Capitol Reef National Park has a unique shape: about 70 miles long by an average of only six miles wide. The reason for this curious outline is that the park protects a linear geologic feature called the Waterpocket Fold. Mistakenly identified as an ancient reef by early white settlers, the Waterpocket Fold is actually an exposed geologic monocline—the largest of such features in North America. The result is a rift in the earth’s crust which exposes a remarkable landscape of sheer cliffs, rock domes, and natural bridges. Cutting through the Waterpocket Fold is a series of deep canyons and narrow slots, and the trails running through these dramatic gaps make for some of the best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.
Best Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park
Most visitors hike near the Fruita District or along Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive, which are the only paved roads through the park. Luckily, these areas offer some of the best hikes. One such hike is the Grand Wash Trail, which is 2.2 miles, one way. This easy route takes visitors into a deep, narrow canyon running through the heart of the Waterpocket Fold. For those seeking a longer hike, Grand Wash can be combined with the Cassidy Arch and Frying Pan trails.
Another park favorite is the Cassidy Arch Trail. This leads to a natural arch named for the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy, who was alleged to have a hideout somewhere in Grand Wash. The trail is only 1.7 miles, one way, but it requires 670 feet in elevation gain.
If you’re looking for a shorter hike, consider the Capitol Gorge Trail. Located at the end of the Scenic Drive, this hike is one mile, one-way. The route passes through a narrow sandstone canyon in the Waterpocket Fold, which includes some historic inscriptions and a chance to view water pockets.
The Hickman Bridge Trail is a popular hike that leads to one of the most impressive features in the park. It’s a short hike, just under one mile long with about 400 feet in elevation gain. The reward is access to the 133-foot-long Hickman natural bridge, which stands dramatically over an ephemeral tributary of the Fremont River.
A slightly longer and moderately challenging hike is the Cohab Canyon Trail, located near the visitor center. This hike takes visitors through hidden canyons and offers side hikes to overlooks of Fruita and the Fremont River Valley. The length of the Cohab Canyon Trail is 1.7 miles, one-way, with about 440 feet of elevation gain.
There are certainly other hikes to consider, with a total of 15 trails in the Fruita District. For a complete list visit this NPS webpage.
Fruita Historic District & Scenic Drive
A highlight of visiting Capitol Reef National Park is stopping by the 200-acre Fruita Historic District. Located at the crossroads Highway 24 and the park’s Scenic Drive, the historic district preserves evidence from thousands of years of human occupation.
One of the most unique attractions is a series of Fremont Culture Petroglyphs which are visible from a pair of wooden boardwalks just off Highway 24. The Fremont Culture lived in the area from 300-1300 CE, and these stone carvings show human-like figures, bighorn sheep, other animals, and geometric designs. Other highlights include visiting the park’s fruit orchards, the restored Fruita schoolhouse, and the Gifford homestead.
Heading south from Fruita, the park’s Scenic Drive is a 7.9 mile paved road winding behind the Waterpocket Fold. Along the way there are two dirt spur roads which lead to the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge trailheads. The park service recommends spending about 1.5 hours driving this route, and they offer a guide to the Scenic Drive on their webpage.
Where to Stay and Eat
There are limited options for lodging and restaurants in this remote region of Southern Utah. There’s no lodge or restaurant inside the park, and only one developed campground, the Fruita Campground. With 71 sites, it’s open year-round and operates on a 100% reservation system from March 1st to October 31st.
Otherwise, most visitors to Capitol Reef look outside the park. The two closest towns are both located on Highway 24. The nearest is Torrey, located 10 miles east, while Hanksville is about 36 miles west. For more information, the Wayne County Office of Tourism maintains the website https://capitolreef.org/.
The North District: Cathedral Valley
Some other hikes in Capitol Reef National Park are in the North District, also called Cathedral Valley. It was named by Charles Kelly, the first superintendent of Capitol Reef National Park, who thought the eroded sandstone formations resembled gothic cathedrals.
Today, Cathedral Valley can only be reached with a 4WD vehicle by following rough and sandy roads. These roads are part of the Cathedral Valley Driving Loop, with most visitors taking 6-8 hours to drive the 57.6-mile loop in the clockwise direction.
This is an extremely remote part of the park that can only be reached with 4WD vehicles. The route requires fording the Fremont River, which can only be attempted at lower water levels. There is little to no cell reception, and no services or water are available. Visitors must be experienced with backcountry travel and 4WD driving. Carry all needed water, fuel, food, and supplies. If problems occur, rescue can take hours if not days.
Road conditions can change suddenly due to recent weather. Recent rains, or melting snow in winter, can wash out the roads and leave them impassable. Meanwhile, high winds can create deep sand drifts. For these reasons, it’s important to check with the visitor center (435-425-3791) before attempting to drive to Cathedral Valley.
Highlights in Cathedral Valley include many stone monoliths, the Bentonite Hills, the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, and many more side trips and hikes.
The South (Waterpocket) District
Like the North District, the South (Waterpocket) District is a very remote area. Visitors must be self-sufficient and carry all needed water and supplies. Do not count on having cell service.
That said, the roads in the South District are a little more accessible to most two-wheel-drive vehicles during normal weather conditions. Before you go, check the road conditions by calling the Capitol Reef visitor center (435-425-3791)
The highlight in this district is the Loop-The-Fold Driving Tour. This 124-mile loop route typically takes 4-6 hours to complete. Highlights include access to Strike Valley and many rugged backcountry hiking routes.
We hope you have found this information helpful for planning your trip to Capitol Reef National Park.
Looking for another Utah vacation national parks road trip? Check out the Mighty 5 in Utah! In addition to Capitol Reef, it includes Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands and Arches national parks! These are some of the most astonishing parks in the world. They are also part of even a larger collection of parks called the Grand Circle.
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Cover photo: A hiker on the Cassidy Arch Trail. NPS/Jane Merritt