Capitol Gorge Hike and the more familiar side of Capitol Reef National Park

A drive on Capitol Reef National Park’s popular scenic route and a short hike in the Capitol Gorge Area.

If you haven’t read my previous post about the less visited part of Capitol Reef National Park, be sure to check it out. The Cathedral District is remote and remarkable.

Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive

There are only two main paved roads inside Capitol Reef National Park, Utah Highway 24 and the Scenic Drive. When most visitors arrive in Capitol Reef, they either come through the east entrance on Utah-24 from Hanksville or the west entrance from Torrey. If you enter the park from the east side, you will be greeted by spectacular golden-colored rock cliffs and domes. If you enter the park from the west side, your first impression of Capitol Reef will be intense red sandstones and beautiful rock formations. Fantastic from either direction.

The Scenic Drive begins from the visitor center. Entrance Fees (currently $15 for a private vehicle) are charged only for traveling the Scenic Drive beyond the Fruita Campground. The drive is 8 miles one-way. Both Utah-24 in the park and the Scenic Drive are extremely photogenic. They are full of ooh-and-ahh-inducing views. So take your time, stop at every pullouts, and enjoy the views.

Highway 24 from the east entrance of Capitol Reef National Park
Golden-colored sandstones are everywhere.
Highway 24 west of the visitor center. Red sandstone formations dominate the area.
Highway 24 from the west entrance, looking east
A panorama of the same location in the above picture
One of giant Fremont Cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii) in the Historic Fruita District
The Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive
The Grand Wash, a side unpaved road. Cliffs and canyons are tall and massive here. It’s difficult to adequately capture in pictures.
Looking south from Slick Rock Divide on the Scenic Drive
The Golden Throne
The Capitol Gorge Road, an unpaved road at the end of the Scenic Drive. It’s passable by passenger cars.
The Capitol Gorge Road reminded me of Titus Canyon in Death Valley National Park, but more colorful.

The Capitol Gorge Trail

This short and easy hike is only 2-mi, out-and-back trail that is relatively flat, only 80 ft elevation change. The trail follows the dry streambed. The trail features a beautiful canyon and leads to rock inscriptions, both prehistoric (petroglyphs) and historic (the “pioneer register”). The official turnaround point for this trail is at the Tanks, but the canyon meanders eastward toward the park boundary. Based on my Gaia GPS map, you could explore further down the canyon to the park boundary. The round-trip distance from the trailhead to the park boundary is about 4.5 miles or so.

The end of the Capitol Gorge Road is the trailhead for the Capitol Gorge Trail and the Golden Throne Trail. We opted for the easy 2-mi roundtrip relatively level Capitol Gorge Trail.
Names edged into the side of the Capitol Gorge. It’s dated “Sept 24, 1911.” I think this is what the park refers to as Pioneer Register. They are very high off the ground. I guess they used a ladder to get up there.
There are also other marking by other pioneers and graffiti by later visitors, kinda messy canyon walls in some spots.
Continued down the Capitol Gorge Trail. This is a beautiful canyon hike.
There are several side canyons for those who want to explore further. Looks like rock scrambles are required.
At the end of the official trail, you could climb up to the Tanks, a series of water-filled potholes. Based on my map, it’s about 120 ft of elevation to climb and we weren’t up for it that day. This was our turnaround point.
The hike out was as pretty as the hike in.
On our drive back, we saw this bighorn sheep on the Capitol Gorge Road going about his business.

The Fruita Campground

This was our second time camping in a national park campground, but the first time in an RV. The first time was years ago in Yosemite National Park, where we stayed in a crowded soft-sided tent city in the Yosemite Valley. Having our house with us was nice. The campground is pretty and very conveniently located.

Did you know that you now can reserve campsites in Capitol Reef National Park through online reservation system. Starting in 2018, campsites at the Fruita Campground can be reserved online. Reservations can be made for camping from March through October. From November through February, all sites remain first-come, first-served. The park’s website said the majority of sites will be available through the reservation system; only a handful will remain first-come, first-served. Camping fees at the Fruita Campground are $20 per night. Senior and Access pass holders pay $10 per night. Book early is the key. I didn’t learn about the online reservation until early March so when I booked our spots, 2.5 months in advance, there were very few sites available. As a result, I had to book 3 separate sites for the 6 nights we wanted.

Sunset at the Fruita Campground, Capitol Reef National Park

Other Tips for exploring Capitol Reef National Park

  • Explore Highway 24. Utah Highway 24 is very scenic. If you have extra time, drive the section of the road from the junction of Interstate-70 through Hanksville to Torrey, Utah. I wanted to check out Goblin Valley State Park (outside of Hanksville), but we ran out of time.
  • Drive the Hartnet and Cathedral Roads. If you have a high-clearance, preferably, four-wheel drive vehicle, the Cathedral District is a must-visit. This loop drive requires at least 6 hours. It took us a little over 6.5 hours.
  • Have more time? Take Highway 12 from Torrey to Boulder for the Burr Trail Road, and return to the park through the Waterpocket District via the Notom-Bullfrog Road. This road takes you high up in the Boulder Mountain through the aspen and pine forest, before wowing you with amazing canyon along the Burr Trail Road. It then drops you down the spectacular Burr Trail Switchbacks with the view of the Strike Valley below. There, the intriguing ridges and mesas on the east side of the Waterpocket Fold awaiting you. Finally, it returns you back on Highway 24 via the Notom-Bullfrog Road. This drive requires at least 4 hours. We took about 5 hours.
  • We were there in the spring (mid May) and the weather was lovely. It seems like Capitol Reef is a great place to visit in the fall as well, not only for the fall colors but also for free fruits, which you may eat for free while in the park’s many orchards.

Of the Utah’s Mighty Five (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion), Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks are at the top of the group for me. Zion is at the top mostly because it was the park that kickstarted our regular visits to US national parks of the West when we were still lived in Virginia. If Capitol Reef were to be nearer to major populated areas, like Las Vegas and Southern California, it could very well have rivaled Zion and Joshua Tree National Parks. It’s a good thing that it’s not. As for now, you can still visit Capitol Reef and enjoy its beauty without having to deal with the crowds.

Have you visited Capitol Reef National Park?

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