Distance: 4.5 miles (one way)
Best time of year: Year-round
Last hiked: 2015 October
Navajo Knobs was the first trail I did in Capitol Reef National Park, and it remains one of my favorites. Most of the trail is spent winding around the rim of the Waterpocket Fold. …and that is just about as underwhelming as you can put it. It features a lengthy trek along the rim of the Waterpocket Fold with incredible overlooks, finishing off at eroded Navajo Sandstone "knobs" high above the surrounding area. From up there, views of the Waterpocket Fold extend deep to the south overlooking rugged canyons while eroded sandstone breaks up the landscape to the north. Boulder Mountain dominates the west, while the Henry Mountains balance out the east. If you’re looking for optimal lighting conditions for photography, begin this trail in the early afternoon. The late afternoon light on your way down will be phenomenal over the landscape below.
The Navajo Knobs Trail actually begins along the same trail as the Hickman Bridge Trail. You’ll continue along the same path for 0.2 miles before branching off to the right, which is signed at a fork. You then follow a wash up a short distance before crossing it, and continuing a gradual ascent. Not much farther is an overlook for Hickman Bridge where you get a nice vantage point above and to the north.
The trail then brings you around a side canyon, and up to a large, exposed ridge along the fold. This will become a very familiar pattern by the time the hike is over. The distances from the side canyons to the exposed ridge starts out relatively small, but gradually becomes larger and larger until you’re covering a considerable distance between the viewpoint and getting tucked away deep in a side canyon. You’ll also notice that the larger distances also bring you down in elevation on your way up to the knobs. This means it’s not all downhill heading back.
Note: There is extensive microbiotic soil off of the trail and slickrock. Please do not trample the living soil, even if someone else already has. It literally takes decades for it to even start to resemble what you see there.
As you continue to wind along the rim, taking in one increasingly grand view after another, you reach the Rim Overlook at about 2 miles in. This is where many people stop, check out the view from there and turn around. It’s certainly a breathtaking overlook and well worth checking out, but the best is yet to come.
More and more the trail makes great use of large expanses of slickrock, allowing you to freely roam and explore as long as you’re able to stay within sight of the cairns. But honestly, even if you lose sight of them, you know you’re supposed to be on the rim, so there’s not really that much danger of getting lost. Also, please do not knock down or create new cairns anywhere along the trail. The rangers put them up in deliberate places for a reason. If you modify them at all, the rocks that make up the cairns will form a collective sentience and attack you until you apologize and undo whatever you did.
At about 3.5 miles in, a dramatic view overlooking The Castle emerges (top photo). It’s a striking vista splashed with bright, earthy pastels that reveals in great detail the transition from the Moenkopi Formation, to the colorful Chinle, and finally to the Wingate which forms the top of The Castle. Wind around that, and the trail begins to near its terminus.
As you make your final ascent, you begin to wind around the base of the knobs. You might notice a trail forking off to the left just below the knobs. There’s really no reason to go left. It erodes an unnecessary part of the landscape and pales in comparison to the view above you. Heading right along the proper trail, you wind around the lower part of the knobs, climbing steadily higher. The trail then takes you through towering cracks that seem to close in around you in the Navajo Sandstone before making one last climb up to the top. If you’re wearing a hat, hold on to it because it can get windy up there.
Full 360 degree panoramic views are now all around you as you take in the views from such a small perch. To the west in front of you is Mummy Cliff, the main segment of the Chimney Rock Loop with Highway 24 winding by. To the right (north) you might be able to make out Spring Canyon. Plainly visible below and to the south is the Visitor Center, the Waterpocket Fold dwarfing it as it extends as far south as the eye can see. East is a great view of the Henry Mountains. You can now appreciate one of the best views in the park.
From the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center, head east on Highway 24 for nearly 2 miles until you see the trailhead for Hickman Bridge on your left. Park in that parking area and look for the trailhead on the east end of the parking lot traveling along the Fremont River.