What: off-trail backpacking in the Waterpocket Fold area
Where: Capitol Reef N.P. and Glen Canyon N.R.A. in southern Utah
When: April 13-20, 2019 (8 days)
Distance: about 95 miles
Highlights: fabulous scenery and weather, isolated wilderness, complex route-finding and challenging hiking
Steve Allen has published three excellent and detailed guidebooks to hiking in the canyons of southern Utah’s Colorado Plateau. We made extensive use of information from two of his books while planning our route: Canyoneering 2: Technical Loop Hikes in Southern Utah and Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. For hikers planning their first trips to the region we especially recommend Canyonering 3.
Jamal Green’s fine site AcrossUtah.com is an excellent source of area information, and a critical link in our route was the access canyon he describes in his trip report Moody Canyons and The Fold. We are deeply appreciative for the detailed data he has published.
Google Earth and Caltopo.com were critically important tools we used during the route planning phase. We carried printed maps made using Caltopo as our primary navigation tool. And, as always, Gaia GPS on the iPhone was our app of choice for occasional electronic navigation while on the trail.
Why we went
We have taken more than a dozen backpacking trips in southern Utah and it is one of our favorite landscapes. It had been two years since our last hike there and we were eager to return. Mid April to early May is a perfect time of year to visit the area and as we had a window between two other trips, we decided to go. After reviewing the maps of our past trips, we identified an interesting area in the vicinity of the southern Waterpocket Fold where we had done very little previous hiking.
On this trip, we took our 26-year-old nephew along with us. He has some experience backpacking, but this was to be his first trip to southern Utah and we were excited to introduce him to this magical region.
Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.
After this short challenging hike in Southern Utah I am still enthralled by the region and it remains on my Top Ten List.
Even though I have taken well over a dozen backpacking trips in Southern Utah I continue to feel like I’ve barely started. On our drive home we passed entire regions that I’ve never even visited, such as the San Rafael Swell, about which Steve Allen has an entire guidebook. On this hike we revisited some areas for a second time, and explored new places. It helped me build a more comprehensive mental picture of the geological layers and how they are assembled. The Waterpocket Fold itself is a convoluted geological structure which makes more sense now that I’ve walked around a good piece of it.
I won’t try to rank this trip in comparison to the others. Every trip to the region has been satisfying, and as I say in my Top Ten article, I think I could randomly choose any hike from Steve Allen’s books and be astonished.
This was completely different from our Escalante River Town to Powell hike. That route is down in the canyon, walking in water, thrashing through tamarisk, surrounded by big red walls. This trip included only an hour of wading in water, entailed very little thrashing, and had several stretches on top with expansive beautiful views. The Escalante River hike required no route-finding except a minor piece at the exit. This hike required route-finding at nearly every step.
In addition to the fantastic scenery and great weather, I thoroughly enjoyed spending a week with our nephew and was honored to have the opportunity to introduce him to this magical landscape.
It was really wonderful to get back to southern Utah again. We have taken many trips here and I have never tired of hiking in that region. The area offers everything I enjoy: challenging hiking, intricate route finding, remoteness, and most of all a vast, stark, and beautiful landscape and a never-ending variety of fascinating topography. The rock formations have subtle palettes with a huge diversity of colors. The light is amazing, especially in the deeper canyons where it becomes richer and richer as it bounces back and forth off the stone walls. The rocks have fascinating forms ranging from enormous knife cut cliff faces to tiny and delicate little arches.
Walking for miles on top of the Wingate Formation is such a sensual pleasure as the eye and feet follow the ever-undulating smooth surfaces pocketed with perfect little gardens of juniper, pinyon pine, and flowering shrubs. Often it is impossible to see the actual rock as its surfaces are covered with a thin skin of amazingly varied and colorful lichens. Sometimes the views encompass a huge area where your can easily see seventy or eighty miles out to Navajo Mountain, Monument Valley, and Bryce. At other times, you will be in intimate little canyons where the seeps support clusters of delicate maidenhair ferns.
This region is one of the finest backpacking locations on the planet and the Waterpocket Route offers many highlights seen by only a small number of people. If you have the necessary skills and experience, go!
