Capitol Reef National Park Must-Sees, From Cathedral District to the Waterpocket Fold

by Amy Myers
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(Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There isn’t one national park within Utah that’s not worth visiting, but among the five parks, Capitol Reef has the most unique collection of landscapes and ecosystems that somehow coexist and create a center for recreation and rediscovery.

Capitol Reef National Park’s main attractions and trails are split into three different sections: the Cathedral District, Fruita District and Waterpocket Fold District. And each one is popular and unique in its own rite.

The Fruita District tends to be the first choice for visitors because it contains the majority of the more famous rock formations and vistas, but that’s not to say you should only explore this district. Some of the best overlooks are located within the Cathedral District, giving you a perspective of the national parks that you really can’t experience elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Waterpocket Fold District is a monolith – an actual wrinkle in the earth. This area offers a deeper understanding of Capitol Reefs many ecosystems and geological features that make the park so special.

Whichever the districts you decide to explore in Capitol Reef National Park, you’re bound to have some great photos and even better stories to share. That said, here are the must-sees that you absolutely should not miss in each one.

Outsider’s Choice of Capitol Reef National Park Must-Sees, Easiest to Hardest

  • Morrell Cabin Trail (easy)
  • Upper South Desert Overlook (easy)
  • Headquarters Canyon Route (easy)
  • Red Canyon Trail and Route (easy to moderate)
  • Hickman Bridge Trail (moderate)
  • Surprise Canyon Route (moderate)
  • Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook Route (moderate)
  • Golden Throne Trail (moderate)
  • Chimney Rock Loop (moderate)
  • Sulphur Creek Route (moderate)

Must-Sees in the Cathedral District

Almost as beautiful as the trails here is the drive into Cathedral Valley. Along the way, you’ll get to experience stunning views of the cliffs and sandstone bands running across the landscape. It gives you just a hint of the adventure and wonder that waits here.

That said, you might need a 4WD to make it into Capitol Reef’s Cathedral District. The road here passes over washboards, sand and slick rock, and if you continue the entire way, you’ll encounter a river crossing. Remember that Cathedral District is in a remote part of the national park, so cell service will be spotty and any roadside assistance will be more difficult.

Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook Route

  • Length: 1.5 to 2.5-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 150 feet
  • Duration: 1 to 2 hours

An off-trail route, the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook Route (pause for a big breath) can be a bit tricky for folks that have never navigated off the beaten path before. However, the effort is well worth the reward. This trail offers a birds-eye view of some of Capitol Reef’s most popular rock formations – the monoliths known as the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

In order to reach these sky-high views, you’ll climb the rim of two saddles, the first of which gives you a spectacular view of Lower Cathedral Valley to the north. Now, in this case, because there is no maintained trail, it’s best to stay on the beaten path and follow the footprints that previous travelers have made.

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The Temple of the Sun in Capitol Reef National Park (Photo by François GOHIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Upper South Desert Overlook

  • Length: 0.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 65 feet
  • Duration: 10 minutes

Though the Upper South Desert Overlook trail is fairly short, it’s still worth the journey. At the end of this path, you can see the upper reaches of the South Desert as well as Capitol Reef’s cliffs to the north and the Henry Mountains to the east.

While the trek is short, the final section of the trail that scrambles up a steep outcrop that leads to panoramic views of the valley. As you reach the top, be sure to maintain three points of contact and step carefully as there may be loose rocks and slick parts.

Morrell Cabin Trail

  • Length: 0.5-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 26 feet
  • Duration: 10 minutes

Like the Upper South Desert Overlook, the Morrell Cabin Trail is pretty short and doesn’t require a whole lot of exertion. The trek follows an old road to Lesley Morrell’s Line Cabin and Corral which was once a camp for cowboys from 1935 to 1970. Today, the landmark is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places and honors the struggles that ranchers faced in a time of drought and high livestock levels. The Line Cabin and Corral serves as an example of the major improvements that came to the ranching profession when new wells and corrals helped these hardworking men maintain their animals and continue earning an honest living.

Don’t forget to step inside the cabin and take a look around. Across the way, you can get spectacular views of Cathedral Mountain in all of its dusty beauty.

Fruita Routes in Capitol Reef National Park

Hickman Bridge Trail

  • Length: 1.7-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 416 feet
  • Duration: 1 hour

Located beside the Fremont River, this trail takes you to the scenic spot known as Hickman Bridge, a carved-out sandstone creation that looks like it could have a troll hiding somewhere underneath. And the bridge, itself, isn’t the only attraction you’ll find along this route. As you make your way to the destination, you’ll pass formations like Nels Johnson Bridge, Cohab Canyon and Capitol Dome. What’s more, you can pick up a guide at the trailhead that points out 17 different culturally significant spots to the Fremont people, who inhabited this region from 300 to 1400 CE. Some artifacts have even remained there to this day.

