Thursday, April 13, 2017

Capitol Reef National Park: Dome 6,630' and Stegosaur Fin via Hickman Natural Bridge

Essence: Most domes in Capitol Reef are impossible to scale. Here is an exception. A half-day hike starting on a popular trail before an off-trail, thrilling climb on Navajo Sandstone. The dome is highly textured, an assist to climbers. The panorama from the crest is enthralling and fantastical. Option to circle Stegosaur Fin, Point 6,821'.

Capitol Reef is so convoluted it is almost impossible to process, and inarguably difficult to navigate. Steep-sided domes and cliffs, slots and entrenched canyons challenge the explorer. This venture goes to the rather gentle-looking dome seen in the center of the image. Most hikers will find it suitably demanding.

Travel: The Hickman Bridge Trailhead is two miles east of the Visitor Center. The parking area is on the north side of the two-lane. Fee Information. Park facilities are open year-round.
Fruita Campground: This idyllic, shady campground is adjacent to the Fremont River, tucked amongst historic fruit orchards. The 71 sites, available only on a first-come, first-served basis, fill by mid-morning in spring and fall. There are bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, and water.   Campground information.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.0 miles out-and-back to Hickman Bridge, Rim Overlook, Dome 6,630', and to circle Stegosaur Fin with 1,700 feet of climbing; 11.5 miles and 2,200 feet of gain if you add Navajo Knobs. A visit to Longleaf Flat adds two miles.
Total Time: 3:30 to 4:30 for Dome 6,630'; 5:30 to 7:30 with Navajo Knobs
Difficulty: Trail and off trail; navigation is considerable, must be able to read the map; moderate exposure on the dome, friction pitches; Class 2+ with a Class 3+ scramble option; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Fruita, UT, 7.5 Quad; Hiking Map & Guide: Capitol Reef National Park; or Trails Illustrated: Capitol Reef # 267, all available at the Visitor Center, open daily, 8:00 to 4:30
Latest Date Hiked: April 13, 2017
Quote: He gestured loosely with his arm, covering the whole of the landscape below us. "How long do you think we can be pummeled, I mean seeing stuff like this and still be able to return and function in the other world?" "It's too late," I said. He laughed loudly, standing. "Yes, too late." Craig Childs, Soul of Nowhere.
Route: While standing on Navajo Knobs late the day before, we were overcome with a desire to reach the Dome 6,821' platform. We returned the next day and ardently tried three approaches. The black-line route is the best way to climb Dome 6,630' and circle Stegosaur Fin. The blue-line route is an option that goes under the Hickman Bridge and up a Class 3+ crack. The purple-line route ascends "The Ramp" in Longleaf Flat. Note, I named Dome 6,630' by approximating its elevation; it is not designated on the map.

From the Hickman Bridge Trailhead, 5,400 feet, head out on the most popular trail in the park. It passes beside the Fremont River, the canyon-cutter bifurcating 100 mile-long Waterpocket Fold. The excellent trail switches up ledges in the Kayenta Formation to reach a junction at 0.25 mile. Navajo Dome, seen below, is typical of such structures in the park. Its namesake sandstone weathers in rounded forms.

Our route turns left here on the bridge trail before climbing a Class 3+ defile and regaining the standard track to Rim Overlook. This is entirely optional. Unless you are an avid scrambler, go directly to Rim Overlook.

The trail to the bridge has an unexpected delight. At 0.7 mile, look into the drainage to find two lovely, diminutive bridges which may be crossed before returning to the trail. Go ahead because these may be the only bridges on this hike. Some geologists think Hickman Natural Bridge is misnamed. They claim it is an arch carved from a Kayenta Sandstone fin by the small washes running on either side. At 0.9 mile, reach the beautifully shaped arch, 133 feet long and 125 feet high. It is perfectly smooth underneath. (THW, photo)

Walk through the arch on a social trail. Soon you will encounter chockstones and rubble as the chasm squeezes and steepens. Slither under a boulder and climb blocks with good holds. A ten foot wall will give you a charge. At 1.2 miles, emerge on the trail. Turn left. This image looks into the constricted cleft. (THW, photo)

Rim Overlook is at 2.25 miles. While it slightly overshoots our route to Dome 6,630', it is not to be missed. In the image below, my hiking partner is standing on the Kayenta Formation. It breaks horizontally forming the walking ledges gracing this hike. The Kayenta is a thick layer that separates Navajo Sandstone from Wingate Sandstone. Navajo Knobs are the two small nibs at the horizon in front of him. Below is The Castle. It is Wingate, a formation that fractures vertically.

