Capitol Reef National Park is really an undiscovered gem. While people race to see the more famous Southern Utah National Parks (Zion, Bryce, and Arches), they often times overlook Capitol Reef National Park. This park is for backpacker’s and it is best explored on foot. Which is why I am so thrilled to be here today. While I have explored the northern section of the Park before, I have never really ventured out on the southern end. Well, entering Lower Muley Twist Canyon from the Burr Trail Road, you essentially enter the gut of the Water Pocket Fold. These are the type of canyons I dream about. Deep red hued sandstone canyons with huge alcoves and amphitheaters. Yes, I am home. The canyon wren sings to me as I walk down the canyon, and the swallows fly high above giggling like school children in a playground.
For 16.3 miles we meander lazily down this canyon, wind and sun in our face, a heavy pack that is lightened by my cheerful mood. We are surprised to find sufficient water despite the ongoing draught in intermittent potholes along the way. Muley Tanks, adjacent Halls Creek is the most impressive of the potholes, indeed being more tanks than potholes, easily containing over 500 gallons. It was tempting to take a dip in for a nice body soak, but in this country, water this good is reserved for drinking. There is an old saying out here in the arid west, ”whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” Not sure if we’d have water at our planned campsite, we decided to gather water here, as our campsite was only less than 3.5 miles away. Fortunately, there was water lightly flowing in the creek bed at our camp. Thank goodness for that. Even so, this trail has taught us to not take water for granted. As I doze off, I am delighted to be serenaded by the frogs that call that water home.
Today was an easy ten mile day leaving Tarantula Mesa and Swap Canyon. Since we knew we had such an easy day, we slept in again and started by 9am. Again, we followed the buffalo trail into Swap Canyon, where there was a good spring water and pool about 4.5 miles from our last water source and camp. Once in Swap canyon, the hiking was straight forward. Just follow the canyon out towards the amazing 100 mile long escarpment known as the Water Pocket Fold, which essentially makes up all of Capitol Reef National Park. The land feature is so massive, it is visible from outer space. I’m really excited for the next 5 days, as we will be hiking pretty much in the water pocket fold and even traverse it to get to the Escalante River.
So the reason for the shorter day today, was because we have 3 friends from Tucson meeting us at Notom road/Burr Trail junction in order to hike this 5 day section with us. Actually, only Belinda and Garrison will hike with us; Scott will be day hiking and will pick us up at the Hole-in-the Rock Road, where this section ends.
We arrived at that juncture around 1pm and the Tucson 3 wouldn’t arrive until 3:30. Hence, a long nap was in order, of course. While waiting there on the side of the road, we were surprised to see how busy this Notom-Bullfrog road was. I guesstimates maybe 30 cars and trucks rolled by. And out of all those vehicles, only one nice guy in a white Tacoma bothered to stop and check on us, even offering us water. He guessed correctly that we were Haydukers. Turns out he used to be a PCT trail angel when he lived in Wrightwood, CA. He stopped and chatted with us for quite a while. Nice man indeed.
Anyhow, once the Tucson 3 picked us up, we bee-lined it up the Burr Trail road to the Grand-Staircase-Escalante in order to camp for free and legally at large. Belinda bringing us our food resupply, we began to prepare our food for this next stretch. They even brought us fruits and cherry coke. We are all looking forward to tomorrow.
Was that cattle herd or a buffalo herd we heard last night? We don’t know but the rumble sounded thunderous. I was wondering if sleeping next to this spring was unwise. Being that it was cold last night and morning, as we were still high in the Henry Mountains, we slept in, not leaving until 9am. We only had a 17 mile day, so we didn’t feel pressed. It was mostly dirt road walking for the first 10 miles anyway. Those 10 miles were actually quite scenic and peaceful, with panoramic views 360 degrees. Looking out west, I could see the water-pocket fold in Capitol Reef National Park, a 100 mile north-south ridge-fold on the Earth. That is our destination soon after this section. Beyond the water-pocket fold, I could see, Boulder Mountain, the Aquarius Plateau, and the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park. To the south, it was not hard to notice giant Navajo Mountain. I proposed to my lovely wife at the base of that mountain, at Rainbow Bridge to be exact. I don’t know what it is about this place, but it sure feels like home to me, especially this upcoming area of the Colorado Plateau I am about to hike thru. I like to think that perhaps I am a reincarnated old soul, an indigenous ancestral puebloan (Anasazi), that once roamed these lands. These lands sure feel familiar and like home to me.
