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Hiking Sheets Gulch in Capitol Reef
Some time in the far distant past, the earth in the Capitol Reef area underwent tremendous horizontal compression. Unbelievable forces pushed thousands of feet of solid rock laterally until it bent back upon itself in a tremendous fold. The folded layers of rock, tilted up as steeply as 45 degrees, formed an impenetrable reef almost 80 miles long, before the compressional forces subsided.
Antecedent streams cut through and across the rising beds of rock, carving a series of labyrinthine canyons almost a thousand feet deep and, in places, less than two feet wide.
These contorted layers of rock now form the southern portion of Capitol Reef National Park and the deep, narrow canyons, cutting across the folded rocks, provide some of the best and most spectacular slot canyon hikes found anywhere in the world.
As a hiker enters one of these canyons he is swept into a new world, a parallel universe where the super-natural forces of nature rule and man is nothing more than a passing nuisance, an ephemeral being who knows he can visit, but never say long; and who knows each visit must be carefully planned and executed or he will be violently removed from this new world and that his tattered and torn remains may never be recovered.
In this world there is no room for error, no room for foolish self aggrandizement and no second chance.
When it rains over the slick rock the water is quickly funneled into the narrow-walled canyons and the resulting flash flood, a wall of water as deep as 10 to 15 feet in the narrows sections, carries in its grasp full grown pine trees and massive boulders, as large as small cars. This grist mill of grinding, smashing and scouring debris is flung headlong down the canyon until it is caught in a constriction where it is pounded tightly into the canyon walls, forming a great waterfall.
After the flash flood subsides the waterfall becomes a rock jam that plugs up the canyon and makes passage difficult. Working ones way over, under or around these obstacles is one of the major challenges of slot canyon hiking.
So, where does one go to learn about hiking in the slot canyons? The only place to really learn about hiking slot canyons is in a slot canyon. And one of the best to start with is Sheets Gulch. Sheets Gulch has miles and miles of narrows, rock jams that are fairly easy to get over and very little water. It's a canyon where you can hike in a mile or two, or spend a whole day hiking from one end to the other (9 miles one way).
The canyon is breath-takingly beautiful. The canyon walls rise for almost a thousand feet above your head and around each bend are surprises. Deep within the canyon are a whole series of right angle bends that will twist you around until you'll wonder which direction you are walking. Round another bend and you'll walk into a forest of giant pine trees. Around the next bend you'll be back in the desert.
You'll stumble across the remains of an old sheep herders camp, frozen in time. The ax is still leaning against the side of the wagon. The fruit jars, still full of fruit, litter the area. The camp is so old that the jar lids have rusted through and the fruit has shriveled and dried up in the bottles. Who ever canned the peaches placed them in the bottles whole, pits and all.
Open the door to the shelf in the old wagon and you'll see several rolls of toilet paper that the weather has gotten to. Now the rolls are about a third their original size and as hard as rocks.
The bottles are so old and have been in the sun so long they are beginning to color and the old cook stove has definitely seen better days.
The wagon stands as a reminder of a solitary life style, a rugged and lonely life in one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.
As you hike through Sheets Gulch, look for the huge pine logs wedged into the canyon walls far above your head and try to imagine the huge volume of water necessary to place the trees in such a lofty perch.
Watch the floor of the wash for petrified logs, rolled for miles down the narrow canyon yet beautifully preserved. Some of the logs have een heavily mineralized with pyrite and possibly silver and gold.
Look for the trace fossils in the sandstone. We found one particularly well preserved fossil, almost three feet long, that could be the fossilized burrow of an animal that lived some 200 million years ago.
The Fremont Indians lived in and around these slot canyons so keep your eyes open for artifacts and other signs that they spent time in the canyon.
And, of course, bring your camera. Sheets Gulch is a photographers dream. Bring fairly fast film (either 200 or 400 ISO) and a wide angle lens so you can capture the breadth and depth of the canyon. The fast film is necessary because it is fairly dark in the narrows portions of the canyon even during the middle of the day.
To get to Sheets Gulch drive down the Notom to Bullfrog Road for about 13 miles. Drive down the wash (west) as far as you dare and then begin your hike. If you don't want to make a round trip hike you can begin hiking from the Notom to Bullfrog road and get picked up on the Tantalus Flats road on the other side of the canyon. (For details see the accompanying map)
Take a small day pack with your lunch and lots of water. You won't find much water in the canyon and if you do, you won't want to drink it. Make sure you have a good first aid kit and never hike alone.
Remember that group size is limited to a maximum of 15 people and if you plan to camp over-night you will need to get a camping permit from the visitors center before you begin your hike. The permits are free.
Fires are prohibited in the park so bring a backpacking stove if you plan to cook anything. I suggest you pack light and don't bring anything that needs to be cooked.
Finding a secluded spot to use the restroom can be a problem in the slot canyon. Be sure to use the restroom above the high water mark and away from the trail. Bury feces in a small hole 4 to 6 inches deep. Toilet paper must be carefully burned or carried out. Used toilet paper blowing around in the slot canyon can ruin the next hikers trip. The tissue simply doesn't decompose in the dry environment so please take care of it properly. The only thing you should leave in the canyon is your foot prints.