Once you reach Hickman Bridge, you’ll find a shady spot where you can sit underneath the massive structure and rehydrate. Be sure to take advantage of this break because, as you’ll find out, shade in Capitol Reef National Park is a rare but cherished element along the trails.

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Hikers approach Hickman bridge in Capitol Reef National Park. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Chimney Rock Loop

  • Length: 3.3-mile loop
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 793 feet
  • Duration: 2 hours

It’s pretty obvious why Chimney Rock earned its name, but what you may not know about this strange structure is how the stand-alone stone was created. If you look closely at the rock, you can see that the color at the top of the chimney almost exactly matches that of the neighboring mesa, signifying that weather, wind and time eroded the minerals in between, making the popular attraction stick out like a 300-foot lighthouse on a rocky shoreline.

The views of this trail are well worth the trek, but just know, you will be encountering quite a bit of elevation and switchbacks on this route. Fellow hikers on AllTrails have recommended taking the trail counterclockwise so that you encounter the majority of the incline early in your journey. That way, you can spend the rest of the time admiring the views, instead of trying to catch your breath.

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Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park (Photo by François GOHIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Golden Throne Trail

  • Length: 4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 777 feet
  • Duration: 2 hours

This trail is a prime choice for Capitol Reef National Park visitors looking for a sunrise hike. True to its name, the formation at the center of this journey looks to be fit for a sandstone king, and when the sun hits the back of the throne, it ignites the royal seat in a way that even the Iron Throne can’t compare.

The structure is actually a rock dome formation made from Navajo sandstone atop a 7,000-foot mountain. And while all structures in this national park are remarkable, the Golden Throne is especially unique because it doesn’t match the typical red-and-white-banded rocks in the majority of the landscape.

Sulphur Creek Route

  • Length: 5.8-mile point-to-point
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 410 feet
  • Duration: 2.5 hours

As long as you don’t mind getting your feet wet, the Sulphur Creek Route is an absolute must-see in Capitol Reef National Park. Not technically a trail, the route takes you through a deep river canyon that passes some of the oldest exposed at the park. You’ll encounter two miles of scenic narrows and small waterfalls and almost six miles of impeccable views.

Depending on the time of year and rainfall, you’ll likely need to wade or even swim through some parts of the route, so navigation skills need to be on point. Even if you do need (or want to) take a dip, be sure to keep your head out of the water and avoid touching your face until you can properly wash off. Sulphur Creek can sometimes carry strands of E. Coli but is safe to explore as long as you don’t ingest the water.

While the Sulphur Creek Route can be done as an out-and-back route, the more popular (and safer) choice is to take the route as a point-to-point, meaning you’ll finish at an entirely different spot than where you began. But the good news is that there’s a shuttle service at each end of the route which can take you back to where you began.

Capitol Reef’s Best Waterpocket Fold Routes

Surprise Canyon Route

  • Length: 2.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 423 feet
  • Duration: 1 hour

Surprise Canyon earned its name because of the stark contrast that occurs in Capitol Reef’s landscape as it transitions from the barren landscape of Death Valley to lush green vegetation, a sparkling mountain stream and the remains of an old silver mining town.

The route passes grassy drainage before entering the deep canyon, passing Halls Creek and diving into another narrow canyon. In the end, you’ll find yourself at the base of a pour-off that spirals upwards. And, for added adventure, there’s even an off-shoot that leads to the canyon’s upper reaches. But beware, you’ll have to scramble over large boulders and steep, crumbling edges.

Headquarters Canyon Route

  • Length: 3.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 406 feet
  • Duration: 2 to 3 hours

With views of Capitol Reef’s most magnificent cliffs and Navajo sandstone slopes. This route travels through a persistent and thriving sagebrush flat, passes the Hall Creek drainage and ends at the Kayenta formation. Along the way, you can also see the Entrada Sandstone formation. Similar to Surprise Canyon, you can extend your adventure on this route with a six-foot dry-fall climb for even better views.

Before you embark on this journey, be sure to check the weather. Flash floods can make this route extremely dangerous. If you’re unsure about the park’s conditions, air on the safe side and maybe choose a roadside attraction instead.

Red Canyon Trail and Route

  • Length: 5.6-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate
  • Elevation: 223 feet
  • Duration: 3 to 4 hours

The Red Canyon Trail and Route is a go-to choice for those staying at the Cedar Mesa Campground in Capitol Reef National Park because the trailhead is just a few steps away from the campsites. As you begin this moderately easy trek, you’ll pass through the sagebrush flat before the landscape opens up to views of the Henry Mountains to the east. Towards the end, you’ll reach the walls of the Wingate Sandstone and finish the trek at the Chinle formation, renowned for its odd yet stunning lavender and olive clay walls.

While the route is a bit longer than others in the Waterpocket Fold District, the incline is much more gentle and the track is nice and wide, making it friendly for adventurous families and high-energy tikes.

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