Make the most of your time in Utah with this guide to hiking Capitol Reef National Park.
Early in the morning, when puffy clouds float lazily above the dry, rocky landscape and a brilliant sunrise illuminates dark orange cliffs and canyons, the Utah backcountry is at its most stunning. Towering buttes scrape the pink-tinged sky high above the scraggly desert bushes scattered across desolate valleys. Make the most of your time in Utah with this guide to the best hikes at Capitol Reef National Park, including walks alongside gulches, canyons and creeks.
Enormous rock formations glow bright orange as the sun transforms them into gigantic ginger bluffs studding the barren prairie. The first caretaker and superintendent of Capitol Reef, Charles Kelly, christened the place “Cathedral Valley” because the magnificent spires harkened back to stately Gothic cathedrals with hidden nooks and soaring pinnacles. While the thoughts of many turn heavenward while contemplating these natural steeples, they are soon reminded of all-too-earthly concerns when attempting to drive through the harsh terrain. Explore the rocky landscape in a vehicle equipped with four-wheel drive and be careful after heavy rains or snow, which can flood the roads with mud or wash them out completely.
Capitol Reef provides two free campgrounds in the backcountry: Cathedral Valley Campground and Cedar Mesa. Both are primitive, with only pit toilets and a handful of sites available. The campsites come with a picnic table and fire grate, but there is no water. There are no reservations for these campgrounds and sites are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Visitors should be prepared for the extreme desolation of the backcountry and bring water, food, gas, warm clothing, a shovel and an emergency kit to stay safe while camping and hiking.
End your trip to the Valley by exploring the massive Gypsum Sinkhole, crystal Glass Mountain and the magnificent basalt rocks left over from ancient lava flows which stud the landscape.
At Sulphur Creek, a cascade of whitewater gushes out of flaming red rocks, creating a unique juxtaposition as cool freshwater flows through a fiery canyon. Walk through Sulphur Creek Canyon via a 5.8-mile trail which meanders through deep chasms and shallow water. The route is a challenging one, requiring hikers to climb down pitches in the canyon and, at some times of the year, navigate six-foot-deep pools formed after flash floods strike the region. Visitors should be prepared to walk across slippery ledges eight feet above ground and walk through narrow portions of the canyon where the rock walls leave only a slight gap.
Pleasant Creek is a shallow stream which winds its way past light green grass and sparse vegetation, turning the already-muddy streambed into a slick, gooey flood that looks like liquid chocolate flowing downhill. The creek churns its way through a deep canyon, running over rocks and around weeds, inviting hikers to splash through the water as they cross over the creek repeatedly while zigzagging through the chasm.
The Waterpocket Fold sounds like a sort of hidden Eden, a well-watered garden tucked into a nook of a dry, lonely desert which stretches out in an unbroken expanse of shimmering heat. This remote, desolate region, however, is deceptively dry in the summer — a wide expanse of light pink rocks and scraggly green bushes rather than a lush paradise. There are several deep, hidden slot canyons within the Fold, ideal for expert hikers who have traversed this sort of difficult terrain before. Keep in mind that climbers must navigate big rocks crammed in tight spaces and swim through deep pools during their adventurous trek through these slot canyons.
One secret slot canyon in the Waterpocket Fold is Burro Wash, which starts at Notom-Bullfrog road and winds 3.4 miles until coming to an abrupt stop at an endpoint beyond which a majority of hikers cannot pass. Only rock climbers with proper equipment and path-finding skills can continue the remaining several miles through the canyon and emerge on the South Draw Road.
Enjoy your time hiking these can’t-miss trails at Capitol Reef National Park.