So the bad news for today was that are two water sources on this road walk section were bone dry. The good news was that we still had about 3L each left. We’ve learned our lesson before on the Hayduke. Never assume the next water source will be dependable. The next supposed water source was 7 miles away. Well these next 7 mile were cross country and entailed route finding. The funny thing about these next 7 miles was that, what we thought were cattle trail and poop along the way, were actually buffalo trail. And yes, we actually saw a herd of buffalo. Yes!!! The famous Henry Mountain Buffalo, the supposed last pure breed’s of the Americas. Ha!! The Hayduke route was essentially following the buffalo trails, that led us to our camp spot and water. Let Totonka lead the way. Seeing those buffalo really made our day.
And about that water source, we at first were not sure about it. There was salt all around the water and the ground was orange. In other words, it looked alkaline and too mineralized. I tried about 50 ml after filtering and confirmed its quality. Yes, it was potable. Thank you Jesus. Viva Hayduke!! Viva Totonka!!
After a delicious breakfast at Blondie’s Restaurant, we proceeded to wait for Jared for a ride, but i think he had forgotten or perhaps something came up. We ended up offering the ATV rental place owner across the street $20 for the ride back to trail and he obliged. He got us back to trail by 9am. This set us up for a 21 mile day into the Henry Mountains. The day was uneventful and the hiking was easy since it was mostly on forest road. We climbed about 5000 total today in those 21 miles. We didn’t actually bother summiting the 11,000 foot something Mt. Ellen. I’ve done bigger summits, so it had no real appeal to all of us. Either, way we were allotted amazing views eastward of all the country we have thus far traversed. We saw the La Sal mountains near Moab, the Abajo Mountains near Blanding-Monticello, Canyonlands, Bears Ears, and even Dark Canyon. It’s amazing to be able to see from this perspective all the ground we have covered. Kinda humbling, yet empowering too. I love this country, Southern Utah. We ended up camping at Airplane Springs, where thankfully there is actually water. The only downside of the day was the we never saw the native herd of buffalo that roam these mountains. Hopefully tomorrow they appear.
Today was a zero day, meaning we did no hiking today. Zero miles. Period. Well, maybe we walked 1.5 miles today, just to the restaurants, grocery store, post office, and gas station. Essentially, it was an R&R day and a well deserved one for sure. It was also a day to catch up on blogging, gear repair, food resupply, call family, and catch up on sleep. Food wise, we ate more than usual, essentially calorie loading for the next week of daily calorie deficits. Walking strenuous miles day in day out burns lots of calories and there is no way to carry enough calories to make up for it. I feel I’ve lost already five pounds and my pants feel looser. Anyhow, tomorrow we made arrangements for a ride back to the trail at 0800 from Jared. Thanks again Jared and Hanskville for your hospitality.
Today was a legit nero. With less than five miles to highway 95, our link to civilization, we hurried ourselves, arriving there by 0915. The good news was that our friend Sonya had arranged for us to get a ride from the hotel caretakers. We had booked a hotel room in Hanskville for our nero and zero and figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Hence, we had to be there at the highway by 10am. Our concern was that it would be very difficult for three smelly, dirty guys to score a hitch 18 miles away from town. Thank you Sonya!! And thank God also for my Garmim Inreach, my satellite text messenger. Oh and of course, thank you Jared and Whispering Sands Motel for going the extra mile for us. There about to get amazing reviews from me.
