Remember Your 10 Essentials
You’ll hear it preached almost as often as Leave No Trace. There are 10 items that should always be in your hiking backpack, no matter how long or short your hike will be. Capitol Reef may not be the most expansive or have the craziest weather, but you still need to bring the 10 Essentials.
Bring Hiking Boots With Traction
Capitol Reef National Park has many well-maintained trails. That doesn’t mean those trails are easy! You’re going to run into sharp rocks, unstable earth, and plenty of uneven walkways. Keep your ankles and feet well protected while you hike.
No Dogs Allowed
At Capitol Reef National Park, dogs are not allowed on the overlooks or trails. This is unfortunate, because there are so many great places for pups to run around. However, you have to obey park rules. Don’t bring Fido on this trip.
That said, dogs are allowed around the Fruita Campground, Fremont River Trail, unlocked orchards, picnic areas, and in parking areas.
This is always something worth knowing before you go. Like many national parks in the US, there is a fee you must pay prior to entry. The good news is that Capitol Reef is relatively cheap. You need US$20 for your car or $10 per individual if you arrive on foot or by bike.
The 12 Best Hikes In Capitol Reef
Looking for hikes in Capitol Reef that will leave you in awe? Capitol Reef has many understated but amazing hikes for you and your family to enjoy. While there are over 120 miles of hiking trails, though, some are better than others. Here is a list of Capitol Reef National Park hikes that should not be missed:
1. The Hickman Bridge Trail
Arguably the most popular hike in the park, Hickman Bridge Trail wends along a river and is lined with rock formations that seem impossible (including a natural arch that spans 133 feet). The entire hike is about 2 miles and is rated as easy. You begin beside the Fremont River, where you can take in the babbling stream and leafy trees.
Then the trail starts to ascend. Much of the trail goes up and down, which can be a workout for some. Once you have taken in the stunning sandstone and rugged desert views, you find yourself gazing up at Hickman Bridge, the stone arch.
Since the hike is so popular, this one is best left for the early morning or late evening. Otherwise, the path to the arch is going to be very crowded. You can also try going during the off-season, around Fall or Winter.
2. The Grand Wash Trail
Do you want to see natural sights that fill you with wonder? Then the Grand Wash Trail should not be missed. Most of the trail winds around enormous walls of red rock and towering trees. round trip, the hike is about 4.5 miles long. Though the scenery doesn’t change much, walking the full circuit is worth it. The hike isn’t as popular among visitors, so you will have plenty of time to yourself (and your partners). However, some hikers do warn that, since the views don’t truly change, it can get boring.
During this hike, you will have plenty of chances to see the wildlife that teems within the national park. Keep your eyes peeled to the shrubs just as often as you look up towards the top of the walls. You will definitely feel dwarfed by the mightiness of the cliffs!
The beginning of Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch are reachable from the same parking lot.
3. Cassidy Arch Trail
This is one exciting hike; and it’s one you should do if you’re strapped for time. You begin the trail at the bottom of the valley then move upwards to the outer rim of the canyon. The hike continues upward then levels off at a fork in the road. If you go left, you find yourself on the road towards Cassidy Arch. Be sure to look out for the fork, as the way to Cassidy Arch isn’t properly marked. However, once you get on the right road, you can’t miss the rock arch.
Even from a distance, the arch is noticeable and stunning. If you’re feeling brave, you can even attempt to climb to the top for some awe-inspiring photographs of the park.
The Cassidy Arch Trail is considered to be moderate difficulty, because you’re heading uphill the majority of the time. In total, it’s about 3 miles to and from the arch and takes about 2 hours to complete.
4. Cohab Canyon Trail
The main motivation to complete this hike is the sights. You can see aerial views of the Fruita district and river from the highest points. At 3.4 miles long and an ascent of 800 feet, this isn’t an easy hike. That said, the views will keep you moving. Begin in the Fruita district the climb the switchbacks through the sandstone to look upon the lazily flowing river.
The trail dips into the Cohab Canyon once in a while before finding its highest spot upon a mesa. Here, you can follow the trail to the north and south overlooks. This is the perfect trail for taking photographs of the lush grass and wildflowers with the red rock in the background.
Looking to make a long loop around the whole park? You can connect your hike from Cassidy Arch to Cohab Canyon. Use the Frying Pan Trail, a one-way 2.9 mile hike that connects the two together.
