After spending four months as a seasonal interpretive volunteer at Capitol Reef National Park, I have completed a whopping 46 blog posts for Live and Let Hike about Capitol Reef, including 42 detailed descriptions of the park’s trails and routes. Alas, despite wishful thinking, your average visitor to Capitol Reef is not likely to research dozens of hikes before arriving. Most come unprepared, asking at the Visitor Center: “So…which one is the best?”
The answer is inherently subjective, especially in a park encompassing 378 miles of diverse terrain. Furthermore, hiking experiences are inevitably colored by a number of variables, including weather, crowds, difficulty, group size, pace, and the general temperament of the hiker. Wildlife sightings add to the appeal. Stubbed toes? The opposite.
Caveats aside, the following is my valiant effort to make sense of the morass: a completely subjective (but at least well-researched?) list of the top ten hikes in Capitol Reef’s frontcountry. By this I mean the park’s 15 maintained trails in the central Fremont River District—along Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive—plus a handful of nearby short but unmaintained routes (e.g., The Castle Trail, Pleasant Creek). The backcountry—including Spring Canyon, Cathedral Valley, and the southern Waterpocket District—is another beast and is covered in a second “top ten” list.
For now, consider this your homework: a top-ten guide to trails and routes in Capitol Reef’s frontcountry. (Note: See also, “Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s ‘Backcountry’,” or, for a complete list of hikes, check out the Capitol Reef Hiking Guide.)
- Fremont River Trail (Easy to Moderate; 2.6 mi. out-and-back, 1.5-2 hrs.)
Capitol Reef’s Fremont River Trail begins in the historic town of Fruita amid drooping cottonwoods, neatly cultivated orchards, and the perennial stream for which the hike is named. The first 4/10 mile are flat, easy, and wheelchair-accessible, but the trail beyond takes on a different flavor as it climbs steadily out of Fremont Gorge and terminates atop a windswept hill. From this viewpoint, the immense and colorful Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust, unfolds to the east.
See my post on February 26, 2015 for a full trail description.
- Capitol Gorge Trail + the Tanks (Easy to Moderate; 2.2-5.4 mi. out-and-back, 1.5-4 hrs.)
Arguably not as spectacular as its nearby cousin (see #5 below), Capitol Gorge is nonetheless a narrow canyon with an important role in the area’s history. Constructed in 1883, the “Blue Dugway” provided passage for wagons—and eventually automobiles—through Capitol Gorge and served as the only road across the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold for almost 80 years. Now open only to hikers, the narrowest reaches of Capitol Gorge still bear remnants of the pioneers who passed through a century ago, including a myriad of inscriptions and old telephone lines. Many hikers turn around at the Tanks, a series of water-bearing potholes situated a hundred feet above the canyon floor, but the trail continues for another 1.5 miles to the park’s eastern boundary.
See my post on June 14, 2015 for a full trail description.
- The Castle Trail (Moderate; 2.4 mi. out-and-back, 1-2 hrs.)
The Castle Trail is actually no longer a trail, having been decommissioned (I believe) in the 1970s. For this reason, it is entirely absent from guidebooks and known perhaps only to rangers and local Capitol Reef enthusiasts. Nonetheless, the Castle Trail is signed and cairned in places. The hike begins across Highway 24 from the Visitor Center and winds through a dogleg canyon around The Castle into an eerie landscape of Martian-like badlands and pastel-colored hoodoos—a setting all-but-assured to be free of crowds.
See my post on April 21, 2015 for a map and full route description.
- Frying Pan Trail (Moderate to Strenuous; 2.9 mi. one-way, 1.5-2 hrs.)
The Frying Pan Trail serves as a connector route between the Cohab Canyon Trail and the Cassidy Arch Trail, but it is also far more than that. Aside from a dip into Frying Pan Canyon (a worthy side trip), the trail sits high atop the ledgey benches of the Kayenta formation, which affords excellent views in nearly all directions. Along the way, hikers will encounter enticing side canyons, dense pinyon-juniper concentrations, moqui marbles, and a series of peculiar-shaped spires (see if you can spot the duck and the buffalo).
