Crazed Winter Trek Through Capitol Reef

Capitol reef is magical to me.

I know. Yeah, I say that about near every spot I've been to in the outdoors-I just love being out in the rocks and the trees, and it hardly matters where. But who can descend the Burr Trail into the jagged teeth of the Waterpocket Fold and not feel some kind of seduction? I'm as human as the next guy. When I think about looking down that row of slot canyons and slick rock monoliths, all lined up from Cathedral Valley down to Lake Powell, I will admit to feeling a little love-struck.

I have been to Capitol Reef a few times over the years-and as I would bet is true with the majority of you out there, the reef tends to take a backseat to Arches, Zion, and Bryce. Between work, family, and even the drive time, I just don't get down there that much.

Throughout 2008, I've wanted to take a hike in Capitol Reef, to get back to the Fold and remember what I've been missing. But my trip kept getting delayed; we were remodeling our newly purchased house before we could move in, I was dealing with a hard semester of college and working full time, and it has been a busy year as far as weddings, family visits, and vacations that I owed my wife (going places other than my beloved Southern Utah desert).

This last weekend, the first weekend of the new year, I decided that it was time to go, rain or shine. I had the time, I had the opportunity. So I convinced my wife to drive all the way down to Boulder with me so that we could tour the Waterpocket Fold. My goal was to hike to Brimhall Bridge and maybe sample Lower Muley Twist.

I knew that it would be a long shot-it is winter after all, and this season seems to have hit Southern Utah as hard as it did the north. Still, I expected that the Reef would have a scattered dusting of snow to go along with chilly temperatures, but nothing too difficult to overcome. Either way, I was determined to go, whether or not I'd make the hikes.

In all fairness, I suppose that I ought to explain my flawed plan to you readers. When I invited my wife, I had a short, scarcely planned foray in mind, more of a spur-of-the-moment trip to escape the insanity of normal life. I had no intentions of finding a motel or a campsite, of making sure before I went down there that roads were open, trails cleared, and lodging was available. This trip was partially needed to escape that kind of ordered, safe, habitual thinking, and get back to some carefree adventure.

My wife doesn't really go for that kind of stuff, especially when travel is involved. We had to do some planning in order to make sure that we had a sitter for our two-year old. Other than that, I just wanted to grab some water, our coats, and maybe something to eat on the way down, and then hit the road.

Maybe I can use that as an excuse as to why I failed to take seriously my wife's demands. Her only condition for going on the trip were that we spent the night somewhere with toilets and running water. I figured we would find something, and didn't give it another thought.

Now, those of you that have driven through Boulder or Torrey in the middle of the winter are probably smiling right now-both of those towns more or less shut down in the off-season. Stores close, residents hibernate, and we made it even worse by getting in to Boulder well after dark. I'd never been to the area in the Winter before, and was pretty surprised by the desolation. There were rooms that we could have rented if we'd have wanted, but they were more expensive than our post-holiday budgeting could afford.

So we slept in our car in a parking lot, much to the annoyance of my wife. It will suffice to say that there was nothing in the way of running water or toilets where we slept, and that she was not the happiest camper that I have had the pleasure of spending the night with.

In the morning, we hit the Burr Trail in our little Honda Civic, an eleven-year old four-banger that has a hard time even on the smooth hills of I-15. Now we were driving around on the ice-covered surface of the Burr Trail, amazed at the snow around us. The Grand Staircase was as white as Park City; the scenery around the Burr Trail could have passed for the snow-entombed heights of Highway 12, were it not for the shapes of the sandstone underneath the ice-crusted drifts. The snow in the road had been hard-packed by quite a bit of travel though, enough so that I thought we might still manage to get our car through a few miles or so. My plan was to just turn around and drive up through Torrey to the main park entrance if the Burr Trail became impassable to us.

Amazingly, as we drove farther east, dropping ever lower in elevation, we found deeper and deeper snow. The road itself was still pretty smooth though, even as we reached the end of the paved section at the entrance to Capitol Reef. So we kept going, coasting along carefully, ready to turn around when we couldn't go any farther.

I stopped us dozens of times along the Burr Trail in order to take pictures. The scenery was spectacular. It is hard to shoot a bad photo when red rock is your subject, but the current landscape was even more phenomenal, and strangely exotic even to me. Sandstone ridges rose out of mounds and hills of snow; white, sculpted drifts took shapes as fanciful and wind-inspired as any hoodoo or arch.

