Cassidy Arch Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

Named for Butch Cassidy, the late-19th century western outlaw who hung out in these parts, Cassidy Arch stands on a precipice overlooking the Grand Wash in Capitol Reef. Cassidy Arch Trail climbs 670 feet from the wash to a slickrock bench high above the canyon. Iconic landmarks like Capitol Dome are visible along the trail that hangs on the canyon ledge. Better wear your sturdiest boots for this hike. The terrain is rocky and rugged and just waiting for you to take a misstep. My brother Dave and I hiked the Cassidy Arch Trail on Monday, June 4, 2018 beginning at 8:30AM and finishing about 11:30AM. Our plan was to climb to the arch, then return along the same path.

Total Length: 3.6 miles Hike Duration: 3 hours

Hike Rating: Difficult. Very strenuous climbing over rugged, rocky terrain.

Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: Cairns on slickrock

Elevation Start: 5,474 feet Elevation Gain: 670 feet

Trail Condition: Primitive. Lots of loose rock. Route finding skills needed. Look for cairns on the slickrock sections. Some all-fours scrambling over rock ledges.

Starting Point: Grand Wash trailhead on Grand Wash Road.

Trail Traffic: We shared the trail with about three dozen others. Surprisingly busy.

How to Get There: From Torrey, UT take Hwy 24 11 miles to the Capitol Reef Visitor Center. Get on the Scenic Drive and go 2.2 miles then turn left on Grand Wash Road. Travel this dirt road for 1.3 miles to the parking area. There is enough parking for about 30 cars. Trailhead is straight ahead.

 

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First a little anecdote about an unexpected adventure we encountered along Utah Hwy 62 on our way from Bryce, Utah to our destination at Capitol Reef National Park. It started with us noticing fresh cow pies scattered about the highway. We wondered if there had been cattle who escaped the fence lines along the roadside.

Then those pies became more prevalent and unavoidable, even splattering from the wheels of the car onto the side panels and doors. Then up ahead, there they were. A cattle drive. There were cowboys on horses and cattle dogs and literally hundreds and hundreds of cows being driven right down the highway. And that highway was one huge mess of bovine scatology.

Finally, after about 15 minutes we got through, but were desperately seeking a car wash in the next little one horse town. It took another 25 miles, but we found a high pressure quarter car wash in Loa. You just never know what to expect in the wild, wild west.

We arrived at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center just past 8:00, looked around for a bit and grabbed a trail map, then headed for the Grand Wash. There is nearly a mile and a half of driving on the dirt and rock-filled Grand Wash. It doesn’t require four wheel drive, that is unless you’re in a surprise rain storm and the wash floods. Don’t worry. That doesn’t happen very often.

Parking for the trailhead is at a dead end on the wash road. For 0.3 mile you continue down the Grand Wash on foot, surrounded by massive red canyon walls that tower hundreds of feet above. Look for a sharp left turn onto the Cassidy Arch Trail. There is a large stone marker here, but it could be missed in the early morning dark of the canyon wall shadows.

There is a smaller sign that simply says “carry water.” Pay attention to this. If you didn’t bring any, go back to your car now. This hike is on dry, dry, dry, rugged desert terrain that gets hot in a hurry. Water is an absolute must!

As you make that left turn onto Cassidy Arch Trail you begin climbing steeply immediately. This is up and over rocks and boulders. There are switchbacks marked only by small cairns. You need to keep your mind on the task at hand for a number of reasons. Route finding is one, but you are also right along the cliff edge, so you don’t want to stumble or lose your balance.

 

Rough and rugged desert terrain right along the cliff edge.

 

After about a half mile of steep climbing you get a bit of a break as the trail levels out somewhat and winds through a juniper forest and rocky walls of striped red and white layers. Once again, your route finding skills will be tested as the trail makes several turns along the rocky ledge. Keep your eye out for the next cairn ahead.

Now high above the canyon, many of the featured landmarks of Capitol Reef National Park come into plain view. Primary among them is Capitol Dome, a large stone mountain that is shaped somewhat like an inverted funnel.

At the one mile mark, two things happen. You get the first view of Cassidy Arch, now a half mile away across a ravine. You also come to a junction with the Frying Pan Trail, one that comes over the red rock mountain from Cohab Canyon. I messed up here. The junction sign says Cassidy Arch Trail left and Frying Pan Trail right. I went what I thought was left. It took a quarter mile of unnecessary climbing to realize we were going away from Cassidy Arch, not nearer.

So we backtracked to the trail junction. The sign is a bit misleading, at least it was to me. In reality Cassidy Arch is a hard left and Frying Pan is straight ahead. Once seeing the error, we took the hard left and were back on the right path. No harm.

The final half mile to Cassidy Arch is all across slickrock, alternating red and white. There is the occasional scramble through gullies, each with strategically carved footholds to help you along. Once again, keep your eyes peeled for the cairns that help guide you toward the arch and away from canyon edges.

Cassidy Arch is actually quite impressive as far as natural arches go. It stands 140 feet high, with a mouth that spans 60 feet. You can even walk across the arch as it is about 25 feet wide. We happened to arrive right as a team of rappellers was preparing to lower themselves to the canyon overhang below. Live entertainment.

 

Dave walks across Cassidy Arch. Wave hi to Dave.

 

While Dave crossed the arch and got a better look at the rappellers, I went up higher on the slickrock plateau for a view over the edge and into the northern end of Grand Wash. The moon was still hanging on the horizon, shining in the cloudless cerulean sky. Lots of other hikers were arriving, probably about a dozen. I was surprised at the number who were out this early on a weekday to a somewhat remote area of the underappreciated Capitol Reef. Add in a dozen rappellers and there were quite a few folks.

We stayed at the arch for about a half hour, then began the trek back. Along the way we continued to encounter more hikers. By now, the air temperature had climbed probably 20 degrees and was becoming quite warm. With no trees for shade, and no clouds in the sky, the sun will take a toll quickly. Despite this hike being less than four miles round trip, I was quite tired by the time we finished.

When we got back to the car it was time for lunch, so we found a picnic area off the Scenic Drive along the Fremont River that had perfect shade from century old cottonwood trees. Coupled with a cool breeze, the temperature immediately dropped considerably. Our Utah adventure now over, we geared up for the six hour drive back to our home base in Colorado.

In summary, when you look at Cassidy Arch Trail on a map you may not think it requires much. It’s short, less that four miles. Yes, it climbs 670 feet, but that doesn’t seem like much. That is until you find out most of it is within less than a mile. Feet up per mile is important to consider. Always keep in mind too that this is desert. It is dry. It is hot. There is no shade. It will wear you out if you aren’t prepared. Put on sunscreen. Wear a hat. And like the sign says, “carry water.”

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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