Fantastic Slot Canyons:
Hiking Burrow & Cottonwood
By Sam Webb
Desert, slick rock, river bottoms, pastures, orchards, mottled clay,
dense sandstone, arches, pot holes and bath tubs, Indian artifacts, skunks,
mountain lions, deer, ripple marks, thunderstorms and flash floods, domes
and castles... the list goes on and on. It's impossible to describe Capitol
Reef National Park.
I have spent weeks and weeks camped out in the park, exploring this amazing
place and I have just begun to appreciate this unique treasure we have
in our own backyard.
Some years ago I spent a wonderful night camped out in the campground
at Fruita with about 30 other students. It was summer and we slept on
the lawn in our sleeping bags.
I woke with a start in the middle of the night. The moon was full and
I could see two animals moving about the sleeping students. As they came
out of the shadows and into the moonlight I immediately recognized them
as skunks big skunks. And they were not afraid. I watched with
amazement as the two skunks went from backpack to backpack searching for
any food the careless campers had left out.
The skunks were so bold that several times they actually walked over
the top of sleeping students.
Fortunately, none of the students startled the skunks and after an hour
or so they wandered off looking for easier pickings.
This last trip (November 7th) I noticed two big bucks feeding in one
of the orchards near Fruita. I stopped the car thinking I might be able
to get a picture before they ran. I sneaked around the car and took a
couple of photos. The deer continued grazing. I whistled, thinking that
would cause the deer to look up so I could get a better shot. They ignored
me. I sneaked down into the orchard and eventually made my way to within
about 10 feet of the largest buck, a five point. It didn't seem to care
that I was there and just kept on grazing.
It's fairly dangerous to get that close to an animal with that many sharp
points but it was quite a thrill.
To describe the two hikes I just completed is just as impossible as describing
the, park. Unless you have actually hiked through slot canyons you have
a hard time visualizing just how amazing these adventures are.
Photographs are completely inadequate when you are standing in the middle
of a slot three or four feet wide, red and white sandstone walls rising
up above you two or three hundred feet, a pool of gray/green water stretching
out in front of you and you notice cougar tracks next to a the pool. A
photograph simply can't capture the feeling of awe, the emotion or the
sense of oneness with nature that comes over you.
A photograph can't tell the whole story either. In this case the cougar
tracks were in Cottonwood Wash. The story was pretty easy to read. The
cougar was coming down the canyon, jumped off a small ledge above a pool
of water and landed on a mud bank directly above the pool. Unfortunately
the cougar lost its footing in the slick mud, slid down the bank and landed
in the water. The claw marks the cougar made in the mud were several feet
long as the big cat tried unsuccessfully to regain control.
The tracks reappear at the far end of the pool where the cougar made
its less than graceful exit.
When you go to Capitol Reef, it's ok to do the regular tourist things.
Drive the scenic loop. Hike to Hickman Bridge. Study the petroglyphs and
visit the old school house. Enjoy the orchards around the old town of
Fruita. That's OK. But if you don't take time to get into the back country,
to drive the Notom to Bullfrog Road and to hike the canyons, you will
never truly see Capital Reef.
If you haven't taken time to explore Capitol Reef, it's time you did.
Drive down the Notom to Bullfrog road past the town of Notom (a couple
of trailers and some hay fields). Travel for about 7 miles and you will
come to a small sign identifying the wash.
Where the road crosses the wash, the wash doesn't look like much. It's
pretty well typical of a thousand other southern Utah washes.
Park where the road crosses the wash and begin your hike. Some people
in 4x4's have driven up the wash for some distance. We don't recommend
this. The hike isn't so long that you need to drive up the wash and you
will have a better feel for the changing environment and rock formations
if you begin your hike from the edge of the road.
This hike is perfect for the beginner, for children or for out-of-shape
hikers. Yet, it is so spectacular that even seasoned hikers will be glad
they took the time to explore this canyon.
This is an ideal day hike. Load your lunch into a small day pack, along
with plenty of water, and you are ready to go. Start the hike fairly early
and plan to be out before dark. Taking a big backpack into the canyon
probably isn't a good idea because of the narrows. There are places where
you will have to go through the slot sideways and with a pack on you simply
won't be able to go through.
