A Hiker’s Park
Capitol Reef National Park of Utah’s Mighty 5, is one of our favorite hiking destinations. With only two paved roads, UT-24 and the Scenic Drive, a large percentage of the park is accessible only by dirt roads and primitive trails. Most of this backcountry area is rarely visited by tourists since it requires getting off the beaten path and going to areas that often require 4×4 and high clearance vehicles. This is where serious hikers and backpackers will be found who are looking for open space and adventure. We like to photography these backcountry areas, which isn’t always easy considering the amount of equipment we carry with us.
There are places at Capitol Reef that are accessible to visitors that would like to see more than the pavement destinations along UT-24 and the scenic drive. One that we frequently take visitors to is Capitol Gorge at the end of the scenic drive where the pavement ends.
Capitol Gorge Road
Capitol Gorge begins where the 8 mile Scenic Drive ends, which is also where the pavement ends. From this point on it’s 2.25 miles of dirt road to a parking lot where hikers can continue on going deeper into the canyon on trails and in the sandy rocky wash. Word of warning, the parking lot is small with only 2o or so parking spaces that frequently fill during the busier months from Spring to Fall. This isn’t as busy as Grand Wash or Hickman Bridge but it does pay to go early.
The drive through the gorge is gorgeous! (Had to say it) It’s suitable for passenger cars, as long as the conditions are dry. This is not a road you would want to be on during a thunderstorm or when water is running through the gorge. There is a gate at the beginning of the road that will generally be closed if conditions are poor or with the threat of a thunderstorm. The road has a few rough and sandy spots but nothing that would prevent a family sedan from making it through. There are places along the way where you can turn out to get a better look but not meant for long term parking. Wingate formation dominates the rock formations through the deepest sections. You will recognize this formation by the solution pockets that are hollowed out in the lower sections of the walls. The first part of the drive is in a narrower section that eventually widens as you draw closer to the parking lot.
Capitol Gorge Trail
At the end of the Capitol Gorge Road and parking lot there are two trailheads, one that leads farther down canyon and the other for the Golden Throne trail. The Capitol Gorge trail is a moderate 4.5 miles out and back hike. This hike follows the gorge for the first mile that leads first to nearby petroglyphs about 1/4 mile into the hike on the left. Another 1/4 of mile down trail is the Pioneer Register that stretch along both sides of the canyon walls. The names etched in the cliffs date back to the late 1800’s to early 1900’s from the early pioneers who settled this area. From here, continue down the gorge another 1/2 mile until you see the Tanks Trail sign, which is a spur trail on the left. The trail leads up steep switchbacks with a bit of scrambling along the way. We have taken our grandchildren on the trail so we feel it is family friendly. Watch for cairns that lead the way but can be hard to follow. The Tanks are hollowed out pockets in sandstone created by years of running water from snow melt and flooding. Depending on time of year and summer rain, these pockets can be full of water. See if you can find the small arch within the series of pockets.
We have not explored beyond the Tanks but we have been told that it continues until it ends at a fence line. We intend to finish the hike to its end this Spring. The gorge varies in width with the narrowest section approximately 10 ft. Until 1962 this was a through road that would take travelers to the town of Notom east of the park.
Back at the parking lot located on the north end you’ll find the trailhead for the Golden Throne hike, a 3.5 mile out and back moderate trail. Although it is rated moderate the trail ascends nearly 800 ft. and is strenuous in some sections. The Golden Throne is a 7,041-foot mountain dome made of a gold color stained Navajo Sandstone, which is unusual since Navajo Sandstone is normally is creamy white, corral pink or red. The trail does not ascend the mountain itself but leads hikers to where they can enjoy the view of Golden Throne from up close.
Capitol Gorge is located at the end of the Scenic Drive that begins at the Fruita Campground about a mile and half from the Visitors Center. Click here for the official Capitol Reef National Park website.
Capitol Gorge Trail
Difficulty: Easy family friendly hike. considered easy to moderate
Distance & elevation gain: Tanks Trail – 2.4 miles out and back to Tanks Trail with 577′ elevation gain.
Trail type: Sandy/rocky wash
Multi-use: Hiking, nature walks
Dogs: Not allowed
Fees: $20 per vehicle or $15 per motorcycle. If you are entering on foot, horse, or bike the fee is $10 per person.
Bathroom: Vault toilets at the Capitol Gorge Road parking lot and Capitol Gorge trailhead.