THE DESERT WINS AGAIN

 

 

I traveled to Utah again for business last week, and it probably goes without saying that I didnít pass up on the opportunity to explore more of the canyon country.Several years earlier, Christy and had visited the southeast part of the state, dayhiking in Arches National Park, backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, exploring ancient Anasazi ruins on the Cedar Mesa, and hiking the narrows of Little Wild Horse Canyon.Last fall I visited the southwest part of Utah, dayhiking in Zion and Bryce National Parks as well as the Grand Staircase / Escalante National Monument.Both of those trips had managed to miss Capitol Reef National Park, in the south central part of the state.This weekend, I set out to correct that oversight.

 

I caught an early flight, and arrived in Salt Lake City just after 10AM.Thrifty gave me a free, and unexpected, upgrade, and I drove out of town in 4WD Suzuki SUV.It wouldnít have been my first choice of vehicles, but I knew that southern Utah is full of backcountry roads only accessible to 4WD vehicles.As I made brief stops at REI for stove fuel and Super Target for groceries, the wheels in my head began to spin.Should I change my plans?Currently I was planning on camping at the primitive (and free) Cedar Mesa campground, in the southeast part of the park.That location would be convenient for Saturdayís hike through Lower Muley Twist Canyon.On Sunday Iíd return to the civilized part of the park near the visitorís center and hike to the summit of Navajo Knob.Would I have time to work in a backcountry drive of Cathedral Valley?

 

In the end, I had to change plans, but it wasnít what Iíd had in mind.The drive south was spectacular, as I passed range after range of snow-covered mountains.The roadside scenery was great, despite overcast skies and fresh snow falling in the higher elevations.I reached the visitorís center at 4pm, and immediately found out that all of the parkís back roads were a mess.Late winter had been unusually wet, and the 4WD road through Cathedral Valley was virtually impassable.Even the normally good dirt road down to Cedar Mesa required 4WD and wasnít recommended.To make matters worse, the forecast called for rain on Saturday.Rain in the desert?It seemed dubious, but hiking a narrow canyon like Lower Muley Twist with storms threatening is a very bad idea.Even an isolated storm can cause a flash flood.Being in the wrong canyon and the wrong time can easily be fatal.Being caught in a flash flood in a narrow canyon has been compared to being in a giant washing machine with dozens of boulders.It isnít pretty.

 

Since the Muley Twist Canyon was out of the question, I decided to change plans.I considered doing that hike on Sunday, but itís a 15 mile loop.With the rough road, it would be a long drive to the trailhead and back.I was afraid I wouldnít have time for it.Plus, I wanted to climb Navajo Knob in good weather.I decided to stay at the developed campground near the visitorís center.Iíd do a series of short hikes on Saturday, regardless of the weather.Sunday was expected to be nice, so Iíd save Navajo Knob for that day.

 

The campground was about half-full.I set up camp, and debated what to do with the hour and a half of daylight remaining.I decided to hike the Fremont River Trail, which sounded like a nice place to stretch my legs after a long day in planes and cars.

 

This impression was partially correct.I started the hike along a pleasant path next to the river.The Fremont River would be considered a creek, even by the standards of the North Carolina mountains.But in the desert of southern Utah, practically any stream that always has water in it is considered a river.When I was there it had a lot of water in it.The recent wet weather, combined with snow melting up in the mountains, resulted in a muddy torrent rushing down through the gorge.The Fremont River starts in the mountains near the town of Torrey, before racing through a deep canyon.It emerges briefly near the former Mormon settlement of Fruita, passing the campground and visitorís center before cutting a canyon directly through the cliffs Capitol Reef National Park is named for.

 

I followed the muddy torrent upstream, passing through the famous Fruita orchards.The fruit orchards are probably a more impressive site in the warmer months.When I was there, they still lacked any hint of spring greenery.The orchards did offer an impressive quantity of mule deer though.There were probably close to 50 mule deer browsing in the orchard, which is clearly a record for the most mule deer Iíve ever seen in one place.

 

I left the orchards, and ultimately the river, behind.Despite its name, the trail climbs abruptly away from the river about Ĺ mile from the campground.The steady climb leads to the top of a ridge, which provides a nice overview of Capitol Reef and the surrounding mountains.The view wouldíve been nicer in clearer weather, but most of the clouds were high, so the vista wasnít completely obstructed.It was breezy and chilly up there, so I didnít linger long.I returned to camp, made a spaghetti dinner, and relaxed by the campfire.

