When it comes to scenic highways, it doesn't get much better than the stretch of Route 24 that runs through Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. This freeway cuts through some of the most colorful rock formations in the southwest and follows the Fremont River as it snakes through the valley. Though technically in the National Park, there is no entrance station presumably so road maintenance is relegated to the state. No matter, you are treated to a fairy tale conglomeration of buttes, mesas, and odd shaped rock formations seen nowhere but Utah. All of the southwest US is quite incredible but Utah really does take the crown for its plethora of colors and stunning formations. While Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion National Parks are expected to be so, places like Capitol Reef creep up on you and actually are more convincing as such. There is little that effects us so strongly as the unexpected.
There are numerous turnouts with plaques helping to describe all you see as well as trail heads for short to medium hikes. You can even stop at the helpful and informative visitor center for free. Please donate some money or pay the $5 fee to drive the Scenic Drive along the Waterpocket Fold.
The Rim Overlook Trail is a 4.5 mile round trip hike that rises nearly 1500 feet to views over the valley and Fuita Campground below. While a nice hike and a good workout, if you do the work of climbing those 1500 feet you are cheating yourself to not continue on for another couple miles to see the Navajo Knobs. Not that the Knobs are that spectacular in themselves but the views walking there are. While the round trip is about twice what you would do on the Rim Trail, you only pick up another couple hundred feet of elevation. A 9 mile round trip hike is a good length for a day hike and you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the valley and a downward rear view of The Castle. You also won't see many people up there so can enjoy a nice snack in relative seclusion. We did this late in the afternoon, timing our return for close to dusk to get the best light on the amazing rock formations visible from up there.
The Fruita Historic District was settled along the Fremont River by Mormon pioneers around the 1880s. Generally the population averaged about 10 families, with the last resident moving away in 1969 after the area became a National Park. These early settlers planted orchards of many varieties such as cherry, apricot, peach, pear, and apple, as well as a few plum, mulberry, almond, and walnut trees. Today these orchards hold about 1,700 trees and are preserved and protected as a Rural Historic Landscape, now owned and maintained by the National Park Service. Visitors are welcome to enter any unlocked orchard where you may eat as much ripe fruit as you want while in the orchards. Fruit may not be picked in quantity until the designated harvest begins. When harvest season begins Orchards that are open for picking have signs. A fee is charged for all fruit you pick and removed from the orchards. The orchards have signs to tell you the price of the fruit, as well as scales, plastic bags, and a self-pay station located near the entrance of orchards. Please pick only ripe fruit, leaving the unripened fruit to ripen for future visitors. Cherries are ready first, around mid June to early July. Apricots are ready from late June to late July, peaches and apples ripen around early August to early September, and apples are generally ready from early September to mid October.
This is a 60 mile loop drive. Here you will see vast expanses of desert and solitary stone monolith towers rising from the sandy plains, as well as secluded valleys and distant mountains. This is a dirt road advertised for high clearance vehicles. To drive the entire loop you should begin at the Harnet Road, which takes you along the western half of Cathedral Valley loop. You will then continue driving along the Caineville Wash Road, which loops back along the eastern side of the valley. The Harnet Road begins 11.7 miles east of the Visitor Center off Utah Hwy 24. The park recommends that you start with this side of the loop to make sure that you can ford the river, as in order to drive the western route into Cathedral Valley, you must drive through and across the Fremont River soon after leaving the highway. The park states that fording this river may require a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We were glad that our truck is a four wheel drive as the river depth came up almost the bottom of our car doors, and there were boulders in the river bottom. We are not into 4 wheel drive activities, and crossing the river scared me.
If you cannot or do not wish to ford the river, you can still drive part way along the loop, then turn around and go back the way you came. To avoid crossing the Fremont River start with the Caineville Wash Road, which is on the eastern side of the Cathedral Valley Loop. This road begins 18.6 miles east of the Visitor Center. By taking this route into Cathedral Valley, you do not have to ford the Fremont River on the western side of the loop.
This drive, including a short spur road to a large gypsum sinkhole, and a few stops along the way for photos and explorations, took us 6 hours.
Conditions on both these roads vary widely based on recent and current weather. Check with the Visitor Center for road information before starting your drive.
While it's hard to believe that a drive could be more spectacular than Route 24 that runs the width of Capitol Reef National Park, The Scenic Drive that runs along its hallmark feature, The Waterpocket Fold is just that. This is the park's one pay feature and at $5 per car load, in keeping with its great value. This 25-mile round trip follows on the west side of the Fold affording some incredible views of it and the surrounding valley. There are some unpaved side roads into the Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge but care should be exercised when entering due to potential flash floods. The trail head to the Old Wagon Trail is located about half-way and affords sweeping views as well as solitude.
The Frying Pan Trail combined with the Cohab Canyon rivals the Navajo Knobs Trail as the best in the park. It follows the ridge of the Capitol Reef itself so you can't get any closer to it than this. This could be extended into the Grand Wash Trail eliminating the need to return the way you came but you would either have to have a car waiting or do a bit of a convoluted return on Route 24 and the Cohab Canyon in reverse from Hickman Bridge. You will soon notice that all the trails in the park can be combined in some shape or form which is great if you have no vehicle though in practicality it would make for some long hiking days! We did this from Fruita Campground, followed half of the Cohab Canyon Trail for a mile and 400 feet of elevation before turning onto the Frying Pan. We followed that for close to 3 miles and picked up an additional 1000 feet of elevation. It is a great but very exposed hike so you will be in the sun once you get out of the canyon. Carry plenty of water and protect yourself from the sun.
