A fun-filled 25 miles in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park linking Cohab Canyon, Frying Pan Trail, Grand Wash Trail, Lower Spring Canyon and the Sulphur Creek Route. This loop had a bit of everything: hiking ridgelines with massive vistas, walking dry creek-beds beneath towering sandstone walls, and splashing my way down a creek through a tight red rock gorge. Don’t forget to click on the image albums for bigger photos, there’s some beautiful shots from this trip.
I started and finished my hike at the Visitor Center on Highway 24, linking together 3 trails, 2 short road walks and 2 backcountry routes. Each section was very different to the others and I loved seeing so many of the park highlights in a two day period. Here’s my route, the blue arrow is where I started/finished at the Visitor Center:
As in all National Parks, an overnight trip in the backcountry requires a permit and so I needed to wait until the Visitor Center opened at 8 a.m. I stayed at a hotel just a couple of miles outside the Park in the town of Torrey, so it was a leisurely start to the day spent enjoying coffee and eating French toast.
Permit in hand I hit the trail, which was actually a road for the first 1.2 miles. I’ve been itching to get back out on the trail so after all the road walking I did on the CDT last summer and fall it was a little ironic that my first trip of the spring started with a road walk. Ha. It was a really pretty walk with fruit tree orchards and historic farm barns along the way and a backdrop of massive red rock formations.
The trail quickly climbed out of the valley floor and made its way into a beautiful little canyon. Boy did it feel great to be wandering along a trail again, fresh air in my lungs and sunshine on my skin. Ahhh…… happiness!
Frying Pan Trail and Cassidy Arch
The next 5 miles afforded spectacular vistas of the ‘Waterpocket Fold’, the geological feature that defines the Park. This whole area, in fact much of Utah, was once blanketed in an ocean that deposited 10,000 ft of sedimentary rock of limestone, sandstone and shale. Much later, as recently as 50 million years ago, a fault line caused the layers to its west to rise 7,000 ft and instead of cracking, the rock layers folded over the fault line. Then much more recently, a mere 1-6 million years ago, erosion started sculpting these layers into canyons, cliffs, domes and arches. What’s left is the contorted landscape I found myself traveling through. Wow.
The trail was very quiet this morning, which was a real treat given its proximity to a few different trailheads, and because it was a Saturday morning on a warm sunny spring weekend. The last mile of trail and the side-trip out to Cassidy Arch however made-up for it, hikers everywhere, climbers too, all coming to see or rappel from the famous arch. Cassidy Arch is named after Butch Cassidy, infamous bank robber from the turn of the 20th century, because he and his gang used to hide out in these parts to allude the authorities.
This short trail traveled below tall narrow canyon walls along a dry wash, during rainfall the dry wash becomes a torrent of flash flood waters.
The Grand Wash trail finished at Fremont River and Highway 24. I walked Highway 24 about a half mile to where my next trail segment started.
Lower Spring Canyon
Access to the Canyon was via a ford of the Fremont River. The waters were hip deep and moving reasonably rapidly. I was very careful to keep 3 points of contact and moved slowly across the river. Unsure of whether i’d find any water in the canyon I filled up a couple of liters of water. The water was really dirty though so I strained it through my camp towel to remove some of the debris as I didn’t want it clogging my filter. As it turns out the spring a few miles up had great water, but the Visitor Center had no confirmed reports that the spring had water yet this year, so I hadn’t wanted to count on it.
The rest of the day was very peaceful, I didn’t see any other hikers. I meandered up the deep canyon, thoroughly enjoying the afternoon. It reminded me a lot of my time in the Middle Fork of the Gila River last fall, minus all the river crossings. Have I mentioned how great it felt to be back on the trail, even if for 2 days?
I set up camp in a wider section of canyon, relieved to be immune from falling rock. The temps were so nice that I decided not to set up the fly, instead sleeping inside my tent with a clear view through the bug netting to the big starry sky above. I slept well.
The crux of the morning came a few miles up canyon where a 10 foot drop-off made continuing upstream impossible. Instead I made my way up a bank a hundred feet of so above the canyon floor. There was a pretty well trodden hiker trail but I’d read reports of it being a little on the sketchy side so I was anxious to see how it looked. Sketchy it was, but only for 2 quick moves that required scampering across loose rock on a very steep slope. It was fine and really nothing to be worried about, you just need to suck it up and get it over with. If I spend too much time analyzing the best way across something like that I tend to psych myself out and then it takes me 5 times as long to do what needs to be done to continue.
Lower Spring Canyon eventually was intersected by Chimney Rock Canyon, my route back towards Highway 24. This section of the canyon was truly impressive, massive rock faces hundreds of feet above on both sides of the wash. Really grand. Almost like clockwork, 3 miles out from the trailhead hiker traffic picked up and before I knew it the trails were busy again.
Sulphur Creek Canyon
Definitely the highlight of my trip. I LOVED this route, it was incredibly scenic and my first long water-filled slot canyon. The route followed Sulphur Creek down canyon for about 4 miles. 80 degree temps and blue skies made for perfect conditions to be splashing down a creek too. The trail required a couple of short down-climbs to get to the confluence of the creek, then 3 waterfalls to down-climb/navigate around along the route. While it required concentration, and was a little awkward with a backpack on, all of the down-climbs were relatively easy to negotiate and the water was never deeper than high thigh and normally only ankle deep. The Visitor Center info sheet for this route provides great intel about which side of the waterfalls to down-climb and other handy info to get you through it safely. Put this on your bucket list!
I arrived back at the Visitor Center about 3 p.m. and hit the road, grabbing a burger in Torrey along the way. Farewell Capitol Reef, you’ve been incredible. I shall be back!
Thanks for reading.