Hiking Capitol Reef National Park
If you spend any time at all touring Utah's national parks, you quickly discover that you are not alone. Millions and millions of people come from around the world to see the parks. At times the number of tourists speaking German or Japanese far out-number those speaking English. No doubt about it, Utah's national parks have become major tourist attractions.
Still, if a person is willing to get off the beaten trail and away from the typica1 tourist destinations, you can quickly leave the crowds behind. Outlined below are four hikes that will take you away from the crowds, into the heart of Capitol Reef, and into some of the most amazing geologic features found anywhere.
About 8 miles down the Notom to Bullfrog Road look for a small sign where the dirt road crosses Burro Wash. Drive down (upstream) the wash until you come to several large cottonwood trees. Park at the trees and begin your hike. A high clearance two wheel drive or 4x4 is recommended. The wash is extremely sandy and it's easy to get stuck!
Look for massive beds of gypsum near the mouth of the wash — big blobs of soft, crystalline, white rock. This is the stuff they make wallboard (sheetrock) out of.
A short distance up the wash you will find yourself walking on a massive sandstone. This is the top of the Navajo sandstone. It is the prominent rock in the park and forms the cliffs and domes for which the park is famous.
See if you can find the red hand prints (Fremont Indian pictographs) under the ledge on the right hand side of the wash (as you walk upstream).
If you can't get around the water at the end of the first narrow section, climb the slope on your left (as you face upstream) and you will be able to circumvent the water pocket.
Soon you will come to an extremely narrow section where the walls of the canyon are less than two feet wide. At the back of the narrows is a deep pool of water. At the back of the pool is a dry fall. If you want to continue on up the canyon you will have to wade and/or swim through the pool and then climb up and over the dry fall. This is a fairly difficult maneuver and if you don't want to spend the rest of your hike wet, stop here. If you are adventurous, keep going and see what you find.
Plan about half a day if you plan to stop at the narrows section. Plan a full day if you explore the entire canyon.
Travel about one and a half miles past Burro Wash (toward Bullfrog) and you will cross Cottonwood Wash (look for a small sign on the right side of the road and several large cottonwood trees).
Drive up Cottonwood Wash as far as you dare (again a high clearance, two wheel drive or 4x4 is recommended) and park your vehicle.
The beginning of this hike is similar to Burro. Look for massive beds and blobs of gypsum and for the top of the Navajo sandstone. Not far into the canyon this hike becomes quite intense. Don't hike Cottonwood unless you are in excellent physical condition and don't mind getting wet (swimming); scrambling over dry falls at the end of long, cold pools; climbing under huge rock falls and working your way through cracks that you can barely fit through (while swimming). Plan a half day if you stop at the first deep pool. Plan a full day to go completely through the wash.
Not too far into the canyon you will have to work through a very narrow labyrinth. Squeeze your way through this maze and continue on into a fairly narrow section (the canyon narrows to about three feet wide). At the back of the narrows you will come to a long, deep pool of water. At the back of the pool is a dry fall. If you aren't feeling very tough, quit here.
If you want a real adventure, swim through the pool (it will be over your head), work your way up and over the dry fall (about 6 feet above the water level) and continue up the canyon.
You'll have to wade through several smaller pools and climb under a huge rock jam. At first glance you won't think you can get through this tangle of rock. Climb through the small opening near the base and you'll not have any problems.
Past the rock jam you will enter a long, straight corridor. At the back of the corridor is a large, deep (probably over your head) pool. At the back of the pool the canyon narrows to less than two feet wide and takes an abrupt right angle turn. Swim across the pool and into the crack. Work your way through the crack and see what is on the other side (some kind of small inner tube or other floating device would be helpful here). This is an amazing canyon, but you have to be tough to get through it.
The first several miles of this canyon make a great family hike — until you hit the narrows section. Drive down the Notom to Bullfrog Road about one mile past Cottonwood Wash. Look for a small sign indicating the name of the wash. Plan half a day if you hike just to the narrows section, a full day to hike completely through the wash.
Drive down the wash as far as you dare. After only a short distance the stream bed gets extremely rocky. A 4x4 is recommended if you plan to drive very far down the wash. After the rocky section the road comes out of the wash on the left hand side and travels along the ridge. Some crazy people have driven for a considerable distance along the left side of the wash, but I wouldn't recommend it.
For several miles Five Mile is fairly wide with all kinds of interesting erosional features. The whole family will enjoy exploring the pot holes, bath tubs, chutes, flumes, overhangs and dry falls. Several of the dry falls have to be scrambled around. Picking the best trail can be half the fun.
Several miles upstream there is a large clump of bushes growing completely across the wash. Behind (upstream) the bushes the canyon abruptly narrows. To continue up the canyon you'll have to climb under or over a large boulder wedged squarely into the mouth of the narrows. Just beyond the boulder is a deep pool of water and another dry fall. I've never been past this point so I don't have a clue what you'll find as you go on up canyon.
