Thursday, September 25, 2014

Capitol Reef National Park: Lower Muley Twist Canyon via Cutoff Trail

Essence: Everything about this hike is oversized: the miles, the plentiful and enormous alcoves, and a spectacular wall that holds the Earth down for 2.5 miles.

"Fortress Wall" with 1,000 feet of relief--soaring, smooth, and shear. This is the hike's Grand Prize.

Travel: Zero-out your trip meter at Capitol Reef Visitor Center. Drive east on Utah State Hwy 24 for 9 miles to the Notom-Bullfrog Road. Go right/south. The first 11 miles are paved. The road is dirt the rest of the way and can be impassible when wet. Seriously. The track parallels the 100 mile long Waterpocket Fold on the east side. Pass the Cedar Mesa Campground at 31 miles and the Burr Trail Road at 43 miles. The Post is 2.3 miles past the Burr Trail turnoff. Go right/south. The turn is labeled, "Lower Muley Twist Trailhead." Drive one more mile to a large parking area at 46 miles. Allow 1.5 hours from the Fruita Campground. 4WD, high clearance recommended. 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. In 2018, the campground initiated a reservation system. The 71 sites are first-come, first-served November through February. There are bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, and water.  Campground information.
Cedar Mesa Campground: Located 22 miles south on the Notom-Bullfrog Road. Five sites with picnic tables, grills, outhouse, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 16.8 miles (16.4 without side canyon exploration), approximately 1,000 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, cairn, and canyon-bottom route; navigation is moderate but critical; brief, mild exposure on Cutoff Trail; carry all the water you will need; do not attempt this hike during or soon after significant rain.
Maps: The Post, UT 7.5 Quad; or Hiking Map & Guide: Capitol Reef National Park; or Trails Illustrated: Capitol Reef # 267, available at the Visitor Center, open daily, 8:00 to 4:30
Date Hiked: September 25, 2014
Quote: When you truly understand one thing--a hawk, a juniper tree, a rock--you will begin to understand everything. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

Route: Traverse Lower Muley Twist Canyon as a long day hike. From TH 4,851', go west on the Cutoff Trail over Waterpocket Fold. Intersect Lower Muley four miles south of the top of the Burr Trail Road switchbacks. Hike south until the canyon turns east and pierces Waterpocket Fold. Upon emerging from the narrows, follow the north-trending route back to the trailhead.

Trailhead 4,851', is located at the Post Corral on Halls Creek bottomland.

From the parking lot walk south to a sign, gate, and trail register.

Following the sign to Lower Muley Twist, go due west. Cross Halls Creek, quite possibly a muddy proposition. The sandy path is marked with white posts that lead directly to the stoney base of the Fold.

Follow well-placed cairns up a red ramp of Carmel Formation and onto white Navajo Sandstone.

While the route wiggles around a convoluted and contorted landscape, it heads solidly west. The way is delightfully unpredictable, revealed as you go. It is steep in places and there are a couple of mild friction moves. Generally, exposure on the Cutoff is overstated in the literature. What is understated is just how fun it is. I could happily do laps up and down the Fold all day.

Climb three ridges on the way to the highpoint at 5,488 feet. One of the great charms of this hike is climbing to the top of the Fold at the beginning, and cutting through it at the end. Scanning the landscape, there are other likely places to reach the top of the Fold from the east. However, descending to the west is another matter. The Cutoff punches through a rare weakness in the reef seen below. Brick-colored Kayenta Sandstone is on the other side of Lower Muley Twist Canyon. From the high point, the path drops into a sandy area where it becomes braided and spotty. Just get through the break to a small side canyon.

Go left downcanyon, following cairns to Lower Muley where there is a sign at 2.2 miles.

Walking is fast and easy on a (post-rain) firm, uniform washbed. Four days prior to our hike, the wash flashed three feet up the walls. Just beyond a side canyon, downcanyon-right (DCR), is the first of many massive alcoves characterizing this canyon. Some undercut alcoves are so deep, to enter is to walk into the night. Big ceiling blocks are piled up on the floors. Echos bounce off the opposite canyon wall. Sandstone walls grow ever higher, colors soft.

A coral-streaked alcove is at 6.8 miles and just beyond house-size blocks confound the washbed. They are cubical, sharp edged with 20 foot drops. A time-consuming, complicated, try-this-and-that approach, led to a climb-down. There were no cairns; take your time and you will find a way.

Fortress Wall appears first as a monolith. But no, it is a continuous wall that stretches on for 2.5 miles on the east side of the drainage, all the way to the canyon's easterly turn where it encases the narrows. The rock is Wingate Sandstone, a prominent cliff builder.

The river meanders but the straight wall continues.  A notable exception is a crimp forming an 80 foot-tall dam.

Fortress Wall, the predominate feature of this hike, is reason enough to walk many miles. The mighty wall evokes a sense of awe and primal emotion. In its presence, I had a strong feeling of protection. It takes up the entire eastern view from north to south and you have to crane your neck to see the top, 1,000 feet straight up. Truly, it is one of Earth's greatest creative masterpieces. In this typical image, water undercut an alcove at the wall's base.

Cowboy Cave is at 9.8 miles, DCR.

In the 1920's, cowboys carefully printed the inscriptions. These men probably did not get much schooling. Charlie Baker has an extra "L" in his name and Andrew Hunt writes his "N's" backwards. A few historical artifacts remain.

At 10.4 miles, explore a deeply sculpted and colorful side canyon, DCR. Tafoni-infused wall textures are almost freaky. We turned around 0.2 mile up at a wide opening revealing the Circle Cliffs.

At 11.0 miles, (10.6 without the side canyon), Fortress Wall swings east, bringing Lower Muley along with it.

Actually, the canyon's wash carved its way through Waterpocket Fold. Enter the narrows, the passage through the stone. While it is not super dramatic, it is quite lovely. The walls are Wingate smooth, and there's a feeling of intimacy and comfort.

As you exit the narrows, at approximately 12.0 miles, the Strike Valley cliffs are visible ahead. Very shortly, within 0.2 mile, a cairn on the left/north signifies the route out of the wash. If you miss the exit, in about 0.5 mile, you will come to Halls Creek. Turn north there. 

The trail makes a shallow climb and in 0.1 hits an old road. The final trek to the trailhead is fast walking on a mix of trail and barely discernible road. The track is either distinct enough or well-cairn'd all the way back. Waterpocket Fold is once again visible to the west. The northerly segment, not quite 5 miles, takes less than two hours.

The track crosses Halls Creek several times. Generally, it is a simple crossover. Only once will you drop into the wash and go around the bend before a cairn marks the way out. At 15.4 miles, the trail to Cottonwood Tanks veers left. I have not checked for water viability but hear it is usually reliable. The image below is the final Halls Creek crossing, 0.6 mile from the trailhead.

On April 24, 2016, we hiked downstream in Lower Muley Twist Canyon starting from the top of the Burr Trail Switchbacks. We did an eight mile out-and-back to the junction with the Cutoff Trail. There are two sets of short, low-wall narrows. Walk in a sandy channel with softly sculpted orange-salmon sandstone banks.

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