best day hikes in utah's

capitol reef national park


capitol reef national park

Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah is probably the southwest's least-known national park. Although the scenery here is not as immediately dramatic as that in Zion the flip side is that the trails in Capitol Reef are much less crowded. I've visited Capitol Reef on several occasions, and found at least a week's worth of good but lightly frequented day hikes. The park also has some technical canyons (though most of the best-known slot canyons lie to the south-west in the Escalante) and longer routes best tackled as backpacks.

Upper Muley Twist Canyon

Trailhead: Upper Muley Twist trailhead, just off the Burr trail road along the unpaved (and rough) Strike Valley Overlook Road. The turn-off is about a mile west of the prominent Burr trail switchbacks. With a 2WD you'll probably want to stop at the parking area shortly after the turn-off and walk the rest of the way (about three miles) to the formal start of the hike.

Arch in Upper Muley Twist canyon Saddle arch, Capitol Reef

The trail through Upper Muley Twist Canyon is probably the best hike in Capitol Reef National Park. It's a moderately difficult full-day hike that has a little bit of everything - an interesting canyon, natural arches, and a ridge-top walk with a spectacular panoramic view. Once you've walked (or driven) to the start of the hile proper at the Strike Valley Overlook parking lot the first four miles follows the bottom of Upper Muley Twist as it meanders northward. Saddle Arch is passed at about the two mile mark. At the four mile mark a short section of narrows is bypassed via a cairned route on the right-hand-side, and shortly after that further cairns mark the start of a steep climb up the rim of the canyon to the east. Reaching the rim is the highlight of the hike, as a magnificent panorama of the Waterpocket Fold running north to south is suddenly revealed. This is a good spot for lunch, before heading south along the rim for a couple of miles (some care is needed here to stay on route) and dropping back into the canyon to rejoin the trail back at Saddle Arch.

Total distance for the (partial) loop is about 9 miles if you start at the Strike Valley Overlook parking area, or about 15 miles if - like me - you start at the 2WD parking area further down the road.

Grand Gulch / Frying Pan trail loop

Trailhead: The hike is a near-loop starting at the Grand Gulch trailhead on Highway 24, east of the Visitors' Center, and ending on the south side of the road opposite the Hickman Bridge trailhead (also on Highway 24). With two cars you might as well leave one at each trailhead, but if not they're only separated by a couple of miles and walking along the road is a reasonable alternative.

panorama from frying pan trail

Combining the Grand Gulch, Cassidy Arch and Frying Pan trails makes for a near-loop that hits many of the scenic highlights of the core region of Capitol Reef near Torrey. Starting at the Grand Gulch trailhead on Highway 24 the route starts by following the dry wash of Grand Gulch through a short but quite impressive section of narrows (one would want to avoid this spot in bad weather, even if it's not as dangerous as a real slot canyon). Before reaching the parking lot at the far end of the Gulch, locate the trail that leads off to the right and climb steeply out of the canyon to reach Cassidy Arch about 2 miles after leaving the floor of Grand Gulch. Cassidy Arch sits on the rim of a slickrock plateau with sheer cliffs (and excellent views) on each side. It's surprisingly easy to walk over the arch (in fact from on top you don't even realize it's an arch) but still it's a vertiginous setting that will keep parents alert!

Hiking Grand Gulch Storm clouds, Capitol Reef

From the arch you need to backtrack a short distance before picking up the Frying Pan trail and heading in a generally northward direction back toward Highway 24. The Frying Pan trail dips into a small canyon midway but mostly stays high, affording very good views out across the slickrock toward the monoliths that line the Fremont River Canyon. It's easy pleasant hiking that eventually brings you back to the highway opposite the Hickman Bridge trailhead, about two miles west of the starting point. Total distance for the loop is about 11 miles.

Chimney Rock Canyon to Spring Canyon

Trailhead: Chimney Rock trailhead on Highway 24 west of the Visitors' Center. I did this as an out-and-back hike, but with a shuttle you can descend Spring Canyon all the way to the Fremont River, ford it, and rejoin Highway 24 close to Grand Gulch.

Chimney Rock canyon Spring canyon

The Chimney Rock trail is a short (3.5 miles) and popular loop hike that starts just north of Highway 24 a few miles west of the Visitors' Center. The loop makes for a good short hike in itself (from the high point there's an excellent panorama - shown below - of Capitol Reef and Boulder Mountain), which can be extended into a full day hike of 10-15 miles by following the trail north into Chimney Rock Canyon. The trail departs from the loop about one mile past the top of the switchbacks, and follows the dry canyon for 1.5 miles to its junction with Spring Canyon. Once you leave the loop you may not see another person all day, and this is a major attraction of this hike. Don't rush this first section - Chimney Rock Canyon is extremely impressive and for me walking quietly through the bottom of this canyon amid towering walls stained with desert varnish was the highlight of the hike.