See my post on January 24, 2015 for a map and full trail description.
- Cassidy Arch Trail (Moderate to Strenuous; 3.4 mi. out-and-back, 2-3 hrs.)
According to oral tradition, infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch” frequently passed through the Waterpocket Fold during their criminal heyday in the late 1880s. Whether Cassidy ever spotted the arch that now bears his name is an open question, but it is fun to imagine the crew of bandits weaving through Grand Wash and scaling the Kayenta ledges to the archway, just as hikers can do today. It is a 1.7-mile, moderately strenuous climb from the Grand Wash Trailhead to the top of the arch, complete with spectacular views and long stretches of classic slickrock.
See my post on January 22, 2015 for a full trail description.
- Grand Wash Trail (Easy; 4.8 mi. out-and-back, 2 hrs.)
Grand Wash is one of the “must-sees” in the Fremont River District and a great hike for families and introductory hikers. The flat, easy trail simply follows the wash bottom as it weaves through three different rock layers, including a ½-mile stretch dubbed “The Narrows,” where passage through the towering Navajo sandstone thins to 16 feet. Access from either the Grand Wash Road or Highway 24.
See my post on December 15, 2014 for a map and full trail description.
- Sulphur Creek (Strenuous; 5.5 mi. one-way, 4-6 hrs.)
The Sulphur Creek route is a magical walk through an alluring canyon with colorful narrows, waterfalls, and enticing swimming holes. Hikers must work to reach these gems, however: this is a rugged route in which careful scrambling is required to bypass the three waterfalls, and wet boots are nearly impossible to avoid in a handful of spots. Most complete the 5.5-mile trek as a shuttle hike, beginning at the Chimney Rock Trailhead and hiking downstream to the Visitor Center.
See my post on April 8, 2015 for a full trail description.
- Fremont Gorge Overlook Trail (Moderate to Strenuous; 4.6 mi. out-and-back, 3-4 hrs.)
Surprisingly, the Fremont Gorge Overlook Trail is frequently overlooked; it is one of the least travelled of the area’s 15 maintained trails. Yet it certainly one of the most spectacular, featuring sweeping views of the Waterpocket Fold, the Fruita historic district, and the Fremont River Gorge. Much of the hike is spent climbing—first some 300 feet from the Scenic Drive, then another 600 feet to the overlook of Fremont Gorge—but the ascent is interrupted by a lengthy stroll across flattop Johnson Mesa, littered with mysterious black basalt boulders.
See my post on December 21, 2014 for a map and full trail description.
- Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs Trail (Strenuous; 9.4 mi. out-and-back, 4-5 hrs.)
Navajo Knobs offers arguably the finest panoramic view in the Fremont River District accessible by trail, while the halfway point—Rim Overlook—is not too shabby, either. Both provide excellent vantage points of the Fruita area, Cohab Canyon, Waterpocket Fold, and Miners Mountain, while “the Knobs” throw in a peek to the north into Spring Canyon and the Cathedral Valley District beyond. The trail to the two overlooks is steep and persistent, and the final ascent to Navajo Knobs requires modest scrambling.
See my post on December 21, 2014 for a map and full trail description.
- Cohab Canyon Trail (Moderate; 1.7-2.9 mi. one-way, 1-2.5 hrs.)
There is arguably no more elaborately carved canyon in Capitol Reef than Cohab Canyon, where the walls of Wingate sandstone are speckled with honeycombed solution pockets and sliced dramatically into hundreds of minor slots. Beyond the Wingate are an impressive hoodoo and small archway in the Kayenta formation, as well as two short spur trails to overlooks high above Fruita and the Fremont River. The Cohab Canyon Trail is best completed as a shuttle hike, beginning at the Fruita Campground and ending at the Hickman Bridge Trailhead along Highway 24.
See my post on May 31, 2015 for a full trail description.
There you have it—a Spark Notes guide of sorts to Capitol Reef’s frontcountry hikes. Comments welcome!