The flattest, easiest hike we found in Capitol Reef was the Pioneer Register or Capitol Gorge hike. It runs a mile out and a mile back, and has an optional extension to several natural water “tanks” that we’ll describe below. To access the trailhead, drive all the way to the end of the scenic route in Capitol Reef National Park to a large parking area.
- Rating: Easy
- Distance: 1.6 miles roundtrip (add 0.6 miles more if you hike to the tanks)
- Elevation Gain: 80 feet (climb to Tanks is 100 feet elevation gain in 1/4 mile)
- Fees: $15 entrance fee to Capitol Reef
- Tips: This hike is hot in the summer in the middle of the day. Hike early or late to avoid the heat. Take lots of water, and wear hats and sunscreen.
This hike runs along a wide, flat wash. There is very little elevation gain and a little shade in the morning and evening from the canyon walls. The trail is well established, but not very rocky. There is moderate to high traffic on this trail.
One of the nice things about this hike is the feeling of discovery. There is not really a final destination, but instead, you walk along and try to spot inscriptions that are up to 150 years old. These inscriptions, located around 15-20 feet above the ground in most cases, were made by Pioneers who traversed this canyon as early as the mid 1800s. They would stand in their wagonbeds or on ladders and etch into the rock. Some even fired their rifles into the rock to “carve” their initials. There are also a few petroglyphs that are signed along this trail. Watch for them. At about .8 miles from the trailhead, the canyon wall ends, and the Pioneer markings end.
Our boys also enjoy hiking here because they can climb into little holes that have naturally formed in the canyon walls. We have lots of pictures of them wedged into holes with huge grins on their faces. So make sure to enjoy the hike along the way.
Some people like to make the bonus hike to the tanks. These naturally formed water holes are carved right out of the rock. The Pioneers could always count on a little water for their animals. When we went, most of the tanks were empty, but generally, they hold water year round.
The hike to the tanks isn’t nearly as easy as the Pioneer Register. There is a sign that turns you left up the hill. It is rocky and steep, and there is some easy scrambling as you move along. Just a few hundred yards of this, and the first tank appears. (Touching the water in the tanks is forbidden as well as disgusting.) After that, the trail is less well-defined, and we didn’t see much going farther. There is a nice little natural bridge if you go down and right, but keep little ones back from the edge!
We ran into someone who said they had hiked to the tanks many times and never seen them empty before, so we must have gone on a bad year. We honestly didn’t think this part of the hike was that spectacular, and enjoyed walking through the wash much better. The little natural bridge was a fun find, but if you have young kids, we would recommend skipping this last section.
We’ve done a post on Kid Hikes in several of our favorite National Parks including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Arches, and Zion just to name a few. This post is part of our series for Capitol Reef Kid Hikes.
From the Visitor Center in Capitol Reef, take the scenic route to the end toward Capitol Gorge. Park in the parking lot at the end of the Capitol Gorge dirt road. The trail begins here. For a map of Capitol Reef, visit the National Park’s website.