From the junction of Chimney Rock Canyon and Spring Canyon it's possible to explore either upstream or downstream (though there's no actual running water). Heading downstream there are 6.5 miles of mostly straightforward hiking to reach the Fremont River, which can be forded to rejoin Highway 24 for a one-way shuttle trip. The only obstacle is a section of narrows containing falls that need either to be downclimbed (I took a look and didn't much care for this option, not least as when I did the hike there was a pool of murky water of uncertain depth at the bottom) or bypassed on a narrow trail. On a day hike I wouldn't bother doing either though, as the canyon upstream of the junction is a good deal more scenic and interesting than downstream. About 1-1.5 miles upstream of the junction there's a perennial spring, and the canyon here is green and very beautiful. You can hike beyond the spring for several miles further without any problem - in fact there's a challenging backpacking route that enters the canyon at the top end (starting from Holt Draw) and descends all the way to the Fremont River.

Putting together the Chimney Rock loop with a foray both downcanyon (as far as the falls) and upcanyon (to the spring) makes for a hike of about 15 miles. But there are no "must-see" attractions in Spring Canyon, so the final distance is quite flexible.

Sulphur Creek Canyon

Trailhead: Chimney Rock trailhead. Cross the road and hike down the obvious (and signposted) wash toward Sulphur Creek. If you descend the whole canyon you'll emerge next to the Visitors' Center. A shuttle would be worthwhile, as it's several miles uphill along the road back to Chimney Rock.

Sulphur Creek is a small permanent stream that flows through a short section of deeply incised meanders (the "Goosenecks", which can be viewed from above at the Goosenecks Overlook) before entering a section of moderate narrows that leads eventually to an exit near the park's Visitors' Center. The canyon can be explored starting either from the bottom (at the Visitors' Center), or by entering the canyon from the top by following the obvious dry wash on the south side of the road opposite the Chimney Rock parking area. Starting from the Chimney Rock end it's about 2 miles to reach Sulphur Creek, after which the rest of the hike (about 4 more miles) involves frequent wading and fording of the creek. The canyon is quite attractive, and although the setting does not compare with the very best narrow canyons in the Southwest (the Zion Narrows and Paria Canyon / Buckskin Gulch) it makes for a very pleasant hike.

There are two things to be aware of before tackling this hike. First, the canyon is quite narrow, and hence best avoided if the water level is high (after recent rain) or, especially, if storms and flash floods threaten. Second, the obstacles along the route - three 6-8 foot-high waterfalls that need to be bypassed - are not quite as trivial as some descriptions I've seen suggest. If simple climbing with a little bit of exposure isn't your thing you might want to try a different hike (or just go out-and-back from the top to the first waterfall, which makes for a nice half day in its own right).

Lower Muley Twist Canyon

Trailhead: There are two possible trailheads for hiking Lower Muley Twist. I started from the trailhead along the Burr Trail road, just above the switchbacks that lead down to the junction with the Notom / Bullfrog road. Coming from Boulder, the trailhead for Lower Muley is a short distance further along the road past the start of the Upper Muley hike.

Lower Muley is, self-evidently, the downstream continuation of Upper Muley Twist canyon, which is divided by the Burr Trail road. The lower part of the canyon is deeper, with some short sections of narrows (possibly requiring either a bypass or some wading if it's been raining recently), and moderately impressive alcoves. The canyon has some historic interest - this was a route taken by Mormons in the late 19th century - and it makes for a pleasant but not exceptional hike. There's no particular destination, but starting from the Burr Trail road an out-and-back of 10-12 miles makes for a satisfying day. You can also go further, and this would be a mellow place to camp as the canyon sees very few visitors. Avoid in the summer though: this would be a baking hot furnace and not a lot of fun.

Hickman Bridge trail

Trailhead: Hickman Bridge trailhead, off Highway 24 near the Visitors' Center.

The Hickman Bridge trail is a short one-mile leg-stretcher off Highway 24 that leads to a good natural bridge. There are nice vistas of the main canyon (somewhat marred, of course, by the presence of the Highway), especially in the late afternoon light. From the same trailhead it's possible to hike 9 miles out and back along the Navajo Knobs trail, which climbs to the canyon rim and on to a high viewpoint to the north and west.

Recommendations for Capitol Reef accommodation and dining

For the hikes in the northern part of Capitol Reef (everything on this page except for Upper and Lower Muley Twist) the most convenient place to stay is Torrey, Utah. Torrey is a very small town (120 people) with a fair number of moderately priced (and moderately appealing) lodging options and a handful of restaurants. "Cheaper is better" pretty much sums up the Torrey dining scene, and the only restaurant I can recommend is the Rim Rock Patio which serves excellent draught beer and inexpensive, serviceable pizza. Torrey is 213 miles from Salt Lake City, 350 miles from Las Vegas, and 220 miles from Grand Junction in Colorado. You might also consider staying in Boulder, Utah at the junction of Highway 12 and the Burr trail road. Boulder is about an hour south of Torrey, and so less convenient for the hikes in the northern part of Capitol Reef, but closer to the many excellent hikes in the Escalante region. Wherever you stay, a visit to Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder is a worthwhile trip.

Recommended references:

Capitol Reef National Park - official National Park Service site.