Capitol Reef Travel Guide
Learn how to Capitol Reef by experience level, or how much time you have.
Capitol Reef is worthy of many superlatives, but it definitely deserves the blue ribbon for Weirdest Park Name. (Runner-up: Goblin Valley.) Noobs to the name will wonder, “Are we in Washington, D.C.? Snorkeling off Tahiti?” The answer is neither, and both.
You can’t pass any binding laws in the park, but the capitol part of the name is a shout-out to the white dome formations that dot the horizon and look just like the real deal back East. And despite a lack of tropical fish, the park has an elevated piece of land that obstructs passage – a lesser known sense of the word reef. If you don’t like the current name, you can always use the locals’ original nickname: Wayne Wonderland (after Wayne County).
Either way, the take-home is the same: This place is so weird, so whacked-out-beautiful and surprising, the namers had their hands full affixing a moniker that captures all the variety as the park does. And once you see the Technicolor rocks, the cathedrals of stone jutting up from flat ground and the Fremont River goosenecking its way through it all, you won’t even care that you mistakenly wore your scuba fins. ‘Cause it’s worth it. (Plus, since the park is huge, wild and not that crowded there will be hardly anyone around to make fun of you.)
What Kind of Traveler Are You?
Toddlers in tow, recent hip replacement, only plan on bringing flip flops.
Here are four “easy listening” hikes to help get you acquainted with Capitol Reef:
Hickman Bridge: An unnaturally long natural bridge. Naturally. 1.8 miles roundtrip.
Surprise Canyon: Short, easy, narrow, and full of surprises. 2.15 miles roundtrip.
Grand Wash: Keep your canyons close and your friends closer on this narrow trail. 4.4 miles roundtrip.
Sulphur Creek: What’s that smell? It’s you, getting funky in a slot canyon, getting down in the river. 12.4 miles roundtrip.
You’ve convinced yourself you like camping, you’ll do what it takes to get a selfie, your kids are grown and susceptible to bribes.
Check out these moderate hikes that’ll have you “rockin’ and rollin” in no time.
Cassidy Arch: Come for the towering arch, stay for the bricks of buried outlaw gold. (Kidding?) 3.4 miles roundtrip.
Chimney Rock Loop: Chim-chimeny, chim-chimeny, chim-chim, cheroo, good luck will rub off when you hike on this loo—p. 3.6 miles roundtrip.
Fremont River: Mother Nature’s throwing shade on this riverine walk in the park. (Literally). 2.0 miles roundtrip.
Cohab Canyon: Gets you into a hidden canyon, drops you into a gorge, and fills you up with scenic views. 3.0 miles roundtrip.
View of Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock was once part of the same sediment bed that solidified into the Mummy Cliff and the rest of the mesa. But as the mesa has eroded back further and further over the millennia, Chimney Rock has withstood the tests of time.
Your hiking boots cost more than your rent, Michelangelo could've modeled David's calves after yours, you have outdoor gear we've never heard of.
Here are a few “Death Metal”, hikes for the ultimate adventurer:
Frying Pan: A hike so pretty you could cook an egg on it. 2.0 miles roundtrip.
Golden Throne: Bow down to her if you want! Bow to her! Bow to the queen of stone! 4.0 miles roundtrip.
Brimhall Natural Bridge: A pothole-style double arch hidden deep within the recesses of Brimhall Canyon. 4.6 miles roundtrip.
Check out more Capitol Reef hiking trails here.
How much time do you have?
If you have HALF A DAY…
Near the visitor center. Start your brief stay with a mid-morning view of Mother Nature’s candyland on the two-mile Hickman Bridge trail, a cottonwood-dotted hike between tanned sandstone walls ending at a colossal 130-foot natural bridge. Play in the sand, visit the nearby Fremont ruins, then clamber back down to earth and treat yourself to a homemade fruit pie at the Gifford House. Wait: Local fruit pies? In the desert?! Yep, you heard right. Thanks to the hard work of early Mormon homesteaders, fruit trees still blossom in the historic homestead of Fruita. Grab some old-timey home goods from the farmhouse museum, eat a pie or two, then pick the fresh version from the trees in the adjacent orchard. Digest your lunch while looking at the petroglyphs down the road, an array of ancient rock billboards chiseled by the Fremont Indians who settled the area centuries ago. Then catch the sunset at Sunset Point, where you can see the spine of the Waterpocket Fold, fluted sandstone sentinels and the far-off Henry Mountains all pop with color before cooling into night.
If you have A FULL DAY
Take a(nother) hike. Haven’t had your fill of arches yet? Good. Take a scramble up some slickrock to Cassidy Arch, named after Butch, the pilfering outlaw who used to hide out in the canyon with his entourage, the Wild Bunch. Sit with your entourage and contemplate both the beauty of red stone against blue sky and the moral ambiguity of a man who devoted his life to bank robbery being rewarded with a giant geological namesake. Shake yourself back to your senses and promise to be good, then distract yourself from temptation by hoofing it to Chimney Rock Loop, the knobby tent pole of the park. Take in the views on the way home or, if you have the juice for another major hike, keep the west wild and drop down into nearby Spring Canyon — a ten-mile canyon adventure.
If you have THREE DAYS
Sulphur Creek, Golden Throne. Congratulations! It’s either Memorial Day or you’ve quit your job to become an amateur rockhound. Either way, you’ve got some time on your hands and the park can’t wait to fill it. Start your three-day wilderness bender by wading through Sulphur Creek, a section of watery narrows that passes through the oldest rock in the park and features multiple waterfalls, pools and drop-offs. Impress your hiking date/surly teenager/own self by down-climbing the steep sections and doing the butterfly stroke in the deepest pools. When you’re done being way-super-tough, head to the Golden Throne, a giant dome of Navajo sandstone that rules the rocks for miles.
Waterpocket Fold. Head out in the fire of the afternoon sun and hike into the Frying Pan, traipsing across the Waterpocket Fold with your phone camera on permanent panorama mode. End the day by driving the Burr Trail, a truly twisted road that takes you straight into the blood-red heart of the park. Mail a postcard to your parents telling them you really are, as Oprah says, living your best (amateur rockhound) life.™
Hidden Gem: Cathedral Valley
If you took a bunch of major world religious concepts and shook them up in a box, you’d have an approximate picture of Cathedral Valley, a northern swath of the park where imperious weathered stone towers stand around with a splendor that inspires piety. For you pagans and ancient Egyptians, there’s the Temple of the Sun and its lunar sibling, the Temple of the Moon — two stately monoliths that rise pyramid-like from the desert floor. Old Testament types will be drawn to the Walls of Jericho — sheer sandstone cliffs that, true to the story, are in the process of crumbling down. (Leave your trumpets at home, please.) And for the neo-spiritual, there are miles of remote, unpeopled desert where you can “find yourself.” Plus, unlike those stuffy European ones, you can drive your car through these cathedrals, in a 60-mile loop of candy-striped hills, glass mountains and giant gypsum sinkholes. If you’re feeling non-vehicular, there are plenty of side trails and overlooks where you can have a Road-to-Damascus moment.
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