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Capitol Reef Backcountry Trail

Updated: May 24, 2022

If you're seeking to escape the crowds of Moab and St. George, the unique landscape of Capitol Reef (even by Utah standards) may just be your ticket to adventure. Unlike other parts of southern Utah that are defined by tectonic activity and uplifting of the Colorado Plateau, the Waterpocket Fold dominates Capitol Reef creating a truly unique landscape and adventure experience.

Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Epic

Trip Length: 203 miles, 3 - 6 days

Season: April - November, but spring and fall provide optimal weather.

Avg Technical Rating: 2

Peak Technical Rating: 4

Typical Terrain: Mostly graded dirt roads, some secondary roads that can be mildly technical, and a limited amount of connecting pavement.

Recommended Vehicle: 4x4 with all terrain tires (may be possible with a lifted Subaru/AWD vehicle) . Recommended Gear: n/a

Adventure Vans: Yes! Sprinter 4x4s should be able to manage most of the route without issue. There are a few secondary roads that may suffer from erosion caused by seasonal weather events, which could prove to be challenging for a Sprinter.

Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of route details for more info. Permits: You'll need to purchase a pass to enter Capitol Reef National Park.

 

Route Details

Sitting roughly at the halfway point between Bryce Canyon and Moab, Capitol Reef sits squarely in Utah's red rock canyon country. Millions of years ago, tectonic activity caused created the canyonlands and mesas by uplifting the rock thousands of feet. Capitol Reef has a unique geological history, as other geological events formed the landscape in this corner of Southern Utah. According to the National Park Service, the Waterpocket fold is what defines Capitol Reef.


A nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth's crust, the Waterpocket Fold is a classic monocline, a "step-up" in the rock layers. It formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when a major mountain building event in western North America, the Laramide Orogeny, reactivated an ancient buried fault in this region. Movement along the fault caused the west side to shift upwards relative to the east side. The overlying sedimentary layers were draped above the fault and formed a monocline. The rock layers on the west side of the fold have been lifted more than 7,000 feet (2,134 m) higher than the layers on the east.


And while the crowds to Moab and Southern Utah have steadily grown in size over the years, Capitol Reef sees a fraction of the trail traffic compared to the National Parks and trail networks surrounding Moab and St. George. And while we can't guarantee solitude (if that's what you're looking for, check out the Henry Mountains under alternative routes), you won't have to fight over scraps when it comes to finding a rad campsite!


We begin our adventure northeast of Capitol Reef National Park on the pavement of Temple Mountain Road. To get you in the right state of mind for this adventure, we recommend taking the 1.8 mile out-and-back hike to the supremely awesome Wild Horse Window (DP2). Follow the pavement to Goblin Valley State Park, a quick drive to the Goblin Overlook (DP3) is worth the nominal entrance fee. And if you want to get out on foot and explore, Goblin Valley has all sorts of interesting hoodoos and rock formations. We'll follow Wild Horse Roads, and within a few miles the pavement gives way to a nice wide and graded dirt road. There are some ruts along Wild Horse Road as you progress, so be prepared for a slower rate of travel. This portion of the route meanders through a series of washes, occassionally escaping a wash to travel up and over to the next wash or canyon. There's a ton of great dispersed camping sites in the various nooks and crannies, just keep in mind that downpours while infrequent often appear with minimal warning, so make sure you set up camp on high ground (not a wash). Take note of the varying colors on display as you approach and pass through Clay Hills (DP4). Grays, whites, and green intermingle with the surrounding burnt red sandstone. Before you can make it over to Cathedral Loop, you'll need to cross Muddy Creek. This can be a tricky water crossing. It's recommend that you survey that area first, and check to see where other travelers have been crossing. We also recommend that ford the creek by foot to verify depth, and to try and avoid muddy bottoms where a vehicle may sink slightly. Those that have found themselves in trouble at Muddy Creek, typically barreled through the creek without taking the proper precautions first! Once across Muddy Creek, you'll make a quick out and back to Neo Mars (DP5), an alien-like world full of badlands cascading down from Factory Butte. Don't be afraid to launch the drone to get an aerial view of this unique landscape, or you an try to get closer by foot or vehicle (just follow others tracks towards Factory Butte).