Any good pair of walking, hiking or cross-trainers will work well in
the shoe department.
The main rules are simple:
Take plenty of water and food (almost all the pot holes and bath tubs
are full of water but let me tell you, I'd have to be pretty thirsty before
I would drink it) and never hike alone. If an accident occurs you will
need all the help possible to get out of the canyon. If you are hiking
by yourself you could be in a lot of trouble.
Follow the main wash. Don't be sidetracked by the smaller side washes.
You will be hiking into the Waterpocket Fold, a monocline that runs from
Notom almost all the way to Bullfrog. Once you enter the fold, the beds
of rock will be tilted as steeply as 45 degrees. Keep your eyes open and
you will see some amazing geological features. The first formation you
will be hiking through is called the Carmel. The Carmel Formation was
deposited in the Jurassic time period (during the age of the dinosaurs).
The rocks of the Carmel Formation were deposited in the bottom of a shallow,
very salty sea. As a matter of fact, the sea was so salty that many beds
within the formation are made of gypsum. Gypsum forms as a precipitate
when sea water gets extremely salty.
Gypsum is the stuff that plaster and wall board are made of. There is
a large factory just outside of Sigurd that makes wall board from gypsum
mined from beds similar to these in the Sigurd area.
You will find the gypsum in three main forms. First you will probably
notice it as a clear or white, soft mineral in thin veins (less than an
inch thick) running through the red mud and siltstones. You will also
find gypsum rosettes scattered about at the base of many of the ledges.
These will be pink, flower-like masses of gypsum generally less than two
inches in diameter. The third and most impressive way you will see the
gypsum is in massive beds as much as 10 to 20 feet thick. Here the gypsum
will appear as dirty white, undulating layers between the red silt and
Many times these beds will be disrupted and the gypsum will appear in
lenses and pillars. Gypsum has a peculiar habit of behaving as a plastic
when it is put under tremendous pressure and in the ancient past when
these beds were deeply buried, the pressure was great enough that the
gypsum actually was squeezed and contorted into the shapes you see today.
As you work your way up the wash, through the soft layers of the Carmel
Formation and into the monocline, you will notice the canyon begins to
narrow and that you are standing on a massive layer of very hard sandstone.
This is the top of the Navajo Sandstone.
The Navajo is the sandstone that makes up Zion National Park and is the
prominent rock throughout Capitol Reef.
The very narrow (slot) portion of Burro Nash is found in the Navajo Sandstone.
Because of the unique way the Navajo sands were deposited, they behave
as if they have little or no bedding. However, there are massive cracks
(or joints) that run through the rock. These joints control the development
of the wash and the width of the canyon.
As a matter of fact, there are several places where the canyon makes
a sudden right angle turn. The first time you come to one you will scratch
your head wonder how that happened. Once you realize that two joints at
right angles have intersected each other and that the canyon jumped from
one joint to the other one, the mystery will be solved.
Take your time and enjoy the canyon. On this hike there is no destination.
The hike itself is the attraction. Wonder to yourself how such a place
could form, how many floods it took to cut through the rock and how lucky
you are to see such a place.
You'll find yourself being drawn around each bend, pulled forward by
a hunger to know a little more, to see a little further and to experience
the canyon to its fullest.
Near the back of the most narrow part of the canyon (the walls are less
than two feet apart) there is a large pool of water. At the back of the
pool is a boulder jam about eight or nine feet high.
If you have children with you or if you are out of shape this is the
place to eat lunch and then turn back. The pool of water is cold and deep
and you will be plenty wet by the time you get through it and that's
the easy part. You'll still have to climb over the rock jam.
The best way to do this is to put your back against one wall and your
feet against the other wall and then to worm your way up and over. Slide
your back up the wall then walk your feet up, then slide your back up,
etc. It's harder than it looks.
Beyond the rock jam the canyon opens up again and you can continue your
hike. Remember this though, you will have to come back down everything
you went up.
Drive south from Burro Wash along the Notom to Bullfrog Road another
mile or two and you will come to a sign announcing Cottonwood Wash.
