Perhaps the best hike in all of Capitol Reef National Park, Upper Muley Twist Canyon is a full-featured Utah adventure that includes narrow canyons, expanses of slickrock, large arches, and dramatic vistas from the top of the incomparable Waterpocket Fold. There are opportunities for side trips to slot canyons and other exciting off-trail experiences, as well as perilous exposure to precarious canyon rims. The canyon was carved over eons through a particularly contrasting section of the Waterpocket Fold where the deep red Wingate Sandstone formation slopes down from the west, dipping under the eastern wall of white Navajo Sandstone. No other hike in Capital Reef offers as many scenic geological features as the loop in, through, and above Upper Muley Twist Canyon. My brother and I hiked the the Upper Twist on Friday, October 17, 2014 beginning at 7:15AM and ending about 4:15PM. Our plan was to take the loop clockwise, through the Canyon Trail first, then returning over the Rim Trail.
Hike Length: 11 miles Hike Duration: 9 solid hours
Hike Configuration: Long lasso. Blaze: Rock cairns and occasional signs.
Hike Rating: Very difficult. Long and stressful, with some perilous exposure.
Elevation Change: 775 feet. Elevation Start: 5,868 feet.
Trail Condition: Fair. Loose rock. This is a flash flood wash. Once you reach the rim it is mostly on slickrock, so conditions are better.
Starting Point: Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead at Strike Valley Overlook.
Trail Traffic: We encountered three other groups totaling nine hikers.
How to Get There: From Scenic Byway 12 in Boulder, Utah take Burr Trail Road roughly 33 miles to Capitol Reef National Park. From the park boundary it is 2.4 miles to Upper Muley Twist Canyon Road on the left. If you have a high-clearance AWD vehicle, it is three miles to Strike Valley Overlook parking. If you are in a 2WD vehicle, you will need to park at the lower end of Upper Muley Twist Canyon Road and walk the additional three miles up the canyon road.
WARNINGThis is a potentially perilous hike that will test your route-finding skill, your physical conditioning, your ability to handle stress, and your willingness to be exposed to precarious high rim edges. This hike isn’t for everyone. If you are new to hiking, be sure to have an experienced guide with you. It is very easy to get lost on this trail. Topographic maps and a compass, and knowing how to use them are important. If you have extreme fear of heights, or of falling, you may want to reconsider this hike.
Be aware of the weather forecast for the vicinity because you will be hiking in a canyon wash that is prone to flash flooding. If heavy rain approaches, get to higher ground quickly. Particularly avoid the narrow slot canyons during stormy weather. Know your escape routes. Never camp in a wash bottom. By entering a narrow canyon or wash, you are assuming a risk.
Now, having said that, Upper Muley Twist Canyon may be one of the most exciting hikes you ever do. It is remarkably beautiful, other-worldly with dynamic and unusual terrain, and just plain fun… not to mention nerve wracking, phobia producing, and a profound stress inducer.
I’m going to format this trail report a little different. So for those who are long-time visitors to Meanderthals, and used to a different page layout, I am breaking this hike up into sections: The Wash, The Arches, The Canyons, The Climb, and The Rim. I will post a gallery of photos from that section of the hike, then continue with the report narrative below the gallery. You can view a slide show with larger images by clicking on any of the thumbnails in the gallery, then click the little “X” in the upper left of the slide show to return here and continue reading. So with no further ado:
Our timing was nearly perfect. We crossed the national park boundary into Capitol Reef just as the sun was rising over the Colorado Peaks on the east side of the Waterpocket Fold. We were on Burr Trail Road only about a mile from Upper Muley Twist Canyon when the first rays of the new day promised to warm this very chilly morning that started below freezing. Thank goodness my brother‘s Subaru enabled us to drive up the canyon to the trailhead, avoiding the additional three miles up and back. If you don’t have high-clearance AWD, you really don’t want to try the canyon road. Trust me.
Once at the Strike Valley Overlook parking, the Upper Muley Twist Wash heads in a northerly direction. There is another trail here… to Strike Valley Overlook. It is a half-mile round trip with a very nice introduction to the Waterpocket Fold. We first discovered this about five years ago, and it was a prime reason for our desire to return and explore Upper Muley Twist Canyon. The trail sign says this hike is 9 miles. If you take any of the side trails or slot canyon excursions, the length will increase accordingly.
It was a cold morning, below freezing, and the sun was still beneath the level of the canyon rim, so we were in shadows (and warm clothes) as we began. The first 1.7 miles through the wash is very easy hiking, albeit full of stones and pebbles. As you proceed, the height of the canyon wall on your right increases to about 200 feet. It is first white Navajo Sandstone, then assumes a bright red hue. The face of the wall is sheer.
Watch for occasional side trails on the left. We didn’t try any of them, bearing right at each junction to continue in the wash. Wind and rain and freezing do interesting things to the soft sandstone. We passed stone domes with tiny arches and pockets carved in them over the millennia. There is some vegetation in the wash, mostly scrub oak and juniper.
Eventually the sun rose high enough to provide a little warmth and we began to shed layers. That’s the thing about the desert. It can go from 30
° to 50
° in just an hour. We enjoyed at least a 35
° temperature variance through the course of the day. Conversely, if you are starting in the afternoon with a plan for overnight camping, be prepared for the very cold mornings.