When I visited the narrows section, the pool of water was literally crawling with some sort of shrimp-like creature. There were millions and millions of them. I just couldn't bring myself to wade into all those bugs. You are a whole lot braver than I am if you swim through that pool.
Travel down the Notom to Bullfrog Road, past the Burr Trail turn off and on down the road until you hit pavement (almost to the bottom end of the park and almost 50 miles from the turn off on Highway 24). Drive down the paved road (toward Bullfrog) for about a mile and you will see a sign indicating the turnoff for the Halls Creek Overlook (Or, travel up the road from Bullfrog).
You will need a high clearance vehicle to travel to the overlook. Pull into the parking area and follow the signs to the trailhead. Plan at least a half day for this hike.
The first part of this hike is the toughest. You'll have to hike down the cliff face. The trail is good but fairly steep with lots of switch backs. This hike is better done before the heat of the day sets in or in the spring or fall. This can also make a great winter hike if you pick the right day.
Once in the bottom of the wash, head toward the mouth of the canyon you an see off to the west. There is a pretty good trail right into the mouth of the canyon.
Once in the canyon, just follow the steam bed. You'll have to scramble around several dry falls by climbing the talus slope on the right side of the wash (as you head upstream). Once around the dry falls, drop back into the wash and follow it to the base of the double bridge.
The fun part about the Brimhall Double Bridge is that you can hike right up to it and see it up close and personal. How the thing formed is a complete mystery to me. Never-the-less, it's impressive and well worth the hike.
Although you will run into water on almost all of these hikes, you probably won't want to drink it. The most important thing you can carry on a hike in Capitol Reef is plenty of water. Plan on one gallon per person per day.
When I was at the Brimhall Double Bridge, there was a nice spring bubbling up right under the bridge. I don't know how reliable this spring is, so don't count on it.
If you do drink water from a spring or pot hole, make sure it is treated with iodine, boiled or filtered. Drinking untreated water is a good way to ruin your vacation.
A free permit is required if you plan an overnight or extended trip into the back country. You can obtain a permit from the park headquarters. Back country party size is limited to 15 people.
Open fires are prohibited in the backcountry. Plan simple meals that need no cooking or meals that can be cooked on a backpacking stove.
No camping is allowed within 1/2 mile of U24 or the Scenic Drive or within sight or sound of park roads, maintained trails or developed areas.
No camping within 100 feet of any water source. Use previously established campsites rather than create new ones. Do not make campsite improvements such as trenching around your tent, building rock or brush shelters or unnecessarily disturbing soil or vegetation. Leave your campsite in as natural a state as possible. No fires or fire pits allowed.
Pack out all your trash. Do not bury trash or toilet paper. Pack it out with you. Human wastes should be buried 4 to 6 inches deep and at least 300 feet from water sources, trails or campsites. Toilet paper should be packed out.
Thunderstorms (most common from early July through September) can drop large amounts of rain in just a few minutes and cause flash floods. The last thing you want is to be in one of the narrow canyons during a flash flood! I can think of a whole lot better way to die. Watch the weather reports carefully before your trip and watch the sky during your trip. If there is any possibility of a thunderstorm developing — don't enter any of the slot canyons.
Heat can be a real killer in the high desert environment of the park. Temperatures over 100 degrees are common in the summer yet night-time temperatures can drop to only 50 or 60 degrees.
When hiking in the summer, hike in the morning and evening. Rest during the heat of the day. Always carry plenty of water (up to a gallon per person per day) and drink it — even if you don't feel thirsty.
The most comfortable times to hike are in the spring and fall.
Remember, however, that the water pockets in many of the slot canyons receive almost no sun and the water will be ice cold even on the warmest day of the year. It's possible that you may have to worry about heat stroke for part of your hike and hypothermia on other parts.
The bottom line is to always be prepared.
Although you will probably never see one, there are midget faded rattlesnakes in the park. Always watch where you are placing your hands and feet and don't rely on the snake to rattle to warn you of its presence.
There are plenty of desert hairy scorpions and black widow spiders in the park. Again, keep your hands and feet out of holes, from under ledges and overhangs and any other place where these creatures can hide.
As an incentive to keep your camp clean, scorpions look for warm places on cold nights and cool places on hot nights. Always check your shoes, clothing and sleeping bag before using them. Or, better yet, keep your sleeping bag rolled up when not in use and your clothing put away. Climbing into bed with a scorpion could cause a few nightmares.
If an accident happens, you had better be prepared to handle it all by yourself. You will be a long way from any kind of medical assistance. The most common emergencies are heat exhaustion and sunstroke; and broken arms, legs and toes.
Always carry an appropriate first aid kit (and know how to use it). Never hike alone and don't take risks. Prevention is always the best cure.