That put us into town at around 10:30am and hotel check-in was not until 3pm. Of course we bee-lined into the nearest restaurant to have breakfast. Luckily they were open on this Easter Sunday. After that, we loitered around this one mile long town, mostly just laying on the grass and sleeping or sitting on a bench. I will say, Hanskville gives me a good vibe, nice people here. They are definitely Hadyduke Hiker friendly and have been expecting us. Jared’s wife, Chastity, who rode with him when he picked us up, knew that I had a package waiting for me at the post office. Apparently she works there. Thank you Hanskville. My first impressions are positive ones. You get the BearLee stamp of approval.
Considering the beating we took yesterday, sleeping in until 0630 was an acceptable compensation. After the usual morning ritual of pooping, eating, packing, and pooping (one more time sometimes), we proceeded to begin our hike going upriver along the Dirty Devil River. This entailed fording the river often as we hiked. Fortunately the deepest the water got, at least for my midget ass, was balls deep, which after 7 days of not showering, was actually quite refreshing. My only concern on this stretch was getting stuck in quicksand, which is common in desert rivers like this one. Having been in quick sand thigh deep before on a previous trip, that is one scary-ass ordeal I always try to avoid. Luckily, the Dirty Devil River did not have that trick in its bag for us.
After six uneventful miles, we eventually made it to Poison Spring Canyon, which surprisingly had a 4×4 road. After seeing all the cow shit everywhere along this canyon, it became apparent why this road was here. For the first time since starting this trail, we did something we hadn’t done. We took a nap. And a long one. I’ve must have been tired because my snoring kept waking me up during my nap. The road was fairly well graded, allotting us a 3-3.5 mph pace, eventually leading us to our next water source, seven miles from the Dirty Devil. That water source was as pristine as it gets. Essentially it was a natural spring percolating from the sandstone, piped and protected by a masonry wall. We took another long break here before completing another 4 miles. It was in this stretch that we encountered much vehicle traffic, essentially campers spending the holiday weekend in this canyon. It was also in this stretch that trail magic began to materialize for us in the form of beer and chocolate from nice people driving down the canyon. The beer was compliments of some packrafters finishing there shuttle after floating the Dirty Devil. The chocolate was compliments of others Haydukers setting there caches. Hayduke Lives!! Tomorrow we make it to Hanksville.
There was something about today that really made me hurt. I am tired. We are tired. My feet and my ankle stabilizer muscles are sore. Maybe it was the 20 miles over rough cross country desert terrain. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’ve been putting in hard long miles over the past six days. What ever be, we are a day and a half away from a hotel in Hanskville, where we take a nero and a zero day to rest. I just want to sit on my ass for a day. Hmm. The shit we do for fun. Pure masochism. Or is it simply the notion that I like how raw and primordial this kind of shit makes me feel. It is human nature to wander in nature and explore, walk long distances for days on end
Anyhow, moving on to the days events. What can i say other than we awoke from our campsite in the wash paralleling the highway at around 6am, the moon shining on us like a spotlight and Jupiter chasing after it. I don’t know if what we did was legal but neither is smoking pot in most states. Whatever be, I am sure we left our nasty stench there, making the wash inhospitable for other creatures.
Crossing the bridge over the used and abused Colorado River, we climbed the cliffs to make it to the dirt road that leads to Canyonlands Maze District. But that was not our prospective for the day. After six miles on this road, carrying 9 liters of water and 3 days of food on our muley backs, we made it to a wash that eventually led us to a canyon wall we had to climb to get to the rim. How the fuck do we get our fat asses and packs up this wall? At this point today, I was feeling more jack ass hauling my god awful waterlogged pack than Alex Honold. Finally Pete, the 5.12 climber that can read rock walls like his life depended on it, spoke up. “There is our class 4 chimney we have to climb.”Son of bitch, Pete, i knew i brought you along for a reason.
So up we go up the scree field, and eventually our chimney, Cuban B, the power hiker, being the first one up of course. That’s when he says, BearLee, we need the rope. My cocky as says, no we don’t, how hard can it be? Oh never mind, let me yank out my rope that I’ve been hauling for 150 miles. We used that rope to haul the packs up the chimney, making sure not the scrape them too bad.
