The best of Capitol Reef goes unseen by most––it's not the main overlooks or trails, but the hidden canyons of the park's vast backcountry.
Utah boasts five national parks, dubbed the “Mighty 5” by the state’s office of tourism. Of these, Capitol Reef is among the last one or two in most people’s minds. That’s only because most people go to national parks for the paved overlooks and short scenic trails. Capitol Reef has those, to be sure, but its roadside attractions are perhaps outshined by poster-child competitors like Zion and Arches.
Backcountry enthusiasts should know Capitol Reef, however, as a sprawling playground for desert-rat hikers. The park’s Scenic Drive and maintained trails might cover the big-ticket landmarks, but those willing to disappear down a side canyon are apt to find the park’s most fascinating scenery with no one else around.
The name Capitol Reef comes from the stately domes of white sandstone that resemble a capitol building and the 100-mile-long geologic uplift, called a reef, of the Waterpocket Fold. This natural barrier was long a hindrance to settlers, and even today severely limits road access through the region. There are numerous passages, however, in the form of deep and twisting canyons eroded through the rock.
Backcountry hikers can explore these secret corridors, plus the open desert that surrounds them, to find sights unseen by most park visitors, and to enjoy secluded campsites in starlit canyons. This guidebook is for those who wish to leave the trail and explore deeper in Capitol Reef National Park. These are unmaintained routes, following social trails or natural canyon passages. They are out of cell service and away from help, so they require an advanced level of preparation and self-reliance. Some require long drives on rough roads to reach. All are doable as day hikes, but some are better as backpacking trips, which require a backcountry permit from the national park.
The best times for backcountry hiking in Capitol Reef are typically spring and fall. These seasons bring the most comfortable temperatures and more predictable weather, plus the brilliant colors of changing seasons in the desert. Winter is quite cold and can be snowy. It’s a beautiful time to visit, but it's not the best for going deep into the canyons. It's brutally hot in mid and late summer when the sun is out, but it’s also the monsoon season when flash floods are a frequent danger. No matter the time of year, hikers should always check the forecast and pay close attention to the weather while out in the canyons.
Be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and to always be mindful of cryptobiotic soil. As with other places in the Utah desert, living organisms grow in the sand and stabilize it from erosion. They grow slowly, and a single footstep can damage them, so hikers should try to stay on established paths or solid surfaces.
The canyon routes covered here are non-technical, meaning they don’t require ropes or other specialized equipment, but that doesn’t mean they are without obstacles to be climbed or swum. Keep in mind that canyons are dynamic environments that can change with each flood, so obstacles may be unpredictable. Always be prepared with an alternative plan and another way out.