Backpacking Capitol Reef was one stop in a larger trip. Our 4,750 mile road trip route for our Utah National Parks and Grand Canyon Adventures is here if you’d like to see our full itinerary.
The 1600 hundred mile drive to Salt Lake City from Cincinnati is long! Even though our anticipation about the places we would be visiting helped pass the time, we were absolutely relieved to drive into Salt Lake City late at night after our one and a half day journey. After spending a few days in Salt Lake City to celebrate Dave’s cousin’s wedding, we drove the 4 hour trip to Capitol Reef National Park. The route into the park feels like you are heading to the middle of nowhere and so we were surprised when we arrived at the park’s border town of Torrey, Utah since the area didn’t seem to be very populated. Torrey is a small town with a few small hotels and we checked in to the Days Inn in the early evening before heading over to the park entrance to spend the hour or so before sunset exploring. The Visitor Center was already closed for the day so we just drove a little ways a soaked up the scenery. From the moment you enter the park, you know you are in a special place. The huge rock formations were beautiful in the setting sun and the contrast between all the colors was jaw dropping.
Once the sun set, we headed back to the Days Inn to swim in the pool and to get to bed early. We stayed in one of the family suites that had two queen beds and a full size sofa pull out bed and we all slept well. Having a family of 6 sometimes makes hotel stays complicated since connecting double rooms are not always available and can also cost a bunch. On long trips, we usually do a mix of connecting rooms, family suites like this one, and even crowd in to one double room with the kids taking turns in sleeping bags.
Setting Out for Cassidy Arch
Waking up early, we ate at the hotel breakfast before heading into the park. The sun rising up over the landscape was amazing! Our first stop after our entrance sign photo was the Visitor’s Center where we watched the park video and the kids picked up their Junior Ranger packets. We also talked to one of the park rangers about our plans for the next couple of days since we wanted information about which overnight backpack trip we should take. Following the ranger’s suggestions, we took the Scenic Drive which was indeed scenic before stopping to take the 2 mile hike to Cassidy Arch. The climb was somewhat challenging but full of beautiful views and we all really enjoyed it. Just a warning, it is a hike that you have to be careful since there are steep drop offs over the side of the trail. I told the kids no horseplay and they were cautious so I didn’t have to feel too worried but I still kept an eye on them at all times. Also, make sure to take plenty of water. Not only was the summer weather really warm, the trail is almost entirely exposed to the bright sun. On that note, my other advice? WEAR SUNSCREEN! I learned the hard way that the Utah sun is pretty unforgiving and throughout the rest of the trip I burned in strange Zebra stripes on places I had missed putting sunblock. Makes for some pretty interesting pictures but painful for backpacking. The Cassidy Arch hike not only had really pretty views, you pass by these cool rock formations and indentations that feel somewhat like being on the moon and make for nice resting spots.
Gifford Farm House
It was really windy at the top of the trail! So much so that we didn’t walk the portion over the top of the arch since I was worried about one of us tripping from all the windy commotion. We enjoyed the view for a while then hiked back down to the car. On the whole hike we only saw two other people on a beautiful summer day. Capitol Reef is definitely a park you can go and enjoy if you are seeking solitude. Once back at our car, we drove to the Fruita section of the park where historic fruit orchards are still present from the Mormon settlers. When fruit is in season, you can even pick it to eat and enjoy. Nothing was ready for us to harvest in early June but we did enjoy amazing pie from the Gifford Farm House shop where several flavors were sold. We picked out two small pies- strawberry rhubarb and peach. We ate the strawberry rhubarb pie out on the shaded picnic tables with our picnic lunch and it was divine. The peach I later carried in my pack for dessert on the trail. Definitely a treat!