 

The couple at the next campsite also seemed to be enjoying their camping experience.Judging from the smells drifting over from that direction, Iíd guess that they were enjoying some Capitol Reefer.The next morning, it sounded like they were enjoying each other.In fact, Iíd speculate that most of the campground knew they were enjoying each other that morning.Well, I was just happy they were having a good time in one of our national parks.

 

I woke to more cloudy skies.I didnít have a big agenda because of the weather, but I ended up finding plenty to do.I started with egg and bacon pita sandwiches.Then I drove Ĺ mile down the road to begin my first hike.Canyon hikes were pretty much out of the question, and the iffy weather made higher elevation hikes unappealing, too.I opted for an in-between choice with a hike to a viewpoint of the Fremont River Gorge.

 

This trail climbs away from the road on the opposite side of the river from the campground.After 15 minutes of climbing, I reached the pleasant meadows of Johnson Mesa.The mesa is almost completely open, with the exception of the occasional juniper.The open terrain allowed uninterrupted views, which were still pretty nice despite the clouds.The mesa was also alive with wildlife.At one point I startled a jackrabbit, and dozens of pretty blue birds flittered between junipers.

 

The easy stroll ended with one final climb.After 15 minutes of steady uphill hiking, I reached the top of the ridge.Before me was the narrow mouth of the Fremont River Canyon.The Canyon is almost 1000í deep, and the view was quite impressive.In the distance, the snow-covered crest of Boulder Mountain and the Aquarius Plateau were visible.I enjoyed the view for awhile before heading back down.I reached the car around 11:30, having completed the 4 Ĺ mile hike in a little over 2 hours.I hadnít seen another person on the hike.When I reached the car, I noticed a few raindrops on the windshield.Now where did those come from?Everyone knows it doesnít rain the desert.

 

I wasnít ready for lunch yet, so I decided to take a scenic drive.The parkís official ďscenic driveĒ starts just beyond the campground and runs parallel to the reef heading south.Most of the road is paved, except for three side roads that visit Grand Wash, Capitol Gorge, and Pleasant Creek.The road is the only part of the park that isnít free.The normal charge is $5 per car, but I have a national parks pass, so there was no cost for me.I headed down the road, enjoying the dramatic cliffs of the reef off to my left.I continued to the end of the road, where I had a choice.I could go left, into Capitol Gorge, right down to Pleasant Creek, or back the way I came.I decided to check out Pleasant Creek.

 

I headed down a well-graded dirt road, passing what appeared to be an old ranch.After a few miles I reached the creek.The road fords the creek and continues on, but 4WD is necessary.I thought about trying out the SUVís 4WD capability, but decided against it.I still wanted to do some more hiking.

 

I returned to the entrance to Capitol Gorge and parked at a small picnic area.The sun had finally made an appearance, and I decided to have lunch there.It seemed like a nice place, but I didnít realize how windy it would be.I ate quickly in the gusty wind before returning to the car.I had another decision to make.Should I enter Capitol Gorge?A dirt road continues part of the way into the gorge, which cuts directly through the reef.The road used to run all the way through to the other side, but it now ends about halfway through at a trailhead.The road follows the bottom of a dry wash, which would not be a good place for a drive in the event of a flash flood.The sun was out now, but dark clouds still obscured the mountains to the west.It was the sort of sky that would send a person running for cover back in North Carolina.Clearly a storm could hit at any moment.On the other hand, a brief visit wouldnít be much of a risk, and this was the desert of southern Utah.I decided to have a quick look around.

 

I drove down the canyon.Sheer walls rise above the wash on each side, preventing any escape in the event of a flood.I passed a few muddy spots that suggested that water was flowing through the gorge recently.This made me a little nervous.The farther I drove, the more committed I was.Finally the road ended at a parking area which is strategically located on a bench above the bottom of the wash.The parking area seemed safe, so at least a flood would mean only being stranded, rather than being washed away.So, I parked and went for a walk.

 

I hiked a short distance down the canyon.The sun was still out, and a short, easy walk leads to some interesting features.The first are some petroglyphs carved into the canyon wall.These were interesting, though not as impressive as some Iíve seen in Utah.A short distance beyond I found the pioneer register Ė the names of pioneers carved into the wall over 100 years ago.This was also interesting, but it raises a question:At what point does graffiti become historically significant?

