This route is a very popular trail leading down the flat canyon floor past faded petroglyphs and pioneer signatures. There's also an optional scramble up to a series of "tanks" (water filled potholes). Beyond the trail to the tanks, the canyon is more open and much less crowded. At the park boundary, the canyon abruptly ends at a wide wash and a unique relic of park history.
During periods of high visitation, the parking area may be completely full from mid-morning to late afternoon.
Check the weather forecast prior to heading out. Flash floods in a narrow canyon can be deadly.
The journey into Capitol Gorge begins by passing directly through the picnic ramada. For about .3 miles, there is a trail on the left side of the canyon. A short ways after the ramada, the trail leads to a small petroglyph panel marked by a post on the left. The images have weathered considerably over time, but at least seven anthropomorphs can be discerned.
Less than a 100 yards farther on, look across the canyon high on the south wall to find the carefully carved names of six surveyors who worked here in 1911. As the bench-like feature you've been hiking on begins to narrow, a short section of old pavement remains. Where the trail ends and the route leads down the wash, frequent floods prevented any further paving.
The canyon quickly constricts, and the next half mile is quite scenic. The lower walls are close and sheer, with steep Navajo slopes rising another thousand feet above. For most people, a short and comfortable bit of hiking will get them to the Pioneer Register
, which is preceded by a sign on the right. The two primary panels of the register are on the left, just beyond the sign. Most of the names are inscribed in the rock, but some are painted in black.
Up ahead, the optional Capitol Gorge Spur Trail to Tanks
is marked by a sign on the left side of the canyon. The climb up to the wide ledge above is steep and rough, with a couple of places where it may be necessary to pause and look around to determine the correct route. Once on top, the trail turns back to the west and there is a good view down into Capitol Gorge and, a little farther on, down to the tank that almost always contains water. The term “tank” is used to describe a large depression that retains water after periodic rainstorms. The tanks above Capitol Gorge are examples of large and deep potholes, carved during periods of high waterflow in the drainage.
East of the spur trail, Capitol Gorge remains scenic all the way to the park boundary, but only a scant few hikers continue on through this section. Inscriptions are fairly common on both sides of the canyon, and searching for them makes for an interesting trip. The area along the wash remains scattered with wildflowers and plants even into late September.
About a mile past the spur trail, an old section of road climbs along the south side of Capitol Gorge, bypassing an impassible section of wash. The old road bed re-enters the wash, and just downstream is a check dam that has filled in with gravel. At the dam, stay to the left until the route naturally leads back into the wash, and then continue on the south side to the park boundary. The canyon walls begin to lower as the wash widens.
At the park’s boundary, visitors will find the hulk of an old car, now filled with rocks. Still visible on its side, however, is an early tourist marker that reads, “Scenic Attraction entering Capitol Reef National Monument.” This relic is a reminder of the park's storied and more recent history. The trail ends where a wire fence denotes the park boundary.
This content was contributed by author Rick Stinchfield. For a comprehensive hiking guide to Capitol Reef National Park and to see more by Rick, click here
Even late in September, flowers such as Wyoming paintbrush, scarlet gilia, paperflower, rubber rabbitbrush, wire lettuce, and asters may be in bloom. Scattered along the wash banks are numerous colonies of skunkbush or skunkbush sumac (Rhus aromatica).
The sandy wash found at the top of the optional tanks spur trail displays manzanita, virgins bower, mountain mahogany, and rough mules ears. And when full, the tanks themselves become home to larvae and adults of many amphibian and insect species.