Old Wagon Trail (Capitol Reef National Park, UT)

Old Wagon Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, February 2015

Old Wagon Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, February 2015

To those who know Capitol Reef National Park well, the Old Wagon Trail is often considered the red-headed stepchild of the park’s front-country hikes. Though the 3.8-mile stem-and-loop—starting right off the Scenic Drive—features one excellent viewpoint, it comes at a price: a long and monotonous slog 1,080 feet up the dip slope of pinyon- and juniper-studded Miners Mountain. Whether the hike traces an old wagon route is debatable—the rugged and persistent climb suggests this was no historical thoroughfare. But today it is an established hiking trail—and one that many complete simply to check it off the list.

Old Wagon Trail information distance Capitol Reef

 

The hike

If you like gnarly junipers and pinyon pines, this is the trail for you. After departing the Scenic Drive 6.5 miles south of the Capitol Reef Visitor Center (look for a pull-off and sign marked “Old Wagon Trail Hikers Parking”), the trail drops abruptly into a wash then begins the long and steady descent where the ubiquitous trees offer the most intrigue (though the overabundance of rock cairns can be rather amusing). To be fair, views of the multicolor Waterpocket Fold to east improve as the trail climbs the slope, but they are usually at your back.

The first 2/3 mile or so traverses the reddish-pink Torrey Member of the Moenkopi formation, deposited during the Triassic period and now one of Capitol Reef’s most recognizable strata. Beyond, the soil color changes dramatically to yellowish-gold, marking the start of the Moenkopi’s Sinbad Limestone Member. After roughly ¾ mile of hiking, the trail crests a low ridge—temporarily again piercing the Torrey Member—and actually drops around 15 feet to a shady basin where the route forks. This is the beginning of the loop portion of the hike. Follow the arrows, completing the loop in a clockwise direction.

After a 1/2-mile climb, a brief descent just before the loop section, Old Wagon Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

After a 1/2-mile climb, a brief descent just before the loop section, Old Wagon Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

It is roughly a ½-mile climb up the wide but immensely rocky path to a point where the trail skirts the edge of Upper Capitol Gorge. Here an even older rock layer—the whitish-yellow Kaibab limestone—reveals itself in the canyon below.

Typical view on the Old Wagon Trail - persistent, rocky climb

Typical view on the Old Wagon Trail – persistent, rocky climb

The views are fleeting as the trail curves northwest, away from the rim, and eventually cuts right, into a dense pinyon-juniper forest. The sloping grade abates and even begins to decline as the route bears north. Subtle rock cairns (far less flashy than those dotting the landscape near the trail’s start) guide hikers through the desert woodlands.

Dense pinyon-juniper woodlands near the highest point on the hike

Dense pinyon-juniper woodlands and Sinbad limestone near the highest point on the hike

A subtle post marks the beginning of the slow descent, where the trail follows a broad clearing (the closest thing to an old road that I could find). Roughly 2.2 miles from the trailhead, a cairned, single-track path exits the wide tread to the left. A couple minutes’ walk leads to the base of a small butte and a faded wooden sign. Ahead is the short spur trail to the viewpoint at the top of the rocky outcrop.

Henry Mountains and the Waterpocket Fold from the Old Wagon Trail viewpoint

Henry Mountains and the Waterpocket Fold from the Old Wagon Trail viewpoint

The windy overlook offers fine views of the Waterpocket Fold, perhaps some of the best in the park. Being around two miles west of the cliffsides, visitors are here able to capture a wider view of the Fold than on perhaps any other frontcountry hike. Vistas stretch as far as Meeks Mesa and Thousand Lake Mountain (11,299’) to the northwest and Buck Point (7,653’) to the southeast. On clear days, the Henry Mountains (11,522’) dominate the horizon to the east, while the remote Cathedral Valley District is visible beyond the cliffs to the north. To the west, vistas are lost in the angled slant of Miners Mountain (~7,900’), coated in evergreens.

View north from the overlook, Old Wagon Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

View north from the overlook, Old Wagon Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

View southeast toward Pleasant Creek and Buck Point (far right)

View southeast toward Pleasant Creek and Buck Point (far right)

Reconnecting with main trail, the hike returns to its usual ho-hum status, crossing the old road and edging southeast amid gradually-lessening crowds of pinyons and junipers. The start of the loop (just below the 15-foot slope mentioned above) is reached after a little over three miles of hiking. From here, it is a short, mostly downhill return to the trailhead.

Panorama from the Old Wagon Trail viewpoint, Capitol Reef National Park

Panorama from the Old Wagon Trail viewpoint, Capitol Reef National Park

Extra credit

For a better, less tedious hike with similar eastward views, consider the nearby Fremont River Trail (see my recent trail guide here).

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