Hikes from Hwy. 24
Stop by the visitor center to pick up a map showing hiking trails and trail descriptions. These trailheads are along Highway 24, the main highway through the park, and along the Fremont River. Note that the Grand Wash Trail cuts west through the reef to the scenic drive.
Chimney Rock Trail
The trailhead is three miles west of the visitor center on the north side of the highway. Towering 660 feet above the highway, Chimney Rock is a fluted spire of dark red rock (Moenkopi Formation) capped by a block of hard sandstone (Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation).
A 3.5-mile loop trail ascends 540 feet from the parking lot (elev. 6,100 feet) to a ridge overlooking Chimney Rock; allow 2.5 hours. Panoramic views take in the face of Capitol Reef. Petrified wood along the trail has been eroded from the Chinle Formation (the same rock layer found in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona). It is illegal to take any of the petrified wood.
Spring Canyon Route
This moderately difficult hike begins at the top of the Chimney Rock Trail. The wonderfully eroded forms of Navajo sandstone present a continually changing exhibition. The riverbed is normally dry; allow about six hours for the 10-mile (one-way) trip from the Chimney Rock parking area to the Fremont River and Highway 24. (Some maps show all or part of this as "Chimney Rock Canyon.")
Check with rangers for the weather forecast before setting off because flash floods can be dangerous, and the Fremont River (which you must wade across) can rise quite high. Normally, the river runs less than knee-deep to Highway 24 (3.7 miles east of the visitor center). With luck you'll have a car waiting for you. Summer hikers can beat the heat with a crack-of-dawn departure. Carry water; this section of canyon lacks a reliable source.
From the Chimney Rock parking area, hike Chimney Rock Trail to the top of the ridge and follow the signs for Chimney Rock Canyon. Enter the unnamed lead-in canyon and follow it downstream. A sign marks Chimney Rock Canyon, which is 2.5 miles from the start. From this point, it's an additional 6.5 miles (downstream) to reach the Fremont River.
A section of narrows requires some rock-scrambling (bring a cord to lower backpacks), or the area can be bypassed on a narrow trail to the left above the narrows. Farther down, a natural arch high on the left marks the halfway point.
Upper Chimney Rock Canyon could be explored on an overnight trip. A spring (purify before drinking) is located in an alcove on the right side, about one mile up Chimney Rock Canyon from the lead-in canyon. Wildlife use this water source, so camp at least 0.25 mile away. Chimney Rock Canyon, the longest in the park, begins high on the slopes of Thousand Lake Mountain and descends nearly 15 miles southeast to join the Fremont River.
Sulphur Creek Route
This moderately difficult hike begins by following a wash across the highway from the Chimney Rock parking area, descending to Sulphur Creek, then heads down the narrow canyon to the visitor center. The trip is about five miles long (one-way) and takes 3-5 hours. Park rangers sometimes schedule guided hikes on this route. Warm weather is the best time because you'll be wading in the normally shallow creek.
Three small waterfalls can be bypassed fairly easily; two falls are just below the goosenecks, and the third is about one-half mile before coming out at the visitor center. Carry water with you. The creek's name may be a mistake, because there's no sulphur along it; perhaps outcrops of yellow limonite caused the confusion. You can make an all-day eight-mile hike in Sulphur Creek by starting where it crosses the highway between Mileposts 72 and 73, five miles west of the visitor center.
Hickman Natural Bridge Trail
The trailhead is two miles east of the visitor center on the north side of the highway. The graceful Hickman Natural Bridge spans 133 feet across a small streambed. Numbered stops along the self-guided trail correspond to descriptions in a pamphlet available at the trailhead or visitor center. Starting from the parking area (elev. 5,320 feet), the trail follows the Fremont River's green banks a short distance before gaining 380 feet in the climb to the bridge. The last section of trail follows a dry wash shaded by cottonwood, juniper, and piñon pine trees.
You'll pass under the bridge (eroded from the Kayenta Formation) at trail's end. Capitol Dome and other sculptured features of the Navajo sandstone surround the site. The two-mile round-trip hike takes about 90 minutes. Joseph Hickman served as principal of Wayne County High School and later in the state legislature during the 1920s; he and another local man, Ephraim Pectol, led efforts to promote Capitol Reef.
Rim Overlook and Navajo Knobs
A splendid overlook 1,000 feet above Fruita beckons hikers up the Rim Overlook Trail. Take the Hickman Natural Bridge Trail 0.25 mile from the parking area, then turn right and go two miles at the signed fork. Allow 3.5 hours from the fork for this hike. Panoramic views take in the Fremont River valley below, the great cliffs of Capitol Reef above, the Henry Mountains to the southeast, and Boulder Mountain to the southwest.
Continue another 2.2 miles (and more than 500 feet higher) from the Rim Overlook to reach Navajo Knobs. Rock cairns lead the way over slickrock along the rim of Waterpocket Fold. A magnificent panorama at trail's end takes in much of southeastern Utah.
Cohab Canyon and Frying Pan Trails
Park at Hickman Natural Bridge Trailhead, then walk across the highway bridge. This trail climbs Capitol Reef for fine views in all directions and a close look at the swirling lines in the Navajo sandstone. After three-quarters of a mile and a 400-foot climb, you'll reach a trail fork: Keep right and go one mile to stay on Cohab Canyon Trail and descend to Fruita Campground or turn left onto Frying Pan Trail to Cassidy Arch (3.5 miles away) and Grand Wash (4 miles away). The trail from Cassidy Arch to Grand Wash is steep.
All of these interconnecting trails offer many hiking possibilities, especially if you can arrange a car shuttle. For example, you could start up Cohab Canyon Trail from Highway 24, cross over the reef on Frying Pan Trail, make a side trip to Cassidy Arch, descend Cassidy Arch Trail to Grand Wash, walk down Grand Wash to Highway 24, then walk (or car shuttle) 2.7 miles along the highway back to the start (10.5 miles total).
Cohab is a pretty little canyon in the Wingate sandstone overlooking the campground. Mormon polygamists supposedly used the canyon to escape federal marshals during the 1880s. Hiking the Frying Pan Trail involves an additional 600 feet of climbing from either Cohab Canyon or Cassidy Arch trail. Once atop Capitol Reef, the trail follows the gently rolling slickrock terrain.
The trailhead is 4.7 miles east of the visitor center on the south side of the highway. One of only five canyons cutting completely through the reef, Grand Wash offers easy hiking and great scenery. There's no trail—just follow the dry gravel riverbed. Flash floods can occur during storms. Canyon walls of Navajo sandstone rise 800 feet above the floor and close in to as little as 20 feet in width. Cassidy Arch Trailhead is two miles away, and parking for Grand Wash from the scenic drive is one-quarter mile farther.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition