Friday, February 1, 2013

Capitol Reef...The Final Frontier

I have spent part of my last 2 summers in Capitol Reef searching for Mexican spotted owls and studying their habitat characteristics. This past summer I spent an entire month hiking the backcounty to past and present spotted owl sites in order to measure vegetation associated with breeding habitat. My time in Capitol Reef (as with all of the other parks I hiked) was full of challenges, adventure, new experiences, fun, hate, and natural wonders....
Dry hike turned wet and muddy in Upper Spring Canyon.
Lower Muley Twist

Secret Canyon
Climbing out of a slick mud pit at night

Out of the three National Parks (Zion, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef) that I have worked in, Capitol Reef is above all my favorite and will always hold special memories for me. Unlike many other National Parks in Utah, Capitol Reef still offers solitude and true adventure.

Five Mile Canyon (view from the top)


I have heard many people who have visited Capitol Reef or ‘driven through’ and claim that it’s ‘lame’ or they were ‘not impressed’ or it is their ‘least favorite’ of all the parks. These comments don’t offend fact I sometimes enjoy hearing them, because this means they won’t be back. It also tells me that they likely hiked the most popular front country trails and failed to recognize everything that Capitol Reef has to offer. 

old abandoned pioneer camp
pink sandstone


I have been on a great many hikes in Capitol Reef, during the busiest of tourist season (and the hottest of days) and can brag that I have never seen another living soul on many of my outings. I have hiked miles upon miles of unmarked trails, spent hours (8 -12 to be exact) walking through the deepest of sand, and days exploring the crevices a canyon has to offer. Of course at times it was hard, painful, and sometimes even excruciating, but above all it was rewarding. Whether I was out during the blazing sun or the moonlight night, nothing compares to standing in the middle of nowhere, deep in a canyon, with the pure silence of nature surrounding you. 

Sunset over canyons

The unique geology of Capitol Reef can make any hike challenging. In fact, without hesitation I can say that scrambling over ‘the reef’ is not fun and at times seemed dangerous. 

Bitter Creek Divide
The upheaval of Navajo sandstone at a 45 degree angle emerging from pink, green, and red Chinle slopes makes for adventurous scrambling. If you ever encounter this terrain and think ‘I wonder what’s on the other side?’ You might just want to keep wondering. I found myself surfing the Chinle slopes (these slopes are just a large pile of gravel and shale) and climbing to the top on my hands and knees, holding on for dear life to every tiny bit of shrub or tree branch I could find. Even if this meant I had to grasp onto plant only 4 inches high. Once past the Chinle slopes you walk straight up into the sky across the golden sandstone....very, very slowly because you are exhausted from climbing the gravel mountain.

   Five Mile Canyon, me hiking the Chinle slope over 'the reef'...and yes, I did hike up to that pointy red rock in the distance. For reference, I am already standing at the halfway point.

What’s on the other side? Depending on where you climb up you may find a straight drop back down only to endure another climb up, or you will find a complex of smaller canyons hidden behind the sandstone curtain. These canyons less traveled are still full of wonder, beauty, adventure, and surprises...

                                  Slot canyon maze                                 
Hidden spring
               Climbing down, or up,  a very narrow slot                    
              Pour-off after a flash flood                             
Very large flash flood in Grand Wash (one of the most popular hikes in the park)

Sulphur Creek Canyon (another popular hike in the park)

Let's just keep this our little secret....

Sunset in Upper Spring Canyon, just before I begin to 'hoot' for owls

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