Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Great kids' trail: Capitol Reef's Capitol Gorge

Whiptail lizard at Capitol Reef National Park.
Photo courtesy Capitol Reef NPS.

Hidden arch, natural water pools await hikers

Forbidding desert terrain that takes you into the classic Old West awaits hikers of the Capitol Gorge Trail in central Utah's Capitol Reef National Park. Here you'll find pioneer inscriptions, a hidden arch, modern petroglyphs, and natural water pools.

Either spring or fall are great times to visit. Always watch weather reports, though, to ensure no storms are nearby so you don't get caught in a flashflood. You'll also want to bring sunscreen, probably a brimmed hat, and definitely enough water for all.

To reach the trail, from the park's visitor center take the Scenic Drive for 10 miles. When the paved section turns to dirt and splits, head left for about three miles. You'll want a four-wheel drive vehicle or one with high clearance, as the road is rough albeit scenic. At its end is a gravel parking area.

Millennia-old petroglyphs
The trailhead starts near a covered picnic shelter in the parking lot. The 2-mile roundtrip trail consists of fairly smooth sand, though it can be rocky at spots. It's fairly wide, often no less than 10 feet at its narrowest as it follows the gorge.

About a quarter mile in, look for the sign pointing to the petroglyphs. Fremont Indians etched these hands, spirals and ghostly effigies nearly a thousand years ago.

The trail then joins a streambed (hence the need to watch for storms to avoid flashfloods). Sheer cliffs of yellow, gray and dull brown Navajo sandstone, streaked by desert varnish, rise on both sides.

You'll almost certainly see whiptail and collared lizards on the trail. If lucky, you may spot grazing bighorn sheep. Despite being a desert, more than 300 species call the park home, including chipmunks, squirrels, golden eagles, ravens, deer, antelope, ringtail raccoons and bats. Mountain lions and coyote also are present but rarely seen by day hikers. Among the common flora are red rimrock paintbrush; yellow Mormon tea, woolly milkvetch, puccoon, and roundleaf buffaloberry.

Wall of names
About a half mile into the trail is the Pioneer Register. Kids will delight in reading the hundreds of names and dates carved into the rocks by pioneers traveling through the gorge during the late 1800s up to the 1920s. Don't add your own name to the rocks, however. Doing so ruins a historical site and is illegal, carrying a $250 fine.

The sheer cliffs recede as heading farther up the gorge. One spur worth taking up a tributary ravine is to the Tanks, a series of small pools and potholes that often contain water. A series of switchbacks marked by cairns leads to the Tanks, though you'll need to watch closely for them. Visible on the descent back to the gorge is a small arch in the drainage.

The Tanks at a mile into the gorge marks a good spot to turn back. For more ambitious hikers, the streambed can be followed toward Notom - the gorge once was a main road to what once a small village - but be wary of flashfloods. Should you follow the streambed, the gorge opens at the reef's edge as the Navajo sandstone gives way to the Carmel Formation.

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.