Exploring Southern Utah- National Park Style

In October, we spent a few weeks in southern Utah and had the opportunity to explore several National Parks. Starting in the Moab area, we covered Arches and Canyonlands and then saw Capitol Reef, Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon, and finished up at Zion.


Arches, Bryce and Zion command easy name recognition. These parks attract millions of travelers each year and all three have lots to offer and are breathtaking. However, these more popular parks are extremely crowded. Moving around to enjoy the scenery was often marred by difficult parking and overcrowded trails. So, I wanted to take this chance to highlight one of the often overlooked parks, and my favorite- Capitol Reef National Park.

Capitol Reef is considered one of Utah’s “Big 5” parks, but like Canyonlands, tends to draw fewer visitors than their 3 “big” siblings. Sitting just outside the small town of Torrey, and intersected by Utah’s scenic route 24, you will find the dramatic “Waterpocket Fold” landscape that makes Capitol Reef distinct. Capitol Reef features towering white limestone domes, red rock formations, arches, hoodoos, watersheds, canyons, petroglyphs, and rock formations that will make you feel as if you have entered another planet. The terrain throughout this park is starkly diverse and breathtaking.


White dome rock formations


Beyond the visitor center, is the Fruita orchards, where you can pick fruit when in season (as permitted by posted signs). Just past the Fruita orchards, is the Gifford Barn in a large field. This field is often filled with wild deer at dusk, becoming a picturesque scene. The parking lot right across from Gifford Barn is a good base point for the Cohab Canyon trail, which connects to other trails, such as the Frying Pan.

Cohab was one of our favorite hikes as it offers great views, the chance to walk through a raised canyon, houses the Hoodoo of Cohab, and has the look of being on Mars (or at least how I imagine Mars).


The Hoodoo of Cohab Canyon


The beginning of the hike is a good work-out as you ascend the mountain with several switchbacks, bringing you into the narrow canyon. The canyon walls are a mixture of red and white hues and have numerous holes eaten away, giving it a strange Swiss cheese appearance. While this is one of the very first trails encountered when you first enter the park, we only saw a handful of people along the way. Also, Cohab can be hiked for free as it falls before the scenic drive entrance.


“Swiss Cheese” rock walls in Cohab Canyon


If you continue on into the park beyond the Gifford Barn area, you will begin the “scenic drive” portion of the park- this is where the fee applies. From here, you will have access to hikes like the Grand Wash and Cassidy Arch. Grand Wash is a nice flat trail that would be suitable for most ability levels. Because it is a less strenuous hike, this is probably the most crowded one we encountered in the park, yet we only saw maybe a dozen people, at most, along the way.


View of Cassidy Arch as you hike towards the peak


The Cassidy Arch trail, which starts near the trailhead for Grand Wash, is more challenging and requires hiking up a rocky mountain with switchbacks until you reach the top. Once you near Cassidy Arch, the trail gets a little more ambiguous as you are hiking directly on the bare rock surface of the mountain peak. At this portion, there is no clear “trail” to follow, but the trail is marked by stacked rock formations (“cairns”). Be aware that the end of the hike finishes over, and behind, Cassidy Arch, making it easy to miss, unless you look back!


The view of Cassidy Arch from the top of the peak. Easy to miss if you aren’t looking back!


The Cassidy Arch hike was one of our favorite hikes and probably the most rewarding one as we saw only three other people, had the arch to ourselves, viewed many different types of rock formations, and had breathtaking vistas of the canyon below and surrounding peaks.


Cassidy Arch hike all to ourselves!


While the Grand Wash Trail can be accessed for free by coming in the back-end off of Highway 24, the scenic drive should not be missed and is totally worth the small price of admission. Other than the minimal scenic drive fee per car, Capitol Reef has no other park admission, making it also one of the least expensive National Parks in Utah. 


Grazing deer by Gifford Barn, with Gifford House in the distance (left)


For the foodies out there, back at the entrance to the park by the Gifford Barn is the Gifford House, operated by the National Park Service, which features jams and other products made from local produce. They have homemade fruit pies and homemade ice cream, which we had as a treat for our end of the day hike!


With so many many more hikes, rock formations, and other points of interest to see, like the petroglyphs, the Goosenecks Overlook, and Chimney Rock, Capitol Reef showcases so many marvels.


Petroglyphs at Capitol Reef


While Capitol Reef certainly would not qualify as getting off the “beaten” path, as it is considered one of the “Big 5” National Parks in Utah, it is one of the most spectacular gems hidden in plain sight. We found in talking with people that it is often skipped over for parks that have a more recognizable name, and that is a “BIG” mistake!


Sunset from the top of the Chimney Rock hike at Capitol Reef


One Reply to “Exploring Southern Utah- National Park Style”

  1. Gorgeous terrain and wonderful photography. In my dreams.

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