Down the Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef National Park, two major canyons slice due east very shortly after the campgrounds. The second canyon is Capitol Gorge, a twisty journey through sandstone canyons that can still take my breath away, despite all the other seriously breathtaking sights in Capitol Reef.
Now, a car can travel along Capitol Gorge. A-ha, you say! This is no hike. Well, yes and no. Sure, you can drive down to the turn-around, turn around, and drive back, never once stepping foot to ground. Okay, it’s a drive. However, you can also most definitely hike it, either from its intersection with the Scenic Drive (good option when weather makes the dirt road impassable), or from beyond the parking lot at its end point. See? Still a hike, I swear.
[photo courtesy of gregw66]
How to do this hike:
1. Follow the Scenic Drive as it winds south in leisurely (and they mean it; the speed limit is 25 mph) fashion. When the pavement ends ten miles from the Visitors Center, you’ve reached the eastern turn into Capitol Gorge, which is well signed. Head thataway.
2. You can park right here, which is necessary in certain weather (the gate will be closed and locked if the road is too muddy or snowy and the rangers don’t really feel like unstucking your stuck car, which shouldn’t have been driven in there anyway), and hike in, or you can keep driving. If driving, prepare to be craning your neck to catch a glimpse of the stunning handiwork of the erosional forces that created this canyon.
3. The very end is a parking lot/turn-around. Feel free to park here and really start your hike as you head to the Pioneer Register and the Tanks. The Pioneer Register is a collection of old pioneer names scrawled on the rock wall to your left (north) about a quarter mile from the parking area. Because they signed the rock so long ago (some of them in the late 1800s), the Pioneer Register is considered historically important and protected. If you decide to do the same thing, it is considered graffiti and induces a hefty fine. The Tanks are waterpockets, natural depressions in the rock that collect precious water in this arid landscape. To reach the Tanks, look out for the trail sign indicating the way up the rocks on your left (north). It is an actual path cut up through the sandstone, but can be quite slippery if it’s been snowing. (You can also head up the Golden Throne Trail, but that’s another hike of the week.)
[photo courtesy of gearyster]
Tips on doing this hike:
1. I really recommend hiking from the Scenic Drive in the winter, because it’s just so gorgeous the whole way in, and because no one’s around. I mean, no one. This will also extend the hike significantly. From the Scenic Drive to the parking area it’s three miles.
2. Keep your eyes open for bighorn sheep. They are often seen around Capitol Gorge, and they’re not always super skittish.
[photo courtesy of gearyster]
3. If you take the spur road up to the Tanks, look for the small natural bridge in a little drainage when you descend back down.
4. This isn’t really a concern in the winter, but remember, it is a canyon. A rainstorm (again, unlikely in winter here, which tends toward snowstorms) can create a flash flood in Capitol Gorge. Don’t go in if you’re uncertain.
Random facts about this hike:
1. Capitol Gorge once upon a time was part of the Blue Dugway–the original road through Capitol Reef. It lost its status as that passageway when today’s Highway 24 was built in 1964.
2. At this very moment, there is no snow in Capitol Reef. However, these photos from last winter show you how much snow can indeed be there!