Capitol Reef National Park is my favorite park in the National Park System, and great hiking abounds throughout. It’s located near the town of Torrey, Utah. One of the best aspects of hiking here is that the park is not very busy, even in the summer months. While everyone is crowding into Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, you can be enjoying a beautiful hike all to yourself. While hiking in the desert in summer is entirely possible (start early!), it’s more enjoyable in the spring or fall.
I’m listing these trails in increasing order of likelihood to see other people.
- Fremont Gorge Overlook (moderate) – I rarely see people on this 4.6 mile trail and I don’t know why, it’s my favorite in the park. It starts near the Blacksmith’s Shop on the scenic drive and ascends with great purpose, quickly leading to great views down into the town of Fruita and the surrounding landscape. The next section is fairly level, meandering through the sagebrush while slowing gaining altitude — a respite if you will — for the final section, which is a steady and steep climb to the culmination and crux of the hike, views straight down to the Fremont River.
- Fremont River (moderate) – Surprisingly few people hike this trail despite it starting in the always busy campground. It parallels the Fremont River at the beginning, close enough to the banks to occasion walking though thick stands of Willows. You can climb, somewhat precariously for those with a fear of heights, on a semi-narrow ledge until finally parting ways with the river, at which point you’ve gained most of the elevation on this hike. A short while later you reach the terminus, a windswept point with sweeping 360 degree views. This trail is about 2.6 miles RT from the campground, or a bit more if you park at the picnic area on the scenic drive.
- Navajo Knobs (difficult) – This is a non-trivial 9.4 mile RT hike that entertains with stunning views of the Waterpocket fold the entire way. It’s busy at the beginning by the virtue of the start being co-located with the Hickman Bridge trail. But keep at it a bit and the humans fall away. Continuing to the end rewards with views in every direction, from 1500 feet down to Rt 24 and Fruita to far distant Henry Mountains and Thousand Lakes Mountains.
- Cohab Canyon (difficult) – I tend to start this hike at the Hickman Bridge parking lot, which reduces the amount of foot traffic by an order of magnitude compared to starting at the campground. I recommend turning onto the lesser used Frying Pan trail at about a mile from the parking lot and embarking on an epic cross country trek to link up with the Cassidy Arch trail. After viewing the striking arch return the way you came, for a total of about 10 miles.
- Grand Wash (easy) – You can hike this flat walk through a dry wash from two directions, starting either from Rt. 24 or from the scenic road inside the park. It’s only about 2.5 miles between the two, but there is a stark contrast in the look of the gorge. This hike is busy, but the gorge is long and wide which tends to string hikers out.
- Chimney Rock Loop (moderate) – A classic hike in the area, wherein you get up and close with the named edifice you can’t miss from Rt. 24. The hike itself is 3.5 miles RT, but I commonly add to it by hiking on the Spring Canyon route, either upstream or downstream for a few additional miles. Note this route is not called a trail for good reason, as you need to find your own “route” over piles of chockstones and dry waterfalls and other natural hazards. Many people hike to Chimney Rock, few hike in Spring Canyon.
- Hickman Bridge (moderate) – A fairly short trail, about 2 miles RT, that takes hikers on a winding journey through the heart of canyon country, ending with magnificent views of the natural formation dubbed Hickman Bridge. This is one of the busiest trails in the park, but it’s worth doing. Just arrive early (6 am is perfect) and you’ll enjoy solitude and avoid the searing sun.