Capitol Gorge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

Between all five national parks in Utah, Capitol Reef might be my favorite and I had never even heard of it before planning this trip.  If you’re pressed on time and can only do one hiking trail, Capitol Gorge is the best short hike in Capitol Reef.  Scenery, history, and unique water formations can all be found in a short one-mile stretch.

  • Trailhead: End of Capitol Gorge Rd, Capitol Reef NP – Open in Google Maps.
  • Length: 2.0 miles round trip; 1 hour.
  • Difficulty: Easy.  Mostly flat along a wash.  The spur hike up to The Tanks can be difficult.
  • Usage: Hikers.  Capitol Reef has a $10 per vehicle fee, or $7 per person for walk-ins.
  • Best Time for Photography: Late afternoon & evening will allow even, softer light into the canyon.
  • Trail Info Current: May 18, 2016
  • Further Reading: 50 Best Short Hikes in Utah’s National Parks

Capitol Gorge Trail Narrative

Getting to the Capitol Gorge trailhead is an adventure in itself.  You start by taking the Scenic Drive south from Highway 24 in Capitol Reef National Park.  This road is paved at first and passes through many washes – it is often closed when rain showers persist in the area.  After a few miles the pavement ends and it continues as a dusty, red road through an impressive gorge.  Driving through you feel as if you’re in an Indiana Jones movie.

The drive to the trailhead.

After another few miles (it’ll seem like forever due to your slow speed), you’ll get to the end and a very small parking area with some covered benches and restrooms.  The trail starts here.

A worn trail hugs the left (north) side of the canyon for about the first half mile.  You may see some people walking in the wash for the entire length, but if you do this, you’ll miss the first area of interest, a panel of 1,000 year old petroglyphs left by the Fremont Indian culture.  A small trail marker is your only hint of their presence if you’re not carefully searching.

1,000 year old Fremont Native American petroglyphs.

Further down, again on the north side of the canyon, be on the lookout for more inscriptions in the stone.  These, however, are a little more fresh.  They’re left by Mormon pioneers who came through this canyon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are high up on the canyon wall.

The “pioneer registry” high on the canyon wall.

Other little pieces of history can be found by those looking for them.  Axle grease has splashed on some of the rocks; telephone workers etched their names high up on the south side; and the small steel poles you see coming out of the rock about ten feet up once carried the first phone service out here.

About one mile down you’ll see a sign for The Tanks.  The Tanks are some natural water pockets, all aligned to cascade down down into the canyon.  The spur up to the tanks is steep, narrow, and has some drop-offs, but with that being said it’s not very difficult.  It’s approximately another third of a mile.  The trail dead-ends at the tanks and the adventurous can scramble along the rocks to explore more of the canyon.

View from The Tanks, some cascading water pockets. Hikers are visible at the bottom of the canyon.

Your other options upon reaching the trail to the tanks is to continue out the east side of the park – a good one-way if you have transportation on the other side or as a much longer out-and-back.  This gorge was the only way into the nearby town of Fruita, a Mormon settlement, until Highway 24 was constructed in the 1960s.

Just imagine the wagon trains coming through this small canyon over a hundred years ago!

Tips for the Capitol Gorge Trail

  • The drive into the gorge and trailhead is narrow & dusty.  There’s not a lot of room for parking or for cars passing each other in the canyon.  Just a head’s up.
  • This is one of those exposed, hot trails.  The canyon walls don’t offer much shade, so bring some water even though it’s a short trail.
  • Keep a keen eye while walking through the canyon!  There’s a lot of inconspicuous treasures.

Corrections, suggestions, or questions?  Please leave a comment below!

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