The Archives – Capitol Reef National Park (pt. 1)

December 1998.  I have just accepted a job at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, which requires moving from Gunnison.  I drop my stuff in my new apartment at the college and hit the road the next morning.  Eleven days before my new job starts.  Thanks to rave reviews from Neil and Anne at the camera store in Gunnison, I’m curious to explore Capitol Reef for the first time.

Capitol Reef is one of the lesser known of Utah’s national parks.  Yet it has some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire state.  The vast majority of visitors only drive through on Utah 12, perhaps stopping to view some of the Fremont petroglyphs on the side of the road, or walk through the orchards of the former mormon town of Fruita.  Which means – vast portions of the park are nearly empty.

First stop, visitor center.  I pick up my backcountry permit.  The ranger is amused that I intend to spend 3 nights solo backpacking.  Over Christmas.  Then continuing with a week of car camping and day hiking.  I wanted to do Upper Muley Twist Canyon, but the ranger recommends against it due to ice on the slickrock.  So instead, the lower portion.

Lower Muley Twist Canyon.  Named for it’s constant twists and turns – windy enough to “twist a mule.”  Whatever.  It’s a fun name.

It’s cold.  Desert neophytes don’t often realize how cold the desert gets in the winter.  It’s also bone dry. Since I forgot my lip balm, my lips start cracking on day 2.  But it’s beautiful.  I have the canyon, and likely the entire southern half of the park, to myself.  

For 5 days I make my way slowly south through the canyon then back north outside the fold.  Muley Tanks.  Views of Escalante, Strike Valley, Hall’s Narrows.  Through Hamburger Rocks. I get water by melting snow, as the creeks are frozen solid.  

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Life is good when this is the view from your tent and you have miles of backcountry completely to yourself.

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Ahhh…. bliss.

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Overlooking the Strike Valley from the top of the Fold.

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The view along the Waterpocket Fold, the defining feature of Capitol Reef. A 70 mile long buckling of the earth’s crust. And a hiker’s paradise.

Back to the car.  Drive a short distance north to the campground.  Cold still.  The wind is whipping.  Stepping into the pit toilet is a relief in one way – it’s warm(er).  Set up tent.  Go for a hike as the sun is going down.  I turn around when I somehow convince myself that a mountain lion is stalking me.  Not a good idea to be freaked out as darkness sets in.

The next few days are spent hiking several canyons.  Headquarters, Surprise, and Burro.  Several unnamed ones.  All are beautiful.  Burro Wash is my New Year’s Day gift to myself.  I resolve to hike more beautiful canyons.  Done.

Despite the prosaic name, Burro Wash has a beautiful narrows section.  Made all the more interesting by the snow.

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Burro Wash

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January 2000.  This time with Monique, someone I had been madly, desperately in love with, since meeting her in North Carolina.  We met up regularly for outdoor adventures, but alas we were doomed.  I would never move back east, she would never move west.  But in the meantime, it was love in the desert (and Yellowstone, and Colorado, and…).


We intend to do Upper Muley Twist Canyon.  The other half that I never got to explore.  It’s snowing as we drive down the Notom-Bullfrog road to the Burr Trail.  My car gets halfway up the switchbacks of the Burr Trail, but no further.  We leave it, throw on the backpacks, and hike up.  COLD and WINDY.  With much more snow than expected.  Monique is not happy.  One night out, just a short way in.  Beautiful.  Arches.  Snow.  Monique.  I’m happy.

We cut our planned 3 nights to just one.  As a compromise, we car camp lower down, out of the wind.  Hike Cottonwood Wash, another narrows section.

We then head off to a motel before continuing our journey to Arches and Canyonlands.  But that’s a different story.

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Camped at the top of the fold, just a short way into Upper Muley Twist Canyon.

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Navigating Cottonwood Wash

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March 2001.  Pleasant Creek.  Who could resist a name like that?  And it is indeed pleasant.  A short canyon that cuts through the Fold.  Cream colored navajo sandstone.  Windy, with a pretty little creek.  

Two nights.  Because the canyon is just a few short miles, I have plenty of time to explore every side canyon and crevice.  And even better, to explore the top of the fold.  Night one, I experiment with a tarp shelter.  Night two, I sleep on the tarp, enjoying the view from the top of the fold.

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Capitol Reef. Perfect weather. Sleeping under the stars. A good book. Life is good.

Leaving Pleasant Creek, I drive a short distance to Muley Twist.  Time for another go at the upper canyon.

Yes, it is magnificent.  I lose count at the number of arches at 15.  Up the canyon via the top of the fold, with views into the canyon and of the surrounding country.  Down the canyon via the bottom, enjoying every twist and turn.  Fantastic narrows sections. 

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Two nights.  Could have happily been two more.

I head north.  One more destination before returning home.  Sulphur Creek.  I have wanted to do this hike on other trips, but I was never there at the right time of year.   The entire hike involves wading the creek.  Nothing technical, but warm weather is a necessity.

It was worth the wait.  Small waterfalls.  Clear water.  Spectacular cliffs.  A great day hike.  One that I repeat a couple more times over the next few years.

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The best place in the world?  For a long time, I thought so.  My worldview has expanded, but Capitol Reef is still my favorite area of southern Utah.

More to come.