We made it all the way to the switchbacks, which was honestly a lot farther than my dubious nature figured we would make it. Down the switchbacks we started, cautious and slow on the hard ice, and even slower when I would stop for a photo every dozen yards. Going down the Burr Trail switchbacks and into the Waterpocket Fold was easy; we made it just fine. So long as we drove slowly down the steep, ice-covered road, neither accelerating or decelerating quickly, our tires did not slide. We made it all the way down without any anxiety, and turned south onto the Notom-Bullfrog Road, looking for the Brimhall Bridge trailhead 12 miles down the road.

The Notom-Bullfrog Road eventually crosses a deep, wide wash, and has signs warning of high waters and fast currents. Obviously, in the first week of January, we weren't so worried about water in its fluid form, but not too long after we had passed the wash and came out on the south side, we found our road impassable. Apparently, those vehicles that had gone ahead of us, packing the snow as they did, never went any farther than mile 10 on the Notom-Bullfrog Road. We were almost to the Brimhall trailhead when we had to turn around in order to prevent getting high-centered in the fresh, unpacked snow on the road.

So, we turned back, and drove back toward the Burr Trail, stopping at Surprise Canyon, another, shorter hike just 2 miles south of the turnoff. There, we ditched the car at the trailhead and started the long walk through the snowfields toward the mouth of the canyon.

Surprise Canyon is regularly a fairly simple hike. The route is easy and mostly level. When you throw a minimum of eight inches of snow into the equation though, the hiking becomes a little harder. You have to high-step in order to walk, and your movements are exaggerated and tedious. The wind was another issue, especially as it whipped frosty air into our collars and hoods.

Still though, it wasn't difficult-just a little more difficult than it would have been. Crossing Halls Creek wasn't too hard; there was no water in the bottom except for the drifted snow, though the banks were steep and the mud still soft.

When we reached the mouth of the canyon in decent time, and plunged on in. Surprise Canyon starts out pretty wide, with fairly sloped walls. In fact, in warmer, drier weather, it would be fun to spend a few hours just scrambling along the rocks of the canyon. Now though, it was a little chilly, and the slick rock was all blanketed in snow.

Snow drifts were deeper in the canyon than they were out on the fields; all of the windblown snow gets trapped into the canyon and funneled down to the bottom, where it accumulates in deep, heavy drifts. Some of the drifts had been so condensed that we barely left footprints in them as we walked. Others were booby traps awaiting our unsuspecting approach. I plunged thigh-high into a few of the snow drifts, attempting to clamber over a boulder or rock pile.

You have to be careful when you are climbing around piles of loose stone that are covered by thick snow. It is easy to mistake an ice crust over a hole as solid footing, or to trust all of your weight to a large rock that looks stable and is really precariously balanced and hidden by the snow.

We took our time hiking up the trail, examining the rocks, taking pictures, admiring the sky as it went through changes from dark, melancholy gray, to bright, sunny blue, and then back to gray again.

The wind died to a barely noticeable whisper as the canyon walls closed in around us. We took our time, and when we finally reached the abrupt, traditional end of the canyon (the only reason for calling it Surprise Canyon that I can think of), we stopped and played for a while. I climbed up above the obstacle at its end, finding even deeper snow drifts wedged into the widening sandstone alleys ahead. Surprise Canyon actually extends further back than the pour-off, but it is generally a less impressive hike after that point.

When it finally came time to leave, we hiked out and then drove back toward the switchbacks again, this time intending to go up. Those switchbacks are very steep, and with the amount of ice sticking to the road, I had underestimated how hard it would be to get back up. Getting down had been too easy; I hadn't slid or fishtailed at all. Now, my little Honda was having a very hard time with the road. In order to make it up an icy, steep hill, you need speed and momentum. In order to safely turn a tight corner on a steep switchback, you need caution and very little speed. In order to manage the Burr Trail switchbacks in the snow and ice, we needed both at the same time.

We made it, but there were three different times that my car lost momentum coming around a curve, and we were forced to slowly back down the road until we came to a level enough spot that we could accelerate back up to speed and attempt the turn again.

Most people aren't dumb enough to try the Burr Trail in the Winter in a small car; I happen to be one of the other kind. My wife happens to be the trusting kind, though I think I might be training her out of that character flaw. Whatever the case, I thoroughly enjoyed our trip, and was well impressed with my little car's ability to survive that kind of abuse.

Surprise Canyon is an easy hike, though it might be classified as medium strenuous if you are hiking through heavy snow. It is in the middle of nowhere (we saw only two other vehicles the between Boulder and Surprise Canyon and back), and during the Summer, can be scorchingly-and dangerously-hot. The juxtaposition with a frostbitten, snow-covered Winter was truly remarkable, and worth the drive down.

As always though, we found ourselves with far less time than we would have liked, and were back on the road toward I-15 much sooner than we wished.