Capitol Reef National Park

Spring Canyon Trail

The Spring Canyon hike, a well-marked, moderate nine-mile tramp with some minor scrambling, is a good day hike for active adults and older children. The hike starts at the Chimney Rock parking area three miles west of the Visitor Center and ends at the Fremont River near the picnic area along Utah Hwy 24, four miles east of the Visitor Center. The river crossing at the end of the hike is usually less than knee deep but can be difficult during high water. Be sure to check river conditions before starting your hike.

After hiking in on the Chimney Rock Trail continue straight to pick up Spring Canyon Trail. The signed junction for the Spring Canyon trail lies at the far end of the mesa, which is the endpoint for the Chimney Rock loop Trail. Be sure to take the canyon trail to the left, which leads around a small juniper tree and down into the wash bottom. Follow the main wash, disregarding side drainages entering from the left. The canyon soon narrows dramatically, tall curtains of burnished Wingate Sandstone hemming you in on all sides.

A gentle, up canyon breeze tempers the heat of the day as you approach the first of two wooden livestock drift fences strung across the wash. This is the entrance to Spring Canyon, two and one-half miles from the trailhead. The large drainage entering from the left and spilling its contents into the main channel is Upper Spring Canyon. Dedicated backpackers can follow the twisting course of this canyon for many miles to its end on the lower slopes of Thousand Lake Mountain. The lava caprock of this high plateau is the source of the masses of dark volcanic rocks now seen for the first time, plucked free and tumbled downstream by swift-flowing glacial meltwaters.

At this point, day hikers may wish to make a one and one-half mile side trip upstream to visit the canyon's best known spring. A ring of tall cottonwood trees surrounds the spring and pool, situated in a small alcove on the right side of the drainage in the shadow of a large rock overhang. Hikers are cautioned to treat all backcountry water before drinking.

Turning downstream at the drift fence, it is six and one-half miles to the crossing of the Fremont River. After several hundred yards, the second drift fence appears, followed by a section of steeply crossbedded sandstone. Soon you are following a smooth, light-colored ribbon of sandstone whose serpentine course very shortly draws you into a cramped narrows ending in a series of two abrupt ten-foot dry falls. Retrace your steps several hundred feet and climb out of the narrows to the north, bypassing this section on a primitive trail. The path shrinks to only a few inches across in several sections where it traverses steep slopes. Take your time and watch your footing, especially in wet weather.

By midday, this stretch of open canyon may be quite warm. Along the way, you will walk out of the Wingate Sandstone and into the water-deposited Kayenta Formation. The boundary between these rock layers is not as distinct as that between the Chinle and Wingate Formations; interfingering deposits making it difficult to tell where one layer ends and another begins. The same is true for the contact between Kayenta sediments and the towering, wind-blown dune deposits of Navajo Sandstone, now visible as cream-colored crags and domes piercing a typically deep blue sky.

Trees are becoming larger and more numerous now, a sign that ample water lies just beneath the dry surface of the wash. Boxelder, bearing double-winged fruit and leaves sectioned into three-lobed leaflets, casts its welcome shade across the canyon floor. You will probably hear the gentle, lulling murmur of the first spreading Fremont cottonwood before recognizing it. As you walk along, it is all too easy to focus on the larger sights in the canyon. But adjust your senses for smaller discoveries, too, for they are not less grand.

On and on the canyon winds, through a seemingly endless maze of deeply incised and pitted towers and domes of Navajo Sandstone. Continue on your way, skirting stands of stiff-stemmed horsetails. Near the end of the canyon, you pass beneath a massive rock overhang, perhaps 100 yards long and 50 feet deep. Scour marks in the alcove walls tell of past flood waters that gouged and undercut the sandstone, leaving the unsupported layers to collapse into the wash to be broken up and carried away. From here it is only a short walk along a reed and willow-choked corridor to the edge of the river.

Trailhead: The hike starts at the signed Chimney Rock parking area, three miles west of the Visitor Center.

Maps: USGS 7.5 Minute Series: Fruita, Twin Rocks or Earth Walk Press, Capitol Reef National Park. Available from the CRNHA at the park Visitor Center.

Note: Summertime hikers should set off early. Except for a spring, which is away from the normal travel route, there are no reliable water sources in the canyon. Carry at least two quarts of water per person, and bring a lunch. Wear a hat and wettable footgear and be prepared for midday temperatures that may exceed 100 degrees F. Prudent hikers should avoid the canyon during stormy or threatening weather.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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