Ted and Cheryl White take us deep into Capitol Reef National Park to tackle the world famous slot canyons. Take off your pack, turn sideways, and squeeze through!
Capitol Reef National Park, located in southern Utah, is a very popular park. People visit for the history, the geologic beauty, the orchards, and just for the general recreational opportunities it offers.
We had been to Capitol Reef a few times and done a bit of hiking, but we returned in April of 2012 to explore deeper into this mysterious National Park and its Waterpocket Fold. The Waterpocket Fold is a one hundred mile long monocline uplift; think of it as a really big hill one hundred miles wide with a sheer cliff on its far western side.
Above: The Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park as seen from the air
Over eons of time, uplift and erosion have formed many canyons running east to west across the fold. Smaller canyons run in all directions, deep into the Navajo Sandstone rock. These canyons are what we were looking for. These are slot canyons.
An Important Note About Slot Canyons
Most of us know that slot canyons can be very dangerous with the possibility of flash floods. Summer thunderstorms can bring water roaring through canyons with little or no warning. Spring is the season for exploring slot canyons, when the weather is more stable and predictable, but still one has to be aware of the weather before venturing into a slot canyon. Never enter a slot canyon when there is a chance of rain anywhere within many miles of the canyon.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” John Muir
Above: Enjoying the view of the Grand Wash from the Cassidy Arch Trail
Our first venture was the Grand Wash, a granddaddy of a slot canyon. Purists might not really consider this a slot canyon, but it’s still a fun hike. The Grand Wash is a sandstone canyon about two miles long, maybe eight to ten feet wide at its narrowest, and with walls several hundred feet high.
The canyon twists its way through the Waterpocket Fold from Route 24 on the east side of the park to the scenic road out of the campground on the west edge of the Waterpocket Fold. You can hike it from either direction or one way if you leave a shuttle vehicle.
Above: The Grand Wash
Above: Into the Narrows, The Grand Wash
We hiked the wash from east to west. At the far western end, we turned around and headed back to the camper. About 300 yards down the trail, we found a trail leading to Cassidy Arch, named after the famed outlaw Robert “Butch Cassidy” Parker. Reputedly the “Hole in the Wall” gang had its, never discovered, hideout here in the Grand Wash.
The one and three-quarters mile Cassidy Arch trail, with 680 feet of elevation gain, is a steep, well maintained trail, up to the top of the walls of the Grand Wash. It’s a bit of a hike, but the views of the Grand Wash from atop its canyon walls are spectacular. It is worth every bit of the effort.
Cassidy Arch is unique in that the trail approaches the arch from above. We have never seen an arch from this perspective anywhere else in the southwest.
Capitol Reef National Park has much to offer. The Fruita Campground is very nice, but it fills most days by late morning so plan to get there early. There is some BLM land open to dispersed camping near the park so you can camp out there for a night while trying to get a spot in the Fruita Campground.
All sites are first come, first served. If you are there in the Autumn. you can pick apples in the orchards surrounding the campground. Driving through the park you will see some absolutely breathtaking vistas of canyon walls and red rock monoliths, and the scenic road from the campground is a must.
The hiking is also superb. You could easily spend several weeks there just hiking. We always try to attend the ranger presentations at National Parks and, during the month of May, Capitol Reef has a resident astronomer.
Our timing was perfect. Dr. Martin Burkhead informed us that we were in prime position to view a rare annular eclipse of the sun.
You can hike to Hickman Bridge on a one mile trail from Route 24. If you’re camping at the park’s Fruita Campground, you can hike to the bridge via Cohab Canyon right from the campground and find a couple of short slot canyons along the way.
Above: Capitol Reef, Fruita Campground from the entrance to Cohab Canyon
Hiking via Cohab Canyon adds about one and a half miles to the hike, but it’s great introduction to slot canyon hiking. You won’t get into any trouble here and you’ll find out if you really do like hiking the slots.
From the campground, the Cohab Canyon trail quickly rises over 300 feet to the mouth of the canyon. As you descend towards Route 24, watch for small slots on both sides. Some are only a few feet deep, but there are two that will take you several hundred feet back into the rock and are narrow enough that you might have to take your pack off. These are sweet little sandy bottom canyons that are quite easy to navigate with a very low fear factor.
Above left to right: Heading up to Cohab Canyon, A short, but narrow, slot canyon in Cohab Canyon, and another Cohab Canyon Slot; they do get a little tight
These little canyons are the perfect place to try out your slot canyoneering skills. They all dead end after a short distance. There’s no climbing or scrambling. The bottoms are flat and sandy, and you can turn around and head back out at any point if you feel uncomfortable.