Chimney Rock Trail- Backpacking Capitol Reef
After enjoying lunch, we headed over to the trail head for where we would be backpacking Capitol Reef on the Chimney Rock Trail. This was the hike the park ranger highly recommended we take. While we had camped many times in various parks, this was our very first backpacking trip and we were excited (and a little nervous). Capitol Reef is a great place to backpack for many reasons. First, it’s big so there are many beautiful areas to explore. It also is pretty quiet compared to the masses of people found at other Utah National Parks like Zion or Bryce Canyon. While the established campground looked full, we didn’t see a soul on our backpack hike. Backpackers also have a lot of freedom in choosing where to camp. All that is required is a basic itinerary to the park ranger, and you receive a free permit to hike as you please. Precautions should be taken to have enough water for everyone for your entire trip as there was no water source on our hike. You definitely would not want to be without water out here as it was sunny and hot the entire day. For our overnight hike we had the kids carry 2 liters of water each. Dave and I each carried 3 liters and we each also carried a 96 ounce collapsable Nalgene Wide Mouth Canteen Water Bottle. While this made our packs quite heavy, the peace of mind of knowing we had enough water to drink and cook with made it worth it for us.
The Chimney Rock Trail is a 3.5 mile loop before it meets with Chimney Rock Canyon where we would be camping a few miles in. The hike was strenuous at the beginning for maybe a half mile but eventually leveled out and was an easy (though hot!) walk. The views were beautiful and we definitely enjoyed ourselves although we took several snack and rest breaks.
Backpacking Capitol Reef: Choosing our site
Since we could choose wherever we wanted to camp, we had a great time picking the “perfect” one and finally picked a site in a side canyon that looked terrific. Flat sand beneath us and tall canyon walls surrounded us to make the perfect place to camp for the night. After setting up our tents, we set about exploring before cooking dinner. We loved our camp even more as the sun lowered in the sky casting shadows on the canyon rock faces and the weather started to cool. Not only was it beautiful, the isolation made it felt like we were the only people to ever be there which made it seem like a true adventure.
The huge boulders surrounding our site had convenient ledges and shelves which made cooking dinner a little easier. We had Lipton Noodles that I added fresh parmesan cheese, dehydrated peas and chicken in a pouch. We then had peach pie from Gifford’s Farm House for dessert. It of course tasted delicious in the outdoors after all the hiking we had done during the day. Since we had to carry all the water we needed, we were careful in cleaning the pot and bowls so we wouldn’t waste any. Once the sun went down, we settled in to our tents for the night under the brilliant starry sky. It was wonderful.
The Wind Howls Through the Canyon
In the middle of the night we woke up to crazy wind howling through the canyon. I love wind as it seems to have a human personality and it was a cool feeling to feel like the canyon was actually talking to us. Once the wind died down, we fell back to sleep until the sun started to rise. Dave and I slipped out of our tents and enjoyed coffee together before the kids woke up. It was cool and pleasant in the morning before the sun fully rose. After a while the kids joined us and I made them hot chocolate and we sat and talked while we ate our breakfast of granola.
Time to Head Out
Eventually it was time to pack up and with everyone’s help we were ready to go pretty quickly. We had about a 5 mile hike back to the car and we enjoyed seeing the views from the opposite direction of the day before. We only saw two other people on our way to the car who were out for early morning walks and we chatted with each of them for a bit. Our first backpacking trip had been such a success! Every one of us had loved backpacking Capitol Reef and wished we could stay longer. Before leaving, we stopped and picked up the kids’ Junior Ranger badges and took a quick picture at Maya and Garrett’s spot in the park.
We absolutely loved backpacking in Capitol Reef and it remains one of my favorite National Parks. Not only is it beautiful and isolated, it was the first place my family backpacked and will always hold a special place in my heart for this reason. If you get the chance to travel to Utah, definitely spend some time in this amazing place.
To help plan our trip we read Fodor’s Utah: with Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef & Canyonlands National Parks .A couple of good resources for all of the Western National Parks are Fodor’s The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West and Frommer’s EasyGuide to National Parks of the American West both of which I have used for multiple National Park vacations. A good trail map is essential for any backcountry trip and we used Capitol Reef National Park Topographic Trail Map by National Geographic which was perfect for our needs. For the kids in your group, Capitol Reef: The Story Behind the Scenery is a good summary of the amazing landscape in the park.