We spent quite a bit of time planning this route, ultimately designing a loop using existing route descriptions, data we had collected on prior trips, and sections that were novel. The basic structure of the trip was as follows:
- walk southbound along the eastern side of the Waterpocket Fold;
- cross over the top of the Fold to the Escalante River watershed;
- head north via a convoluted route canyon hopping numerous side canyons of the Escalante River;
- finally walk north on top of the Fold to return to the trailhead.
We parked at the Lower Muley Twist trailhead on the Burr Trail in Capitol Reef National Park. We descended Muley Twist to its connection with the Hall’s Creek drainage, also in Capitol Reef, and then followed Hall’s Creek downstream. Lower Muley Twist is a popular day and overnight hiking destination; more information can be found at the NPS website.
We spent the whole day following Hall’s Creek south, including the stunning and popular Hall’s Creek Narrows. Other than in the Narrows, much of this section was on unmarked use trails on the banks rather than in the creekbed itself. There were a few places that required short thrashes through tamarisk, and the Narrows required occasional wading in knee to thigh deep water; this section is also described by the NPS.
We continued down Hall’s Creek until just short of the original Lake Powell high water mark where we acquired the unmarked old Baker cowboy route, that connects Hall’s Creek with Stevens Canyon. We saw a few old cairns as we climbed west on top of the beautiful Navajo Formation up to the crest of the Waterpocket Fold. The ascent was easy walking but required good route-finding skills. The views from the crest are spectacular.
Leaving the crest, we continued on the Baker Route and descended into Stevens Canyon. There is a short 4th class descent where we lowered packs.
The Baker Route is well described by Jamal Green’s article The Baker Route and Stevens Canyon. The western portion of the Baker Route, from the top of the Waterpocket Fold down into Stevens Canyon, is also well described in Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 2 Escalante South Route and again in Canyoneering 3, Hike #21.
We headed north up Stevens Canyon and joined Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 3 Hike #22, which led us out of Stevens, over a pass, and down into upper Fold Canyon. There we spent several hours of glorious slickrock walking on the top of the fabulous Wingate Formation. There is a 70 foot section of 4th class slickrock to ascend exiting Stevens. Some people have reported being intimidated by the notorious “sand slide” that is found just before dropping into the bottom of Fold.
Allen’s Hike #22 continues on top of the Wingate on the southern rim of Fold Canyon, but we left that route and instead dropped into the inner canyon of Fold using a short class 4 gully we had noted on a 1992 trip; the descent required using a rope to protect the less skilled hikers and to lower the packs. Steve Allen mentions a place to enter Fold upstream of the sand slide. We did not follow his routing because we were unsure if we would be able to continue down the bottom of Fold to our intended exit route; however we later scouted upstream and learned that we could have used this likely easier descent route. Since rain was threatening, we found a nice safe high ground campsite about a quarter of a mile down canyon from our entrance point.
We used our own exit route north out of Fold Canyon, climbing a set of class 4 Moqui steps we had found on our 1992 trip. This exit from Fold was a critical link, without which our entire loop would not have been possible.
We then reconnected with Allen’s Escalante South Route in the minor unnamed canyon north of Fold. We followed Allen’s clever routing until it was time to stop for the day; we camped near some beautiful Navajo domes.
We soon left Allen’s routing and made our way easily to the top of the Waterpocket Fold. Once on top, we followed our own cross-country route north, heading the ends of several tributary canyons to Moody Canyon. Our goal was an unnamed canyon described in Green’s Moody Canyons and the Fold trip report. He had accessed this canyon from its northwest side but we approached it from the southeast. Prior to the trip, we had mapped a potentially easier access point into this canyon; we found a couple of old cowboy cairns and tin cans in our proposed descent gulch, so were immediately confident it would work.
We descended the un-named canyon down to Middle Moody Canyon. We were lucky that recent rains had replenished numerous small potholes, as upper Middle Moody and the remaining section of the route have no reliable water sources.
We walked upstream in Middle Moody and connected with and followed a version of the Hayduke Trail to the ridgeline south of Deer Point Mesa. Our ascent route was probably not optimal, but it worked.
