Capitol Reef National Park protects and encloses the 100 mile-long Waterpocket Fold, a massive warping of the earth’s crust. The giant buckle is a sleeping rainbow of stacked sedimentary strata. The uppermost layer is comprised of gleaming frozen sandstone dunes that have eroded from the top down to create a wild and intimidating landscape with deep canyons winding beneath tightly packed domes.
The park appeals to all levels of hiking enthusiasts. For canyoneers, there are slot canyons, rappels and swims through icy pools. This introductory tour provides a rich sampling of the park’s character without the extreme factor.
The multi-featured trail hike begins at the mouth of Grand Wash with its celebrated narrows and highly textured walls. Ascend cliff-edge sandstone inclines. Wander on expanses of multi-hued slickrock and cross the top of a voluminous catenary arch. Ever present are panning views of Waterpocket Fold. Squeeze through a boot-wide crack and finish at the Fruita Campground.
Grand Wash From the Grand Wash Trailhead on Highway 24, elevation 5,200 feet, drop into the dry riverbed. The rubbly floor quickly transitions to a mix of gravel and sand permitting heads-up walking. The wash bottom will be firm after recent rain and soft after a dry spell. Do not enter the canyon if rain threatens.
Navajo Sandstone walls are cross-bedded and riddled with tafoni, cylindrical solution cavities pocketing river stones. In less than a mile the corridor constricts and the half-mile-long Narrows begin. The park receives only eight inches of rain each year and yet periodic floods have chiseled a curvilinear channel 600 feet into the earth. Vertical single-stone walls transect the clean, 16-foot-wide floor. A canyon wren’s descending cascade of laughter is interjected into the elemental majesty of stone and sand.
A tributary canyon pierces the constriction. To see a tall barrier fall walk a few paces up the first canyon that comes in on the left in 1.1 miles.
Skim your fingers along a tiger wall, the light skin streaked with black water stains. It took thousands of years for manganese-oxidizing microorganisms to coat this wall with desert varnish. The canyon opens and in two miles watch carefully for a trail junction on the right.
Cassidy Arch Trail This trail segment is 1½ miles long with 700 feet of climbing. Suspended above the canyon floor, ascend an inclined plane on ledge-forming Kayenta sandstone. Stone steps skirt around the southern end of an escarpment. Pause and locate the massive arch. It’s a little hard to spot on the very edge of a broad sandstone bench, contiguous with the slickrock.
At 3.1 miles, turn left staying on the arch trail. It winds down onto a vast sheet of stone. Follow cairns across the smooth surface. Creamy Navajo Sandstone domes and fins bubble up from the garnet-colored Kayenta platform, colors intermingling like neapolitan ice cream.
The arch is named after the western outlaw Butch Cassidy, the most prolific bank and train robber of his time.
Cassidy Arch is at ground level with a circular opening beneath. There is a huge drop from the span into the unruly chasm. Unlike most well-known arches, walking across the wide airy bridge is permitted. An exhilarating tension between the expansive space and the constricted path awaits. Spend time romping aimlessly on the open field of slickrock.
Frying Pan TrailBeginning at the Cassidy Arch Trail junction, the northbound Frying Pan Trail runs for 2.8 miles with 800 feet of elevation gain, terminating at the Cohab Canyon Trail. Contained within the Kayenta Formation walking is easy on a sandstone trackway. Slabs with beach ripples confine the trail. Colorful and oddly shaped hoodoos and knobs extend above buffaloberry, piñon, and ancient juniper.
A grand sense of expanding space builds with the gentle grade. The trail tops out at the highpoint of the hike, elevation 6,460 feet. Walk to the promontory on big lumps of white rock. This is one of the best vantage points in the park. Waterpocket Fold is the strand of domes north, east, and south. Notice the monocline tilting dramatically to the east and gradually sloping westward to horizontal. Namesake shallow depressions in the rock, waterpockets, riddle the top of domes.
Walk down a perfectly smooth ramp for the better part of a mile. It drops into an unnamed canyon with deep walls covered in Liesegang banding. Regain some elevation while climbing to the next rise cresting at a cube-headed hoodoo.
Cohab Canyon Trail To return to the campground be sure to turn left on the Cohab Canyon Trail at 6.7 miles or you will end up at the Hickman Bridge trailhead on Highway 24. If you have the energy for an extra mile take the spur trail to the Fruita Overlook.
In the 1880’s, Mormon polygamists known as cohabs used the secretive canyon as a hideout from pursuing U.S. marshals. Cohab Canyon is narrow, intimate, and intriguing. It is filled with curious spherical basalt boulders. During the Pleistocene glacial ice broke up the volcanic andesite caprock on Boulder Mountain and rolled chunks into the lowlands, rounding them along the way. The black balls contrast with the deep red, even purple, cliff-forming Wingate Sandstone. The vertical joint patterns of this formation create sheer cliffs and slots.
Step into two such cracks within Cohab. The first is on the right. A thin passage leads into a stone room with a high and dry pouroff. Further upcanyon is a southside incision. Strikingly textured walls put on the squeeze. Slender people can venture 100 yards before the passage is walled off.
Adding to the composition in stone canyon walls are literally covered with tafoni filigree. Solution pockets come in all sizes; crawl inside a larger cavity.
Emerge from the hanging rift at the western Wingate portal 400 feet above the canyon floor. Trail builders used boulder balls for sidewalls, stairs and water bars. Switchback down to the trailhead, across the road from the campground.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.