After that, the best part of the day was upon us. Hooray, hooray! It was never ending route finding over washes, gullies, and hills with the sun robbing us of our hard earned 9 liters of water. After about 4.5 hours of this route finding nonsense over these Red Benches, we finally made it to the rim of Fiddler Cove Canyon. And of course, how the f_ck do we get down into the canyon? Needless to say, our tired bad asses found the route down this 500 foot drop. Once at the bottom, it was still another 1.75 miles to the Dirty Devil River, which, guess what, we cannot even drink because apparently it is so dirty, alkaline, and silty. Hence, why we hauled 9 liters of water. In conclusion, what we thought would be a 17 mile day, somehow ended up being 20. At least we were done by 6;30 pm and the moon is full and beautiful. Oh and we have the pleasant sound of the Dirty Demon River (I mean Dirty Devil River) as background noise.
I was kinda sad to leave Dark Canyon and its delicious perennial waters. I definitely wouldn’t mind coming back here again. From our campsite to the base of the Sundance “trail” that climbs out of the canyon was about 3.5 miles. This would be our last water for the rest of our 18 mile day. Needless to say, we cameled up. Pete and I wet our shirts and hat to cool off for the climb, as it was starting to get warm. Gotta engage that evaporative cooling. Oh, and that so called Sundance Trail…huh.. it was barely even a trail, with cairns scattered all over the place. The route was more class 3 climbing with scree and talus everywhere. Some of the boulders seemed like they were on the brink of falling if you put all your body weight on them. It was more like, pick a line and commit, and good luck. Actually, that 1200 foot climb in 1.2 miles could have been worse. It wasn’t as bad as Lava Falls trail in Toroweap Grand Canyon that climbs 3000 feet in 1.5 miles.
Once on the rim, the cairned Sundance Trail led to a 4×4 road which we crossed and travel cross country, route finding our way to another dirt road. The rest of the 10 miles for the day was on dirt roads to Hwy 95 and Hite and to our food bucket cache. We decided to actually just camp in the wash were we cached our food and not even bother walking and camping into Hite Marina. Well, Cuban B and I actually did end up walking into Hite Marina, just so we can dump our trash, use the restroom, charge our devices, and me to try calling my wife. There was a payphone, but I had no calling card. I haven’t had cell reception since I’ve been on this trail. Granted, I’ve been communicating with her daily via satellite text, but nothing compares to a voice call. Sorry, my love. I tried.
Tomorrow we start the 37 mile section to Hanskville. From what I have studied, there is a lot more route finding involved. That and we have about a 28 mile stretch of no water availability. Hence we are each packing out about 8 liters of water. Wish us luck.
We finally reached flowing water today and it was clear, clean, and delicious. We started the day at 6am with frozen water bottle. Yes, it was that cold. 27F inside the tent to be exact. After breakfast I had 3L left that I would pack out for the next approximately 16 dry miles. Cuban B and Pete had about 2-3 L each. That would be enough. The Canyon drops significant elevation as you hike down, so much so that i began to feel hot. As we made our way down, we encountered a large dead elk with massive antlers. Hungry anyone? After about 13.5 miles, we finally had clear running water. Oh, thank god!!! All threes of us were thrilled at that sight of water. It felt good to rinse my face and scrub my hands with sand and water. Finally reaching this point of the canyon, the the trail was harder to follow, occasionally becoming lost under your feet. The creek would occasionally box up, with terraced ledges up above forcing a climb to avoid getting our feet wet.
Making our way down this part of wet Dark Canyon, it is difficult not to notice the cottonwoods budding leaves in response to warmer temps and more light. Another delight to notice, if you’re into ornithology, is the prevalence of the American Dipper, a hydrophilic bird that hops from rock to rock along the creek foraging for insects and fish.
After 19.5 GPS miles we finally found a decent camping spot at around 6pm. We were trying to push for a big mile day today so that tomorrow’s hike into Hite would be under 15 miles. Hopefully those 15 miles are accurate tomorrow.