We skirted the east side of Deer Point using our own routing and eventually connected to remnants of a long-abandoned ridge-top jeep track heading north towards Wagon Box Mesa. The views to the east from this road are stunning and there are many fine places to camp. We ate our final dinner at the rim and watched the full moon rise over the Henry Mountains with hundreds of square miles of red rock high desert spread out beneath us.
We continued on and eventually left the road for a final half-day’s easy cross-country travel to another old closed jeep track that we followed back to the Burr Trail and our car.
Notes for Potential Hikers
This is not an easy hike and it is not appropriate for beginning or intermediate backpackers or for people with no previous experience traveling in this region. You will need excellent route-finding and navigation skills. You have to be comfortable with class 4 climbing, along with the exposure that comes with such activities. You need good water management skills and a willingness to carry significant quantities of it. You need to understand the risks of flash floods and how to use silty water sources. If you do not already know how to read and navigate through Chinle, Wingate, Kayenta, and Navajo rock formations you should not attempt to make use of the route information in this trip report; if you don’t know what that means then this route is not for you. That said, we strongly encourage all backpackers to visit the region, and highly recommend Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 3 book as a resource. He describes numerous loop hikes in the region, and any competent backpacker can find a route that suit their skill level.
A small percentage of the line shown on our CalTopo map was recorded while we hiked; the majority is a good approximation of our route created using CalTopo. Nobody should plan to follow our line and expect it to work without on-the-ground route finding. Being off by 50 meters could put you on a ledge that will end in a cliff or drop you into a gulch that ends in an impassable pouroff.
The area is remote: we saw no other people on five of the eight days we were out. We carry a Garmin InReach Mini that we hope will never be necessary to use.
The trailhead is on the unpaved portion of the Burr Trail that runs through Capitol Reef National Park. The Burr Trail is paved most of the way from Highway 12 in Boulder. The unpaved portion is graded and in dry conditions is suitable for a low ground clearance two-wheel drive passenger vehicle. The trailhead is also accessible via a much longer unpaved road from Highway 24. See the Capitol Reef NP website for more details about this road.
Our Caltopo map includes the location of some water sources. Steve Allen’s books describe water sources on his routes and so does the AcrossUtah website. Few of these sources are 100% reliable year round. Small potholes can dry up quickly after the rains stop. Rainfall amounts vary from year to year. Planning around water sources is key to the success of doing a route like this. Hikers should be prepared to carry significant amounts of water
The longest water free stretch is the segment between Middle Moody Canyon and the trailhead. No surface water is to be expected on this 22 miles. We hiked clockwise so that we were carrying much less food when we walked this segment. Because we were uncertain of the hiking conditions and how long it would take us, we left our Middle Moody campsite carrying seven liters each.
We had flowing surface water in the entire Hall’s Creek drainage and in much of Stevens Canyon, but this may be seasonal.
We saw evidence of beaver activity in some canyons, heightening the risk of giardia. Do not wash or bathe in potholes as sunscreen and body salts/oils pollute these micro-environments.
Finding good campsites is not a problem on this walk. There are some areas where you may have to search around a bit, but sooner or later a decent to spectacular site can be found. Do not camp in dry washes if any precipitation at all is expected as these sites may flood immediately after rainfall.
Mid-April to early May is usually a great time to visit this area and we had really fine hiking weather. We had trace rain one evening, otherwise it was dry. Daytime temperatures were in the 50’s and 60’s. We had one chilly, but not cold night. The wind blew intermittently, but was never a problem.
It can be beastly hot in this area from late spring to mid autumn. Summer rains can be frequent and can bring flash flooding. During the winter, expect there to be snow on the ground. Late September and early October are frequently an excellent time to visit.
There is a significant variety of hiking conditions on this route and we greatly enjoyed the diversity. The terrain ranges from walking on rolling pavement-like slickrock to following heavily vegetated canyon bottoms. Wading and possibly short swims are necessary in the Hall’s Creek Narrows. Ascending and descending broken Kayenta Formation rock ledges is required. There are several short class 3 to class 4 obstacles to overcome and we carried a 30 meter rope.
We were too early for peak migration and bird numbers were surprisingly low, especially compared with previous trips. We heard very few Canyon Wrens; perhaps they had not started their territorial singing yet. As always, Common Ravens provided a lot of entertainment as they engaged in their acrobatic displays.