Next up, is the famed Cathedral Valley Loop (DP7). The vast majority of the loop can be managed in a 2 wheel drive vehicle, but it can suffer erosion due to seasonal weather events that make the higher elevation portions slightly more challenging. You can expect heavier vehicle traffic on the loop during weekends. Cathedral Loop gained fame due to the numerous sandstone monoliths in the valley, which were described as looking like gothic cathedrals. We recommend spending at least 4-6 hours on the loop taking in the various sights like Temple of the Sun (DP8) and Moon (DP9), Glass Mountain, the Gypsum Sinkhole (DP10), the various overlooks, and the brilliantly colored Bentonite Hills (DP12).


From Cathedral Valley, take a short jaunt down Highway 24, before turning left onto Notom-Bullfrog Road. The first 15 miles of Notom-Bullfrog Road are paved, which then gives way to a well maintained dirt road. Be sure to take the switchbacks up Burr Trail Road. There are two viewpoints (Burr Trail Switchbacks viewpoint and Strike Valley Overlook) that provide spectacular panoramas of the landscape, including the Waterpocket Fold that's right below you. Continue south down to Halls Creek Overlook (DP15), which provides perhaps the most impressive view of the Waterpocket Fold. The main route ends not far from here, at Highway 276.


Alternative Routes - South Draw Wash Trip Length: 69 miles, 1-2 days Season: April - November Peak Technical Rating: 5 Those looking for some more technical terrain will want to check out South Draw Wash. And while most of the route consists of pavement, South Draw Wash provides enough dirt and excitement for a solid day trip. You'll need a high clearance 4x4 beyond Pleasant Creek. South Draw is rough and rocky, with numerous creek crossings. Keep in mind, this trail is said to be impassable during during rain or snow.


Alternative Routes - Henry Mountains Trip Length: 76 miles, 2-3 days

Season: Late June - early October

Peak Technical Rating: 4 (some narrow, steep, rocky and loose trails with lots of exposure.

If you want some peace and solitude, we highly recommend checking out the Henry Mountains. These Sky Islands reach upwards in excess of 11,000 feet, hence the shortened season. You'll feel worlds away from the redrock canyon country below. And if wildlife is your thing, you'll be happy to know the Henry Mountains are known for their bison herd and healthy mule deer population.

Camping Recommendations

This route passes through BLM and National Park Service Land. While dispersed camping is permitted on BLM land, when in Capitol Reef National Park you must stay at one of their three campgrounds. Primitive camping at Capitol Reef is offered at Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa campgrounds on a first come first serve basis. Fruita is a large developed campground that may require advanced reservations. The route affords numerous opportunities for dispersed camping on BLM land. We recommend that you take advantage of this as the dispersed camping opportunities in canyon country are second to none! If you tackle the Henry Mountains alternative route, Lonesome Beaver is said to be the nicest developed campground in those parts.



Discovery Points

  • DP1 - Temple Mountain Wash Pictograph Panel

  • DP2 - Wild Horse Window

  • DP3 - Goblin Overlook

  • DP4 - Clay Hills

  • DP5 - Neo Mars Overlook

  • DP6 - Queen of the Wash Overlook

  • DP7 - Cathedral Valley Loop

  • DP8 - Temple of the Sun

  • DP9 - Temple of the Moon

  • DP10 - Gypsum Sinkole

  • DP11 - Cathedral Valley Overlook

  • DP12 - Bentonite Hills

  • DP13 - Fremont River

  • DP14 - Strike Valley Overlook

  • DP15 - Halls Creek Overlook

  • DP16 - Mt Hillers

  • DP17 - Mt Pennell

  • DP18 - The Horn

  • DP19 - South Summit Ridge

 

Maps + Navigation


Gaia GPS Recommended Map Layers

  • Gaia base layer, Nat Geo Trails Illustrated

Download GPX files



 

Resources


Land Managers

Other Resources

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Gallery



Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on Overlandtrailguides.com, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by Overland Trail Guides, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.



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