Yes, we are finally in Dark Canyon Wilderness. The 19 mile day seemed long and tedious. It was mostly forest road walking, 14.4 miles of cold, windy, snowy-muddy road walking. We slept in today until 6:45 because it was so damn cold, 25F to be exact. Fortunately, since we were up on a mesa, the sun shined on us right away. I was a little frustrated that we didn’t leave until 9:15am, the rest of the guys taking too long to get ready. I would rather get started by 0745 and be done by 5:30pm.
Walking high up on these mesas granted us amazing views of all the canyons and the distant mountains, the La Sal’s near Moab and even the Henry Mountains, which the Hayduke Route takes us to, near Hanksville. I even saw from way up high, the landmark know as Bears Ears. Yes the contentious Bears Ears, as in Bears Ears National Monument, declared a monument by Obama using the Antiquities Act, only to be denounced by Trump. All politics aside, this place whole area deserves protection. Come see for yourself.
We eventually made it to Trail Canyon, where we finally had an actual trail again leading us directly into Dark Canyon where we are to eventually connect with the proper Hayduke Route. On the way down Trail Canyon, there were potholes with good water. I collected two liters in case we did not have water available in Dark Canyon. I waited for Pete to make sure he also gathered water. This canyon actually had plenty of water. I wished I’d gather more. Once making it down to Dark Canyon, I caught up with Cuban B, only to discover there was no water at this junction and that he had failed to gather any water in the last know source. He only had 750 mls left. Shit!! It was 6pm and Pete was perhaps half hour behind us. There was no way we were gonna keep hiking when sunset is at 7:30 pm. We had to camp here. I had about 5 liters. My only hope was that Pete hauled more. So, Cuban B and I decided to look for water while we waited for Pete, I found a side canyon not far from where we dropped pack that had granite looking creek bottom. I instantly made the educated guess that there would be some potholes in the granite. Sure enough there was water there for Cuban B. Eventually Pete caught up by 6:30 and we found a place to camp. After dinner, i still have 4 liters left. I hope tomorrow’s water is not too far away.
It’s 9pm right now, and I am mustering energy to write this entry. I am tired, sleepy. Today was the first day that i felt like the Hayduke is starting to feel like a thru hike. It was a long 18.5 mile day. We were up by 6am and left camp by 8:15. We figured that it takes all three of us combined that long to get ready. I’m usually the first one up. Cuban B is usually the last.
Exiting the last stretch of Salt Creek Canyon was the most interesting because of the many Native American ruins we encountered. It was hard not to stop to explore these granaries, cliff dwellings, and pictographs. That is why today took longer than expected, because we kept on stopping to explore these trail side attractions. I definitely enjoyed exploring them. My favorite pictograph was the all-american man colored in red, white, and blue. If definitely got me thinking, is that coincidence or did these ancient ancestral puebloans foresee the establishment of the USA? Hmm? Moving along, we decided to start hiking faster after that trail side attraction, making it to our lunch spot at mile 9.25 and our last water source for about 25 miles. We treated water and camel-ed up, bolusing ourselves with up to 2 liters of water each. We each packed about 6 liters of water. On the way out of Canyonlands, we had an encounter with a park ranger. He of course asked for our permit and made sure we had our bear canister. Funny thing was that we were all gripping about having to pack this heavy bear canister and we hadn’t even seen a Ranger. No worries, we are in compliance. After a steep climb from the canyon bottom we finally made it to the mesa top, where Cuban B surprisingly had cell phone signal and called the manufacturer of his solar panel to get a new one, for it was malfunctioning. He arranged to have it sent to him to Hanksville.
It was about five miles of forest road walking on these mesas before finally making it to camp, 18.1 miles later, at 6:30pm with an hour of light to spare before sunset. It was already cold when we dropped pack. As i write this, my watch thermometer registers 27F (-2.7C). Burr! After dinner, i still have 5L remaining. I’ve only drank 1L since leaving the last water. We have about 10-13 miles of dirt road walk before we make it our next canyons, Dark Canyon, where I hope there is water right away.