As you continue to the east descending to Route 24, keep your eyes open. There’s at least one small arch along the way and lots of interesting geology.
Above: Cohab Canyon is full of geological wonders
At the end of Cohab Canyon, cross Route 24 and you will find the Hickman Bridge trail. This trail is one mile long and only moderately steep. Hickman Bridge is very beautiful and you’ll want to have a camera with you.
Look for the smaller bridge on the right about two thirds of the way in. This small bridge is a perfect example of how bridges are formed. The “wash” or dry stream bed, runs right under the bridge. It is the erosive action of running water and many, many, years that forms bridges.
Arches, on the other hand, are formed by freeze thaw cycles breaking away large flakes of rock from a sandstone (or limestone in some cases) wall until it breaks through to the other side.
Above: Small double natural bridge on the Hickman Bridge Trail
Above: Hickman Bridge
Hickman Bridge is very pretty, one of the nicest bridges we’ve seen, and relatively easy to get to. In the late afternoon sun, with some scrambling around, I think you could get some truly beautiful pictures of the Hickman Bridge.
If you find that you like hiking the little slots of Cohab Canyon and want to do more, go to the visitor center and ask about Burro Wash, Cottonwood Canyon, and Sheets Gulch. They will give you directions and a map on a park handout.
Above: Access to Burro Wash slot canyon is from the BLM land just to the east of the park boundary
The canyon hikes on the east side of the Waterpocket Fold require a little more preparation and skill than Cohab Canyon. They require some bushwhacking across the desert terrain to enter the canyons and you should be comfortable doing that.
You can navigate visually, but the trail is difficult to follow in places and I would suggest a compass to get you heading back in the right direction on the way out. Take a couple of bearings on the way in.
Be sure to carry plenty of water and extra food. Cell phones don’t work so don’t go alone. Use sunscreen and a good desert hat. We would definitely recommend good hiking boots over sneakers as the terrain is rugged in some places. Hiking boots also have a stiff sole which is helpful if you’re going to do any climbing as you go deeper into the canyon.
Above: Flora and Fauna along the trail
Burro Wash slot canyon has two sections, each about one-quarter to one-third mile long. Both sections are relatively shallow with walls from ten to twenty feet high, but they both have very narrow sections in which you will have to turn sideways, with your pack off, to squeeze through.
One of the really good things about slot canyons is that, as long as you go up the canyon, you will always know you can get back down, so relax and go as far as is comfortable for you. Our byword when hiking canyons is to never pass an obstacle that you are not 100% sure you can navigate on the way back.
As you proceed through the slot you will find some obstacles. Don’t give up easily. Look around. Sometimes you can backtrack a bit and go up and over the obstacle. Sometimes a little squeezing and stretching will get you up and over, or under, but be careful.
When you get to an obstacle such as a chock stone (a large rock wedged into the canyon walls) always check that it is very secure and not going to shift if you climb on it. And I reiterate, don’t go alone.
Above left to right: Here’s a good example of a slot canyon that you can bypass by going up and around if the slot is too narrow or has obstacles you are unable to get past. Middle: Sometimes it is hard. Right: But, it’s always fun. If it’s not fun, then it is time to turn around.
A small obstacle formed by debris.
This is a, “Chockstone” (sometimes called a “Chokestone”) that is securely wedged between the canyon walls. You can pass under a stone like this, but check first that the stone is secure.
Sometimes the traveling is easy.
“Highlining” a slot.
Often you can get around an obstacle by wedging yourself between the walls and inch-worming you way up and over.
Slot canyons are one of the delights of the southwest. Even if you limit yourself to the small slots in Cohab Canyon, you’ll come away with a new appreciation for their beauty.
When you’re in the slots, use all your senses. Look for birds, lizards, and even rabbits and small rodents. Feel the texture of the rock that has been eroded over millions of years by water and wind, and listen to the wind, the birdsong, and the myriad and strange echos that fill the canyon. Be alert and be careful, but be just a little bit daring too.
If you find yourself liking the slot canyons of Capitol Reef and wanting to do more, do some research on Buckskin Gulch (on the Arizona Utah border), the longest continuous slot canyon in the world, and the many delicious canyons of the Escalante just south of Capitol Reef National Park.
Above: Buckskin Gulch, Utah / Arizona border
The extraordinary beauty of slot canyons is available to just about anyone with the desire. There are plenty of slot canyons easily accessed from good roads with limited hiking. Two that come to mind are the Grand Wash mentioned above. You can park right at the entrance to the canyon.
Cathedral Gorge State Park in eastern Nevada has many small slot canyons only a few minutes walk from the campground. Cathedral Gorge’s canyons are in the bentonite spires that give the park its name.
“No Ted! We can’t do this one.”