One of a half-dozen hikes taking off from Capitol Reef National Park’s north-south Notom-Bullfrog Road, the Red Canyon Trail leads to an impressive amphitheater of scarlet-colored Wingate sandstone walls. Rocky promontories in the Wingate, similar in appearance to the celebrated “Needles” of Canyonlands National Park, conceal impressive secrets, including an impressive double arch requiring a ¼-mile detour to reach. The main trail, which simply follows the muddy wash bed after 1.25 miles, passes through at least six different sedimentary rock layers, ending in a boulder-filled bowl surrounded by hills of colorful bentonite clay.
The Red Canyon Trail starts and ends at Capitol Reef’s Cedar Mesa Campground, located just within the eastern park boundary, 21 miles south of Highway 24 on the Notom-Bullfrog Road. The campground features five primitive tent/RV sites and a pit toilet, and the relatively dense pinyon-juniper forest provides pleasant shade on a hot summer day. The Red Canyon hike starts from the far end of the campground; parking is limited, so arrive early if possible.
(Note: Hiking in the early morning also maximizes the hike’s aesthetics. While blanketed in shadows in the afternoon, the east-facing cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold are best illuminated when opposite the rising sun.)
From the campground, the well-defined trail to Red Canyon begins by cutting southwest across a sandy flat, where evergreen junipers and pinyon pines compete with thorny sagebrush, broom snakeweed, and Russian thistle. Prickly pear cactus is also easily spotted.
For much of the way, the sandy route follows a faded, double-wide track, vestiges of an old road. Roughly ½ mile from the trailhead, the path climbs to the top of a minor ridge, offering magnificent views of the Henry Mountains to the east. Mount Ellen, at 11,522 feet, rises above the rest. Below the mountains lies Wildcat Mesa, flanked by blue-gray badlands of Mancos shale, and the upper reaches of the Grand Gulch, a lengthy valley that extends south for dozens of miles.
To the west, the Red Canyon amphitheater remains mostly concealed from view, but the top of the ridge also provides appealing vistas of the Waterpocket Fold’s longitudinal, multicolor backbone.
From this point, the trail cuts northwest and descends gradually to a sandy drainage that provides access to the upper reaches of Red Canyon. The wash bottom is crossed after about 1.25 mile, and—after a quick shortcut across a wide meander—the trail drops into the drainage, where the route will stay for the remainder of the hike. At this spot, a gnarly, twisted cottonwood tree and at least a dozen yucca plants flank the canyon bottom.
Shortly after entering the wash, the drainage curves north, skirting the side of a tall ridge composed of primarily whitish Navajo sandstone (though it is capped by a strip of pink and gold, the contact between two younger layers—the Carmel formation and Page sandstone). The route again turns west and slices through a shallow but narrow cut in the Navajo. After a brief foray into the ledgey Kayenta formation, the wash winds through the Wingate sandstone—at this point primarily white and orange. A stony rock outcropping on the right stands as a monolith separating two neighboring forks of the main wash. This section also supports a riparian plant environment, including tall reed grasses, cottonwoods, and slender Coyote willows.
The Wingate, however, is fleeting, as a few minutes’ walk pierces yet another sedimentary layer, this time the crumbly clay of the Chinle formation. The Chinle section, alternating between a shade of faded purple and greenish-gray, is unfortunately prone to producing a muddy sludge. (Upon my visit in February 2015, there was a small, trickling stream flowing through the wash, despite it being over a month since the last significant precipitation. The result was a walk through unavoidable muck.)
By this point, the hike is nonetheless relatively close to its end. At least two significant washes will enter from the right; stay left. The hike eventually terminates at a fork in the drainage, beyond which both routes are clogged with gargantuan boulders. From this spot, enjoy a 270-degree panorama of the Red Canyon amphitheater, where steep talus slopes give way to cliffs rising several hundred feet high. The vertical elevation drop from the rim of the Waterpocket Fold down to this point approaches 1,200 feet.
Though it is possible to continue farther, the views improve only marginally, and the crumbly Chinle slopes pose risks that are perhaps not worth taking. Instead, return the way you came—and consider taking a minor detour to an excellent double arch on the way back…
There are, in fact, two visible arches in the Red Canyon area, though only the double span is worth seeking out. The other is located high atop the Wingate cliffs near the northwest corner of the amphitheater and, lacking a good angle to catch blue sky through the span, is difficult to photograph.
Reaching the double arch requires backtracking about ½ mile from the end of the trail to a point close to due east of the white-and-gold monolith. Look for a brushy, relatively flat wash entering from the main drainage from the west. Peering that direction, an eye-shaped window is visible just below the Wingate promontory—this is the arch. Follow this tributary wash upstream for about ¼ mile; the walk at one point passes through a relatively narrow slot.
Just beyond a section bearing tall, yellow grasses, the arch’s twin spans are easily spotted on the left. The arch is flanked by a deep and narrow slot, which obstructs easy access but is worth exploring in its own right. The slot runs for perhaps 50 yards before ending at an angled rock pile. (Note: climbing the boulder-strewn slope may provide access to the arch, but it seems unlikely.)
After enjoying this worthwhile detour, return the way you came. It is approximately two miles back to the trailhead from the arch.