There is a good case to be made that fall is the best time of year to visit Southern Utah and Capitol Reef. The weather is cooler, the crowds have thinned at the national parks, and the summer monsoons have passed. These conditions open up a lot of trails that might have been a bit too inconvenient during the summer. So let’s look at some of these trail, and why hiking is fall is so great!
Narrow Canyon Trails
During the summer monsoon season, it rains almost every day in Southern Utah. This can lead to flooding in certain areas, and flash flooding at unexpected times. So typically during the summer, we advise against doing any hiking in the narrows of Capitol Reef, especially in the afternoons. It’s just a little too risky. But the seasonal rains stop in September, and the chances of flash floods diminish. So now is the best time to go scrambling in the slot canyons of Capitol Reef! Here’s a few that we love:
Brimhall Bridges –
Brimhall Bridges is located in the Waterpocket Fold section of Capitol Reef (we’ve marked the trailhead here on Google Maps.) It’s a great combination hike of open terrain, steep descents and climbs, a narrow canyon section and a fantastic double bridge of sandstone at the end. If you don’t mind traveling a little off-the-beaten path, then we highly recommend this one.
Sheets Gulch –
Sheets Gulch is also located in the Waterpocket Fold (Google Maps here) it’s quite a long trail, but full of lots There is an initial rise that leads to a wash, the slot canyon starts after about a mile (pro tip: take the path to the right when you reach the split) and there are multiple narrow sections to squeeze through on the route. Toward the end, you will be rewarded with impressive views of Sheets Gulch Arch. See this excellent guide here for more details.
Grand Wash –
This one is located in the Scenic Road section of the park. You will need to pay the toll to access this trail. Of all the canyon hikes in Capitol Reef National Park, this one is probably the easiest. It’s flat, sandy, and level. The sandstone walls rise high above you, but not they are not tight, so the whole hike has a relaxed feel to it. Honestly, it’s perfect for families with seniors or kids! Plus if you park another vehicle at the other end, you only have to hike it one-way. Map locations marked here and here.
Formerly Hot Trails
Anyone who has been to Capitol Reef in the summer knows it can be hot. Very hot. There are ways to mitigate that, like hiking in the mornings and evening, etc. But what if you’re not an early riser? Then fall is your friend! The trails that baked you at noon during the summer are going to be a lot nicer in mid-October. And here are a couple that we recommend:
Cassidy Arch –
Also located on the Scenic Road (map here) this is a steep trail that climbs up to the top of the iconic cliffs. The trail then takes you across the flat mesa for a while until you reach the famous arch which gives this hike it’s name. (Named after outlaw Butch Cassidy, who use to hide out in this area.) Plus you can see all of Capitol Reef from the top of those cliffs you worked so hard to climb!
Frying Pan –
This trail actually connects Cassidy Arch with Cohab Canyon (a great little trail in it’s own rite, any time of year.) As you might have surmised from the name, this is a scorcher in the summer. Trust us, we’ve done it. Also trust us, October is a much smarter time to do this trail. It’s a high-altitude mesa hike across an open sandstone plateau. It will lead you through a section of Capitol Reef that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world. Even though the highway is only a mile or so away, you’d never know it! We’ve marked it here on Google Maps.
Previously Popular Trails
The national parks are popular places. And they are most popular during the summer, when kids and college students are out of school and families are traveling. So it’s no surprise that the parks, even lesser-known parks like Capitol Reef, can become overcrowded with tourists. Thankfully, that drops off in October, as the traditional tourist season winds down. Which means that those popular trails aren’t going to be swarming with people. So here’s a couple of popular hikes that you can have (almost) all to yourself this time of year:
Hickman Bridge –
This is by far the most popular trail in the park. And we get it, it’s fun! It’s short and easy and mostly flat and leads right up to a natural bridge, which you can walk under and admire. But, oh boy! During the summer the trailhead (mapped here) is impossible to park at. So you’ve got to park somewhere else and hike to your hike. Luckily that’s not really a problem in mid-October!
Chimney Rock –
Chimney Rock is one of the first geological landmarks that people see as they enter Capitol Reef. And so a lot of people want to do the Chimney Rock trail. (Location here) It’s a loop that climbs up an eroded red hill to give you a really nice view of Chimney Rock and the Fremont Gorge. We love it. But it can be too much to deal with everybody else who wants to see those views in the summer. So do it now! And skip the crowds!
Grab a Guide
Hopefully we’ve got you excited about all the different trails that are just plain better in October! Obviously our brief descriptions are only to help point you in the right direction. When you do hike any of these, first check out the official hiking page on nps.gov and then stop by the Capitol Reef Visitor Center and grab one of their maps. And have a great time hiking in October!