Our fourth stop in Southern Utah was Capitol Reef National Park. This park is like its Utah relatives in that it contains many sandstone formations such as cliffs, canyons, and natural bridges. The park’s main distinguishing geologic feature is a 100 mile long monocline (a fold in the rock strata characterized as “a wrinkle on the earth”) known as the Waterpocket Fold. The Waterpocket Fold can be seen throughout the park and appears to be a never-ending large cliff that extends as far as you can see. We spent three days exploring and hiking around the Fruita district of the park.
Upon arrival to the park we stopped by the visitor’s center to get a map an speak with the rangers about recommended hikes. We then headed for down the scenic drive past the historic farming community of Fruita which still contains many old buildings and orchards of fruit trees. Continuing down the scenic drive, we eventually reached the turnoff for the Grand Wash. This dirt road led us along a large drainage with towering sandstone walls on either side eventually ending at the Grand Wash Trailhead.
After parking the van, we continued on foot following the wash into a narrow canyon. The trail through the wash is 4.5 miles in length and is mostly flat. The erosion formed canyon walls are filled with thousands of large and small pockets that make this other worldly place feel even more alien. The canyon eventually widened and we hiked until we reached the trailhead on the other end near highway 24. To our delight, this meant we had to turn around and go through the Grand Wash again!
Cohab Canyon & Hickman Bridge
On our second day, we returned to Fruita and stopped at the trailhead for Cohab Canyon. This trail is about 3.5 miles long with 800 feet of elevation gain. From the trailhead we climbed up switchbacks until we reached the canyon entrance. The views at the entrance were spectacular, on one side we could look down the length of Cohab Canyon and on the other we could look out and see the cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold extend for miles.
We continued into the canyon following the wash at its center. Occasionally, the trail intersected with other small narrow drainages that had cut their way into the canyon walls. Of course, we had to turn off and follow the narrow drainages as far as we could. One of them extended 100 yards until reaching a large pour off and was barely wide enough for us to squeeze through. Once we returned to the main trail, we hiked along Cohab Canyon then took a side trail that led us up to a couple of beautiful overlooks of the park.
After the overlooks, we continued on until we reached the trailhead on the other end of the canyon at highway 24. By this time, Ashby and I had worked up quite an appetite so we found a scenic spot (pretty much anywhere) and had lunch. With full bellies, we left the canyon and walked across the road to the trailhead for Hickman Bridge, a 133 foot long natural sandstone bridge that stands 125 feet tall. The trail to the bridge is a 2-mile round trip with 450 feet of elevation gain.
While climbing up to the bridge we had awesome views of the Fremont river and surrounding cliffs below. Once we reached the bridge, we were at first taken by its size (natural bridges are always larger than you imagine) and, after taking it in, we hiked under and around the Hickman Bridge then returned to the trailhead. Once again, we had the joy of walking back through the Cohab Canyon to the trailhead parking lot.
For the morning of our last day in the park we chose to explore Capitol Gorge, another deep and narrow canyon off the scenic drive through the Fruita district. The trailhead is off a 2.4 mile gravel road that leads through Capitol Gorge. The experience of driving our van through this narrow canyon with huge sandstone walls on either side was surreal and made us feel very remote (until we got the trailhead parking lot with 10 other cars). The trail through the gorge is a 2-mile round trip with little elevation gain. We parked the van and hit the trail continuing our exploration of the gorge.
The first half mile of the trail is like the Grand Wash trail we had hiked two days prior then it opens with large dome like formations on either side. Towards the end of the trail we took a side trail that led us up some large naturally formed holes known as “tanks”. These formations almost look like circular swimming pools and it’s easy to understand why they are called “tanks”. From the tanks we turned back and rejoined the main trail. We hiked for about another half mile then returned to the trailhead the way we came.
Even after visiting only the Fruita district, Capitol Reef National Park is now high on mine and Ashby’s list of best parks. Much of the other areas are explorable only with the use of a high clear 4×4 vehicle and we just didn’t feel like risking damage to our home in order to reach them. We plan to return in the future with a capable vehicle so that we can see all of this park’s wonders.
Until next time!