5. Chimney Rock Trail
Looking for the best views in the park? Check out Chimney Rock Trail. This trail is about 4 miles long in total, moderately difficult, and has a minimal elevation gain. You can find the trailhead at the Chimney Rock Trailhead Car Park, just off to the side.
In the beginning, you will probably curse yourself for having chosen the path. Yes, it’s uphill and kind of steep, but once you reach a high point, you will be looking down on the scenic highway, tall red rock cliffs, and the sprawling canyon.
Reaching the top of Chimney Rock will definitely be a highlight of the trip. But those views from the apex are not what make this trail so incredible. It’s the descent! (How often do you hear that?) On the way down from Chimney Rock, you get a different view of stratified rocks full of colors, snow-covered mountains, and daring rock formations that defy gravity.
This trail is also magical in the evening when the sun begins setting, though it is not as good as Sunset Point.
6. Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs Trails
Known as one of the toughest hikes in Capitol Reef National Park, the Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs trail is also one of the most memorable. Most people connect the Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs trail to their journey from Hickman Bridge Overlook. If you decide to just do Rim Overlook, expect a round trip of 4.6 miles, taking you around 2-3 hours. Add on Navajo Knobs, and your trip is suddenly a strenuous 9.5 miles with an elevation gain of 2,725 feet.
To find the trailhead, begin on the Hickman Bridge Trail. Along the way, you will see a sign pointing you to Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs. The journey up Rim Overlook is mainly uphill and grants you some jaw-dropping views of the cliffs and rock formations. At the highest point of Rim Overlook, you can look down at the Scenic Drive and Fruita District. There is also the stunning river snaking through the area and off into the horizon.
Getting to Navajo Knobs means following the rim outward and towards a flatter section. You pass a rock formation called the Castle then begin the final leg. This last piece is most challenging, as it is steep, winding, and narrow.
But once you reach the top of Navajo Knobs, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Capitol Reef National Park.
7. Sunset Point
The starting point for this hike begins and ends at Goosenecks Overlook Car Park. It takes less than half a mile to complete and doesn’t have much of an elevation gain. Really, you are coming to this place for one thing only: the astounding sunset. As you could tell from the name, Sunset Point is one of the best places in Capitol Reef National Park to watch the sun dip below the horizon.
The trail takes you to a point over a wide gorge. You will have a hard time deciding where to look because it’s all so beautiful. Plus, the colors as the sun sets change, creating an illusory rainbow of pinks, blues, greens, and oranges. You won’t want to miss out on a chance to see this! Some people even say that Sunset Point rivals the majesty of the Grand Canyon.
Only way to find out if that’s true is to see it for yourself. Don’t forget your camera.
8. Capitol Gorge Trail
Although short, the Capitol Gorge Trail is one both children and adults will adore. It’s short, around 2.2 miles round trip and flat. Finding the trailhead might be the most hectic part, because you have to turn from the highway and drive down a scenic road to a dirt path that descends into the canyon. Fortunately, the drive shows off the splendid scenery of the area, so you won’t be bored.
The Capitol Gorge Trail is known for a section called the Pioneers Register. When Mormons were journeying from the east coast to the west, they left a name and date carved into the walls of the canyon. While such vandalism usually isn’t tolerated in a national park, these previously unnamed people were traversing the area in the 1800s. In other words, this is historical graffiti, kind of the famous Capitol Reef petroglyphs.
Interestingly, the Pioneers Register is also higher off the ground than it once was due to erosion.
Having seen the place where pioneers carved their name in stone, you continue along the trailhead towards the “watertanks.” These are not evidence of people but of nature’s might. Throughout the years, waterholes had been bored into the rocky walls. Now, you can find water in the watertanks throughout the year.
All in all, the hike takes about 2 hours, so it’s definitely one for those who are only visiting for a day or two.
9. Strike Valley Overlook
Many guides describing the best hikes in Capitol Reef fail to mention the hikes available throughout the Waterpocket Fold. What’s that, you ask? The Waterpocket Fold is about 100-miles of sedimentary rock that has folded in on itself and created all kinds of incredible rock formations. There are three main hikes through the area: Surprise Canyon, Headquarters Canyon, and Strike Valley Overlook.
The overlook is highly recommended. You can get to Strike Valley Overlook two ways. Either you drive the treacherous and muddy Upper Muley Twist Canyon Road (you will definitely need a 4WD vehicle or ATV for that) or hike along the same route. The road is about 2.9 miles long in one direction. Park near Burr Trail Road and begin your ascent.
