Monday 10 February 2020

Capitol Gorge Trail, Capitol Reef NP Running Route

Click here for route map 

Length 7.6 km (4.7 mi), terrain: fairly flat, gain 223 meters

NOTE: This is desert country: bring water and don't hike/run in the afternoon in summer. Also, this canyon is a wash, meaning it turns into a rushing torrent within minutes when a shower hits the area: keep away when showers threaten! In fact, the whole Scenic Drive can have dangerous flash-flood spots, so check the weather report first. When I was there, it started raining at the turnaround-point, and I had to race to get back to the car and out of there as the roads started to flood!

This trail combines a lot of great stuff: petroglyphs, the "Pioneer Register", water tanks (potholes that fill with water in the spring) and lots of colorful rock in the impressive canyon walls.

To get there, take the Scenic Drive south from the Fruita Visitor Center. The paved road ends at the junction for Capitol Gorge Road, where you keep left. This is a gravel road, which is normally good enough for a normal 2-wheel-drive car. This drive itself is fun, winding into the gorge over little side-washes.
Hikers in the Capitol Gorge
The road ends at the trailhead parking lot, with its picnic shelter. There is a trail upwards here to the Golden Throne, a peak just north of the trailhead with great views. We'll stay down in the sandy wash inside the gorge, though, with just an easy run/hike out and back, with a couple of little side-hikes for added interest.

This route follows the road to the eastern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. The road actually continues eastwards to Notom Road, if you want to add distance. Or, alternatively, you can turn this into a shorter run by turning around at any time, something you might consider during hotter weather. I was here during the very cold spring of 2019, and we actually got snowfall on the next day!

OK, so here you are at the trailhead, in the middle of God's Country. Take a minute to soak-in the amazing canyon scenery. This sandy, rocky road used to be the main way into the area from the east, before Route 24 was built.
The wash at the start of the gorge
Some of the main sights of the run come up pretty quickly, so let's get to it.

The first part of the trail, the Narrows, is hemmed-in by the narrow, high gorge with its fascinating rock formations, little caves and colors. Some places are only 3 meters wide. You're running slightly downhill until the turnaround spot. We're following the wash, a usually dry creek bed.
In the Narrows
After about a half a kilometer, there are some petroglyphs (Native American rock carvings) off to the left in a side canyon. There are animals, antlered-beings, sunbursts and other interesting carvings in the red rock. If you haven't seen many of these before, here's your chance.

In another half-kilometer, you'll see the Pioneer Register, graffiti on the rock walls where pioneers coming through from the east carved their names, some as recent as the 1920s.
Pioneer names scratched into the rock walls
Then, at about the 1.4-kilometer mark, you come to a cool place to interrupt your run to climb up to see the "tanks", depressions in the slickrock above that fill with water every springtime. 

Climb these rocks to get to the tanks!
There are a series of tanks, and the little side-canyon is beautiful.
Some of the tanks above the trail
The wash widens and softens as you continue your vaguely downhill progress, with the slickrock looking more like gentle hills.
The canyon scenery is constantly changing
When you come to the park boundary sign, it's time to turn around and see it all from the other direction, which -- luckily -- is another great view of natural wonders in the Great American West.

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