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the devil ate our breadcrumbs

We only spent one day hiking in Capitol Reef before heading further south into the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. Of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef is by far the least visited. This is likely because the scenery is less dramatic than in Zion, Bryce, Arches, and Canyonlands, though there is still plenty of great hiking to be had there, and with none of the crowds that the big-name parks draw.

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Our friends had recommended a stellar hike in the Muley Twist Canyon, but that section of the park is only accessible via rough roads, and the autumnal rains had made navigating the way there all but impossible. We also missed out on the unique experience of picking fruit in the park’s orchards, which can be done during the summer and early fall. By late October, when we visited, the orchards were already bare.

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The hike we had envisioned loops through the heart of the Torrey/Fruita area of Capitol Reef, hitting pretty much all of its highlights. We left the car at a small parking lot on Route 24 at an entrance into the Grand Wash. The plan was to hike most of the way through this wide canyon before picking up the Frying Pan trail to Cohab Canyon, with a short detour to visit Cassidy Arch along the way. Cohab Canyon would lead us back to Route 24, which runs through the heart of the park. The only downside to this 11-mile loop is that we would have to walk two-and-a-half miles alongside the road in order to return to our vehicle.

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We worried about rain, but the morning skies were clear, and we enjoyed great weather as we walked two miles through the Grand Wash, admiring its tall, pock-marked walls. However, clouds began rolling in as we ascended the mile to the turn-off for the Cassidy Arch. A fierce wind greeted us atop the arch, and we barely had enough time to snap a few pictures and put away the camera before the storm hit in earnest.

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At the outset, the Frying Pan trail was well-marked with frequent cairns. By the time we returned from the arch, we had covered roughly half of the non-road portion of the hike. We walked fast, the trail feeling more like the kitchen sink than a frying pan with all the rain that was streaming from the leaden sky. From Cassidy Arch, the trail climbs steadily for a mile or so before cresting a ridge and heading downhill towards Cohab Canyon. The rain lasted about an hour and, once the sun came back out, we slowed our pace and decided to stop for lunch.

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As soon as we returned to the trail, however, the cairns abruptly disappeared and we found ourselves looking around wildly for signs of the trail among a multitude of branching canyons. The trail map we had obtained at the park’s visitor center was not topographical; it was useless once we lost our way. One minute we were seeing cairns every 10-15 feet, and the next minute there was not a single cairn in sight. We saw some piles of rocks that looked like they could have been cairns, but they were isolated and even the ones that were obviously man-made led to nowhere.

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Knowing that we needed to walk through a canyon to reach the road, we followed a handful of these pseudo-cairns down into a wash, but the path along the canyon floor quickly became unnavigable, and we retraced our steps. We spent about an hour striking out in various directions in search of the trail before abandoning hope and deciding to return the way we had come. We had expected route-finding to be difficult in the wilderness, but having a well-marked trail suddenly disappear on us in the middle of a national park came as quite a nasty surprise.

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Disappointing though it was to have to turn around, we figured that by then we had already seen most of the hike’s highlights. We reached our car around 5:40 — more than seven hours after starting the hike, and with just enough time to stop by the visitor center before it closed at 6pm. The same ranger who had given us the park map that morning greeted us. After we related what happened she nodded, “Oh yeah, people get lost there all the time. We’ve even had a few recent search & rescue operations on that stretch of trail.”

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This would have been useful information, but she failed to volunteer it when we spoke in the morning. Apparently, we needed to cross the wash into which we had descended; the trail supposedly continues on the other side. Turns out, the volunteer rangers in Capitol Reef are engaged in a continuous losing battle in the park’s backlands. Every time they rebuild the cairns on that portion of the Frying Pan trail, devil knows who knocks them down and erects misleading cairns that lead down into the wash instead. Hikers, beware!

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