Johnson: Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
As I listened to the Park Ranger speak about the early explorers who came here in the 19th century, he cited a conversation they had. One asked, “Is that stream good for fishing?” The other answered, “No, it’s a dirty devil.”
The name stuck and it remains the Dirty Devil Creek to this day. I don’t know why I remember that incident and little else from that trip in the early ‘70s. I just knew that Capitol Reef was calling me back to revisit the place less traveled, as it is way off the beaten path. When has a childhood memory called you back to revisit the place where those memories unfolded? What changes surprised you most when you stepped back into that space?
Overlooking the campground where we stayed nearly half a century ago, I chose the trail to Navajo Knobs. You know you must be getting pretty old when you start talking in terms of centuries. The trailhead is conveniently located on Route 24 only a couple of miles east of the campground.
The first part of the hike can be a bit crowded as a stately arch (Hickman Bridge) is only a mile off a side trail. Back on the main trail, it zigs and zags along a ridge crest offering commanding and expanding views as you gain elevation to Navajo Knobs. From there, the panoramic views will take your breath away. Lush forests lie to the south. The majestic Henry Mountains stand to the east, while the views north and west look like a jumble of puzzle pieces in a great array of colors and canyons. Wow!
Speaking of canyons, you don’t want to visit Capitol Reef without exploring its canyons. Some are casual strolls while others are serious slot canyons requiring technical rock negotiating skills. Since I had a little daylight left after hiking Navajo Knobs, I decided to take a stroll up Grand Wash to Cassidy Arch. This canyon, even in its “narrows” section is wide enough to drive a car through. The canyon walls rise 1,200’ over your head. If you prefer to drive around to the other end of the canyon to take the shorter trail to the Arch, you can easily do so.
The light waned as I approaching the Arch. Other hikers advised me to pay careful attention to the cairns marking the path, as route finding became a little tricky near the Arch. Fortunately, it was easy enough to hike in twilight on the return, since the canyon walls lining Grand Wash served as a reliable guide back to the trailhead on Route 24. As the moon rose and the shadows grew, a sense of mystery overtook the landscape.
I had time for one more hike the next day and with a gentle canyon now under my belt it was time for a little more serious exploration. The eastern portion of the Park (Water Pocket District) is sliced into a series of slots. I chose Cottonwood Wash, which began with wide open views of the Henry Mountains. But it soon narrowed to a serpentine crack that ended for me in a deep pool of emerald green water. The route involved some climbing with the help of logs, jammed in place from various floods over the years. Any way you slice it, Capitol Reef has something for every hiker.
Mountain Lion Encounter in West Clear Creek.
Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.