If you are driving a two wheel drive vehicle, turn off the road and park.
If you are in a 4x4, drive up the wash for a mile or so before you begin
your hike. The canyon is further from the road than Burro.
You may say, "Why hike up Cottonwood, it's so close to Burro that you'll
just be seeing the same things over again." Wrong!
Take Burro Wash and add about four or five times as much water and you
have Cottonwood Wash. Everywhere you look in Cottonwood you see evidence
of powerful erosional forces.
When you find the top of the Navajo Sandstone, where it makes up the
floor of the wash, the sandstone is eroded into giant ripples, pools,
chutes and flumes. There are massive boulder beds, logs that have been
tossed about and balanced along the walls, deep pools and rock jams all
created by the tremendous power of the flash floods.
Cottonwood is a much more difficult hike and I would recommend it only
for more experienced hikers. Small children will have an extremely difficult
time in this canyon.
Again, leave the big backpack home. Take your lunch and water in a small
day pack and be sure to throw in a couple of garbage bags or other large
plastic bags. Make sure they don't have any holes. You'll be wading through
several deep pools and if you want to keep your camera, lunch and clothing
dry, you'll need a bag or two.
If you don't like walking around in wet pants, you might even consider
wearing your swimming suit under your clothing.
Almost from the start you will be scrambling over massive rock jams and
dry falls. There are several pools of water that will be up to the arm
pits (at least) on a six foot person. Shorter people will have to swim.
Take it slow and easy and don't push yourself beyond your ability.
You might even want to throw in a short length of rope (about 20 feet).
It will help get you and your party over some of the obstacles.
The worst (or was it the funniest) obstacle we came across was a deep
pool of water in a narrow corridor. The pool was about 20 feet long and
didn't look too bad to me. I waded in and immediately sank up to my waist.
The water was extremely cold and took my breath away. Just as I was gasping
for air and fighting to regain my composure, up through the water came
bubbles of the most noxious smelling swamp gas imaginable. To put it bluntly,
the gas I released from the mud as I blundered into the pool stunk
I backed out of the pool and almost gave up, but I couldn't. The canyon
was calling me on. I just had to see what was around the next bend. I
couldn't quit yet.
I took off my shirt (so at least I would have some dry clothing) and
plunged into the pool. It was so cold it hurt but I hurriedly worked my
way through the water.
Unfortunately, at the back end of the pool is a major rock jam about
nine feet high. I was so cold and stiff by the time I got to the rock
jam that it was all I could do to get up and over it. Boy was that cold.
Early November isn't a good time to spend too long in the water.
Just beyond the water pocket the canyon takes a right angle bend and
opens into a long corridor. At the back of the corridor is another rock
jam that looks impassable at first glance. There simply isn't any way
to get over the top of this one.
After studying it for a minute, I noticed a tunnel between the rocks
that we could squeeze through.
Beyond the massive rock jam the canyon continues on. Around every bend
there is something new, something to pull you forward, to draw you on.
This is a truly amazing hike and without a doubt one of the best hikes
I have ever been on.
What finally stopped us and turned us back was a deep pool of water,
another right angle bend and a narrowing of the slot canyon to less than
two feet wide. We came through a long narrow corridor (walls were about
four feet apart) and into a room. At the back of the room was a deep pool
of water. I had to see how deep so I waded out into it. I found myself
swimming. I couldn't touch bottom.
At the back of the pool a joint cuts across the canyon at almost 90 degrees
and the canyon jumps to that joint. Unfortunately it also narrows until
you would have to work your way through the slot sideways.
The water was way too cold to spend much time in without getting hypothermia.
Before I could have gotten through the slot I would have frozen to death.
Turning back was hard to do. I stood on the edge of the pool for some
time, like a caged animal, trapped by the cold, deep water. Finally, my
better judgement took over and I retreated. However, I vowed that as soon
as the weather warms in the spring, I'll be back. I'm going to swim across
that pool and into the slot. I'm going to work my way through the slot
and out the other side. There is still plenty of Cottonwood Canyon I haven't
seen and before the summer is over, I will have seen it all. In my free
moments and in my dreams, I can hear it calling me back!
Copyright Dave Webb