 

More clouds rolled in, and I decided that I was definitely pushing my luck.I hurried back to the car, and drove out of the canyon.When I returned to the paved road, the sun reappeared.If anything, conditions appeared to be improving, though the mountains to the west were still getting rain, or more likely snow.

 

I had decided to visit Cassidy Arch on my final hike of the day.The Arch can be reached by a fairly short hike from Grand Wash, or a longer one from the campground.It was already 2pm. So I decided to check out Grand Wash.If the weather didnít turn and the parking seemed safe, Iíd start there.

 

The drive through Grand Wash crosses the dry streambed frequently, but doesnít follow it like the road through Capitol Gorge.This seemed safer.Plus, the gorge isnít quite as narrow.I reached the end of the road at another safe parking area on a bench.There were a few cars here, and the sun was shining brightly.I gathered my gear and began the hike.

 

I walked down the wash a short distance before turning off onto the Cassidy Arch Trail.The trail climbs quickly at first before settling into a steady climb.After about a mile, I reached an overlook with a distant view of the arch.Although I wasnít very close, it would be the best view of the arch that I would get.I didnít know it, but there were still other views to come.

 

I continued to a junction with the Fryingpan Trail but continued on.I crossed some slickrock, and soon was walking just above the arch.The trail ends on top of a massive cliff, where there is a fine view of Grand Wash, the scenic drive, and snowy Boulder Mountain to the west.To the south are more cliffs and peaks, including the spire of Fernís Nipple.I had a break at the overlook, before hiking down to explore the arch.

 

I crossed more slickrock, and found myself on a perch just above and behind the arch.I had a close-up view of it from here, though from this angle it looked completely different than it does from in front.I explored around the arch for awhile, even using the arch like a bridge to cross from one cliff top to another.A few minutes later, a family arrived.They were the first people Iíd seen on either hike.I was mildly amused listening to the father patiently explaining to his young sons why it wasnít ok to through rocks off the cliff.Iím not sure they totally grasped the concept, but at least he was making an effort.

 

I returned to the Fryingpan Trail junction, and decided to extend the hike.I continued uphill on the new trail, hiking for almost another mile.Eventually I reached an unnamed pass marking the divide between Grand Wash and the Fremont River.At the pass I had my first view to the north, along the top of the reef.The view of cliffs, peaks, and domes was impressive, and made for a fitting conclusion to the hike.

 

I headed down quickly, and reached Grand Wash an hour or so before dark.Briefly I debated hiking down the wash to the Narrows, but I knew that would add almost 2 miles to the hike.I had already covered over 10 miles that day, so I decided to save it for another time.I headed back to camp, where I had a repeat of Fridayís dinner.I managed a campfire, although the windy conditions made it challenging.That night before bed, I noticed a sky full of stars overhead.The clouds had finally cleared out.Through all of that threatening weather, it had never rained.I shouldnít have been surprised, after all, it never rains in the desert!

 

 

RED, WHITE, AND BLUE

 

 

I was up early the next morning, despite loosing an hour of sleep to daylight savings time.I had a repeat of Saturdayís breakfast.I broke camp, and headed down the road to the Hickman Bridge trailhead.Crisp blue skies promised great scenery, and I was ready to get on the trail.

 

There were two cars at the trailhead, which was surprising since the short hike to Hickman Natural Bridge is one of the most popular in the park.Originally I had planned to hike to Navajo Knob first and stop at the bridge on the return.I decided it would probably be crowded there that afternoon though, so I switched my route.

 

I hiked downstream along the Fremont River before climbing out of the valley.After a short distance I reached a junction, and went left towards the natural bridge.I descended into another dry wash and hiked upstream past a miniature natural bridge.A few minutes later I reached a junction.I went right, and was greeted with my first view of the bridge.I didnít have high expectations for it at the beginning of the hike, and that was a mistake.Hickman Natural Bridge is quite impressive.It may not rank up there with Rainbow Bridge, but Hickman bridge is certainly an attraction in itself.

 

I followed the trail under the bridge and explored it from every angle.I then continued on the loop portion of the trail, which continues below the bridge and around the ridge.I rejoined the main trail, and began to pass several groups of people heading that way.My timing had been good.The crowds were increasing just as I was leaving.I reached the junction with the Navajo Knob Trail, and truly started on the path less traveled.