While visiting the Historic Fruita District you can see the old historic one room school, located about .8 miles east of the visitor center on highway 24. This small school, built in 1896, was also used for other community activities. Moving the desks, the community enjoyed dances and box socials in the little building, as well as some church activities. A recorded message may be listed to here that will give you information about the school.
The blacksmith shop, also with a recorded message giving you information about life in the community is located .5 miles south of the visitors center on the Scenic Drive.
One mile south on the scenic drive is the Historic Gifford Homestead, which is an example of what rural Utah farmhouses of the early 1900s were like.
Since the historic district lies in the river valley, its greenery is a contrast to the stark landscape that is found elsewhere in Capitol Reef.
In the photo you see my husband standing by one of the huge old Freemont Cottonwood trees near within the historic district.
This beautiful overlook is easy to reach. West of the Visitor center along highway 24 you will see a sign for the overlook. From the parking area it is an easy one-tenth mile trail. The overlook gives you a beautiful view of the deep Sulfur Creek Canyon.
The Scenic Drive starts near the park Visitor Center just south of the campground, and takes you along a 10 mile paved road. It also provides access to a number of developed hiking trails. From this paved road you can drive spur roads into Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. Depending on the weather, these roads are accessible to ordinary vehicles. Most of this road was closed when we were there so we were only able to drive part of this road. Be aware that the Scenic Drive is not a loop, so you must return on the same road. There is an entrance fee of $5 charged per vehicle for this Scenic Drive. However, there is no entrance fee if you have a Golden Eagle, Golden Age, or Golden Access passes. A free Guide to the Scenic Drive pamphlet is available at the Scenic Drive entrance station.
The Scenic Drive dead ends into Capitol Gorge which is an unpaved road that follows the narrow gorge for a winding one mile before petering out into a foot path. This is weather regulated so not always open. If the gate is not closed you can proceed with caution but as with all such places prone to flash flooding you need to keep an eye on the weather. It is a fantastic drive though a tough one to get photos on. It is really not wide enough for two-way traffic and that is what you are dealing with. It would be a bit selfish to stop in the middle for photos! But when you get to the end there is a small parking area with covered picnic tables. You can proceed from there on foot. The trail head for the Golden Throne is there and heads right up the canyon walls or take the flat but dusty trail into the gorge for a real outback experience. You can walk forever I guess but do walk at least as far as the Pioneer register.
The Hickman Bridge Trail is a scenic 2 mile round trip hike that rises 400 feet to a very impressive natural bridge of sheer red rock. Don't stop at the trail's end as you can walk right up to the huge hole and walk under it for some great photos. Depending on what time of day you go, you may get better shots from the other side of the bridge as well. If really pressed for time, you could do this in combination with the Navajo Knobs hike though it would be a long day and would be tough to time both for optimal light.
The Cohab Canyon Trail is 3.5 miles and rises 400 feet. It functions nicely as a thoroughfare between the Fruita Campground to the trail head for the Hickman Bridge and would make for a nice medium length hike with a fair amount of up and down. The canyon itself is fantastic and you are transformed to another world with a short if trudging march up some switchbacks that lead you to a relatively flat and sandy canyon which is shady early in the day. This is also the way to access the Frying Pan Trail.
The Capitol Gorge Trail is a flat walk of 2.5 miles round trip through a sandy wash with sheer walls rising up. Though it can be busy it is a worthwhile stroll especially if you've not done much canyon hiking in the southwest. When you are lucky to be in a section on your own you will feel quite isolated from the rest of the world. This is America's Outback at its best. You can walk to some rock formations called “tanks” or a bit closer is the Pioneer Register with signatures etched in stone of early settlers.
The Mormons used this valley back in 1880's an on to grow. Some of the orchards remain, and there area about 2000 trees in the park. You are allowed to pick fruit for eating on the spot. If you take a large volume, you are to pay for it where the Ranger is near the orchard, or visitor center. Warning, the apples were good but inside core partial rot. The trees do not get sprayed for protections. They also have pear trees in areas for picking.
The petroglyphs are from The Fremont INdians who lived in this valley along the river for 600 years. Due to droughts in 1300's, they left the area, but left these symbols for you to view. There is a walk path along the rock face to be able to see the etched symbols easier without disturbing them.
The main orchard and the petroglyphs are 1 mile east of the visitor center on Hwy 24
This was a moderately difficult hike of 2 miles round trip. The parking is along the road lot, and two miles east of visitor center. There are many steps, and some long reach between them to climb the 500-600 feet crest to the top of the plateau. From there is some sand trail and some more steps along a mountainside, leading to the arch. By the time you get to the top, you should be winded from the steep climb. The Fremont River created the canyon walls, and after many years of water pounding at the rock, some collapsed, and the water came through, leaving this arch. A lot of vegetation still in present due to the water nearby, even though the area only gets average of 7 inches rain a year.
The bridge is names after John Hickman, a frontier explorer and soldier who was around here frequently. The arch is 125 feet high, and 133 feet wide