Once you have reached the trailhead for Strike Valley Overlook, the path is 6 miles from start to finish. With a vehicle, the sweeping views of switchbacks and colorful stone is incredible. Walking is a bit more strenuous, but the dramatic expanse needs to be seen.
10. Slot Canyon Hikes
Did you come to Capitol Reef National Park hoping for a challenge? Make for Notom-Bullfrog Road, where long hikes through the slot canyons await. These are, again, highly challenging hikes that require some physical skill. Three are considered favorites: 7.5-miles long Burro Wash, 6-miles long Cottonwood Wash, and 14-miles long Sheets Gulch.
Burro Wash is the most popular. The canyon is narrow and requires some maneuvering to get to the end. For instance, in the beginning is a boulder blocking the way that often has a puddle of water on the other side. Most slots in Burro Wash are about a shoulder-width apart.
Cottonwood Wash is as difficult as Burro Wash, but the walls are taller—about 40-feet high! Plus, there are pools of water dotting the pathway, loads of chockstones to wriggle around, and narrow slots. There is a turnaround along the pathway where you turn around, as the end of the trail is an impassable wall of rock.
Lastly, Sheets Gulch. Long, challenging, and ever-changing on account of the weather, this is a slot canyon trail full of surprises. The biggest challenge here is an 8-foot tall chockstone blocking the path. Do you think you can overcome the hurdle?
11. Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock Route
Do you plan on visiting the Cathedral District of Capitol Reef National Park? You should. Within the area are many monoliths and views that you won’t see elsewhere in the park. While you can drive along the scenic route through the area, there are also a few hikes that shouldn’t be passed up. One of the best is the Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock trail.
At 4.5 miles round trip, this hike takes about 3 hours to complete. You begin at the Lower South Desert Overlook along Hartnet Road. You follow the road, coming to an overlook that gives you a clear view of the massive Jailhouse Rock. From there, you move onward to Temple Rock via a switchback trail that descends along the valley.
At one point, you leave the trail before it goes into the valley and head north of Jailhouse Rock. You meet back up with a road before reaching a view of volcanic dikes. If you ascend a small hill to the left, you can see the majestic Temple Rock, which is made of Entrada sandstone.
12. Cathedrals Trail
If you plan on doing the 60 miles of Cathedral Valley Loop Drive, don’t miss the Cathedrals Trail. Yes, it’s only 1.1 miles long and easy, but it also gives you an up close and personal experience with some of the most remote sections of the park. Again, you will need a 4WD vehicle to access Hartnet Junction and Cathedral Road. From there, you drive to the trailhead at Upper Cathedral Valley.
The trail itself welcomes you with a vigorous climb fringed with basalt boulders and juniper trees. As you round a corner, the trees give way to your first sight of the Cathedrals, a rock formation of pillars and buttes. You can spot Needle Mountain and Cathedral Mountain from along the trail.
You get some amazing views of the Jones Bench, the Hartnet escarpments, and even the Fishlake Mountains in the distance as you climb. At the summit of the trail, there is a chance for 360-degree views of the area.
Honorable Mention: The Petroglyphs
Yes, it’s not technically a hike but a worthwhile adventure nonetheless. You can’t go to Capitol Reef and skip out on the Petroglyphs. You just can’t. The Petroglyphs are some of the best preserved in the whole country. The walk is about 0.25 miles in length, takes about 15 minutes to complete, and is set along a boardwalk. Follow the trail. You will eventually see signage and binoculars pointing your gaze in the right direction.
Once you see a single petroglyph, you will start picking out all the rest scattered throughout the area. Many of the glyphs aren’t signposted, so keep your eyes peeled to the cliffs!
Here is a video that shows you some of the famous petroglyphs and how to find them:
Happy Hiking at Capitol Reef!
There are many wonderful hikes in Capitol Reef National Park. You will find that there is a trail for everybody to enjoy, even those who are relatively new to hiking. For those seeking a challenge, head to the slot canyons. Now that you know the best hikes in Capitol Reef, which one do you think you will try first?
How many miles of trails are in Capitol Reef National Park?
There are 15 day hiking trails and multiple backcountry trails for you to explore. In total, there are more than 120 miles of trails in Capitol Reef National Park. Most trails are found throughout the Waterpocket District. Many hikes range between 0.25 to 10 miles round trip, so everyone in your group should be able to see a piece of the park, regardless of their fitness or skill level.