 

I climbed, then descended into the same wash, before climbing again.This is a pattern that would repeat itself frequently throughout the hike.I climbed to an overlook, where I had another, more distant view of the bridge.After that the trail climbed away from it, passing among sheer cliff walls and interesting rock formations.A long climb on slickrock led to even better views.Looking back, I could see many impressive peaks on the reef, including the spire of Pectolís Pyramid.In the distance beyond, the snowy peaks of the Henry mountains rose above the red rock expanse of Capitol Reef.

 

The climb ended on a 1000í cliff with a dramatic view.Aside from the great scenery behind me, I had a great look at the country ahead.I was perched on the rim of the reef, almost directly above the visitorís center 1000í below.Beyond the visitorís center, I could trace the deep twisting canyons of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek.Beyond them rose the snowy peaks of Boulder Mountain and the Aquarius Plateau.

 

I had a mid-day snack before resuming the hike.I followed the brink of the cliff, which offered plenty of excitement.A sheer 1000í drop kept me alert as I continued upward.The climb was occasionally interrupted by brief descents into side canyons.These diversions were a bit tedious, and they added significantly to the total elevation gain for the hike.

 

An hour or so later, I climbed out of the last side canyon and began the final push to the summit.As I climbed, I wasnít certain which peak I was heading for.My destination became clear as I circled one of several knobs.Once around the back, I scrambled up a steep boulder slope to the pinnacle.At the top, I was greeted with one of the most spectacular views Iíve ever seen.Brilliant red rock formations stretched off in every direction, and the entire scene was surrounded by no less than six snow-covered mountain ranges.Three ranges were visible to the west and northwest, including Boulder Mountain.To the southeast, the mighty Henry mountains towered over beyond the Waterpocket Fold.Beyond the Henryís, the Abajo Mountains and the La Sal Mountains stretched along Utahís eastern border.To the north, the deep cleft of Spring Canyon sliced through a pristine stretch of red rock.

 

I had lunch at 1:30 on the summit.Amazingly, I had the peak all to myself.It was getting late, and I had a long drive back to Salt Lake City.Initially I planned to head down no later than 2.2 came and went, as did 2:15.The summit of Navajo Knob was so spectacular, I couldnít leave.I finally made myself leave at 2:30.The hike down was rapid, but delightful.For much of the time, I was walking directly toward the Waterpocket Fold and the Henry Mountains.I wouldíve been quite happy to continue on, through the Reef, across the desert, and into the mountains.The Henry Mountains were the last mountain range to be mapped in the contiguous United States.Today the Henryís are home to one of the largest wild Bison herds in the world.

 

Unfortunately, I didnít have several free days to complete such a trek.Instead I hurried down to the trailhead.Shortly before the junction with the trail to Hickman Natural Bridge, I passed a father and son heading down.They were the first people Iíd seen on the Navajo Knob Trail.How can that be?The trail to Navajo Knob is one of the most spectacular hikes in Utah, and it was a lovely spring day.It was a Sunday in a National Park, and nobody else was around.The Navajo Knob trail offers the perfect combination of solitude and stunning scenery.In general, Capitol Reef National Park seemed uncrowded, at least compared to some other parks in Utah, like Zion and Arches.This is probably because Capitol Reef is off the beaten path of the international tourists.I imagine that the people you do see there are more likely to be from Provo than Tokyo.This is quite a refreshing change from some places, like Bryce.

 

I reached the car shortly after 4pm.From there I headed west, out of the park.Before I left, I made a brief stop at the Goosenecks Overlook.From the parking area, I followed a short path to a view of Sulphur Creek Canyon.From the overlook, the creek can be seen twisting through a narrow canyon nearly 1000í below.

 

After enjoying that view, I did a brief hike to Sunset Point.It wasnít sunset, but the view from the end of the trail was pleasant.I returned to the car, and headed west and north.On the return to Salt Lake City, I took a different route.From Loa, I headed north on route 72, over the mountain.At the top of the pass, I found lingering snow.Just beyond is an overlook, where I pulled off to appreciate one final, distant view of Capitol Reef National Park.My visit was brief though, as it was pretty chilly standing there in the snow.

 

The rest of the drive on route 72 was scenic, but slow.Route 72 is a winding mountain road, and it was a relief when I finally reached I-70.The drive from there was easy, and I made it back to Salt Lake City in time for a (very) late dinner.Hopefully work will send me to Utah again in the near future.If it does, Iíll have a tough time deciding where to go.Iíd like to return to explore more of Capitol Reef National Park, but the Grand Staircase / Escalante National Monument and the Paria River also beckon.





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