The Visitor Center, campground, and Fruita are almost 1,000 feet below. Drop-away cliffs are unforgiving along the edge.

To reach Dome 6,630' from Rim Overlook, backtrack east to the very next north-trending minor canyon. It is unremarkable. Leave the trail here and walk up a small drainage. It is essential to stay in the wash rivulets and off the cryptobiotic soil. Go right to bypass a small pouroff. The image below was taken from the main trail looking north up-canyon.

The wash directs to an open, sandy area. Dome 6,821', informally referred to as the Stegosaur Fin, is straight ahead. Climb the appealing ridge left/west of the drainage slot. The ridge on the east side soon cliffs out; avoid it. Keep a bead on The Steg. The rib is deeply contoured but the steep friction pitches are easy enough.

Soon, the saddle between Stegosaur Fin and  Dome 6,630' comes into view. Stay on the ridge until it peters out and then go east to the saddle.

Below, I am climbing to the saddle between Stegosaur Fin, shown, and Dome 6,630'. There is plenty of textured cross-bedding to assist. The color spectrum is simply outrageous: turmeric mustard, iron red, sunny yellow, and dusky lavender. From the saddle we investigated the base of The Steg hoping to climb the beast but, no chance. There are numerous oversized water pockets on the slender saddle. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Walk south to the base of Dome 6,630'.

Pigmentation and texture will transport you into a state of incredulous reverie.

While this brainrock dome may be scaled however you please, I went up the crack that is in line with the saddle. The pitch is steep but the rift felt well-protected with abundant foot and handholds. this image looks down on the ascent. (THW, photo)

The crest is generous, rounded, and lumpy, the lookout utterly enrapturing. It may not be the tallest, but the dome is well-positioned. There is a precipitous drop to a myriad of Spring Canyon tributaries with convoluted narrows. Waterpocket Fold, the mega monocline, is easy to cipher; it is topped with Navajo Sandstone domes. In this image, the Fremont River is flowing on and on as the Henry Mountains keep watch.

The adjacent Stegosaur Fin looks like a mathematical function, a three dimensional standard normal distribution curve. It is impossible to look away from such rare perfection. (THW, photo)

Circumnavigate Stegosaur Fin, Point 6,821': The half mile trek around The Steg is easy and safe. It can be done in either direction and takes 15 to 20 minutes. To go clockwise, drop off the saddle to the west and contour on the lower runout of The Steg starting at about 5,520 feet. Northeast are wavy rocks created by soft sediment deformation.
(THW, photo)

Retrace your steps to the main trail and consider your options. Turn left to return to the trailhead. If you want to keep hiking, here are two very different choices.

Navajo Knobs via Trail: Rim Overlook is precisely halfway to The Knobs. It will add 4.5 miles to the hike overall. Turn right, pass the overlook and enjoy blissful walking on Kayenta ledges. Look down on The Castle.

The hike finishes with an easy scramble to the aerie. Stegosaur Fin, undeniably appealing, is just left of center in this image.

Swing around to the northwest and the view is equally beguiling, if altogether different. Hwy 24 is the thin blacktop below.

Longleaf Flat Off-Trail: To reach the Flat from Dome 6,630', return to Rim Overlook and continue on the Kayenta bench trail toward Navajo Knobs. At the first major north-trending drainage, enter Longleaf Flat. It is split down the center by a substantial ridge. "The Ramp" topology is slightly complicated and most definitely wild. As the map indicates, there are three high points. Walk to the third, its pure white Navajo Sandstone infiltrated with a peculiar blood-iron impostor. A coral-colored sand dune is piled up against the west wall of the Flat.

The view of Capitol Reef from here is stellar. For me, it is the most captivating and mind-numbing panoramic of them all. Retreat to the trail. A left turn takes you home.

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