At approximately 1.6 miles you will reach the first of the arches. All are on the left. The first one doesn’t have a name, at least not on the maps, and is high above the wash angling from front to back. It is the only one in Navajo Sandstone. All subsequent arches are in the Wingate Sandstone layer. The first arch is a mighty natural bridge and a nice introduction to the next section of this hike.
A mere tenth mile farther will bring you to Saddle Arch… and a decision. The Wingate Sandstone, stripped of its protective Kayenta cap rock, has eroded into unusual forms, including the many large impressive arches. Saddle Arch stands high above a large crack in the Wingate. You can access a closeup from beneath by scrambling up a chute. The first arch may be a little larger, but Saddle Arch is a gaping wonder, completely open to the elements.
Saddle Arch is also the home of the beginning of the trail loop. There is a sign here. Your decision is whether to continue clockwise on the Canyon Trail first, or to take the loop counter-clockwise by climbing to the rim. The canyon route is a more gradual climb, getting you to the rim in a few hours, whereas the climb to the rim is steeper but offers a quick vista reward. Having now seen the climb at each end, I am glad we chose to take the Canyon Trail first because coming down from the rim at the north end would be quite dangerous. It may be less steep, but there is also more exposure to error.
We met a young couple here, coming down from the rim. We enjoyed a snack as we sat at the marker and studied the arch. From Saddle Arch, and this trail junction, it is 2.3 miles to the narrows at the end of the wash. The wash is more compressed now, sometimes only a few feet wide. If you prefer, you can walk on the slickrock occasionally to avoid the sand and pebbles of the wash. You can definitely observe how the Wingate layer on the left has been sliding into the Navajo layer on the right. In geologic time it hasn’t taken very long.
As we proceeded up canyon we encountered a few puddles in the wash that required a little navigation on the rock to avoid. The trail gets occasionally uneven as boulders have fallen from above into the wash. The scrub oak treated us to a nice autumnal color display, and the juniper berries were fully out and swollen.
Beginning about a mile past the junction, the Wingate layer becomes like a rolling seashore. There are waves and dunes… petrified dunes. It really is quite unusual and is prime geology for the wind and erosion to carve arches. Sandstone is very beautiful, and colorful, but it is also very soft. Over time, it erodes quickly, forming these bizarre configurations. 1.3 miles from the trail junction is another pair of arches. Third arch and Gap Arch are smaller, and higher up on the Wingate. You will actually have a better view of them later, from up on the rim.
Remember those fallen boulders I mentioned? Well, they get even larger now, becoming more like chock stones. In fact, there is a very large one that has fallen right in the channel of the wash making it impassable. We had to backtrack and look for cairns on the right, about 50 yards before the chock stone. As we retreated, a group of four hikers caught up with us from behind. We described the dilemma ahead and the bypass, but they turned around, and we never saw them again. Strange.
This alternate trail climbs above the wash onto a ledge that enables passage beyond the chock stone. Perhaps a quarter mile later you return from the ledge into the wash… and the cottonwoods. From here on, the wash is filled with stunning cottonwood, some very young and others decades old. Some were still green, while others were in full golden Fall regalia.
Perhaps a half mile beyond the chock stone, we reached the last of the arches, this one known as Dome Arch. The sun was shining directly on Dome Arch creating a delightful bright orange glow. It is really close to the trail, so you can scramble directly beneath it for closeup views. Dome Arch also marks the next phase of this adventure, The Canyons.
There are two very nice slot canyons to explore off the main trail. The first is at Dome Arch, and the second is about a quarter mile farther at the narrows of the wash.
We happened to hit Dome Arch Canyon (as I will call it) at the perfect time of day. The overhead sun was partially lighting the usually dark canyon walls making a glowing contrast. The scrub and cottonwood growing within the canyon were all bright yellow on this mid-October day. We had to do some scrambling up and over a couple small pouroffs, and squeeze through narrow walls to be rewarded with one of the most picturesque scenes I saw in all of our week in Utah.
The canyon opened to reveal ponderosa pines reaching to touch the tops of the sandstone walls. At the base of the pines were more of the golden oak, and the sky was a cerulean blue with puffs of bright white clouds. It just seemed at that moment that everything was perfect, and frankly we hated to leave. Imagine if we had just stayed on the main wash and missed this scene entirely. So, I highly recommend you explore this hidden canyon for at least 15-20 minutes.
Upon returning to Dome Arch and the main wash, it is a quarter mile to the narrows. While Dome Arch Canyon might not be considered an actual slot canyon, the narrows definitely is. You don’t want to be trapped here in a flash flood. The Upper Muley Twist Canyon Trail leaves the wash at this point and proceeds to a ledge above. Look for the cairns on the right. But you will be cheating yourself if you don’t take the time to enter the narrows and explore.
No more than a couple feet wide in spots, this slot canyon has higher walls than the previous one. There is little to no vegetation in this slot because there is almost no sunlight that reaches the floor. A couple places we had to remove our packs to squeeze through the slot, or climb over a pouroff. We were eventually stymied by a 8-10 foot pouroff that was just a little too tough for our old bones. There are a few old, old hand and foot holds carved in the sandstone if you want to give it a go. We decided it was time to turn around.
The return was a reverse process. Remove the packs and pass them forward. Jump down the pouroffs, careful not to turn an ankle. Popping back out onto the main wash you are surrounded by more of the twisted Wingate sandstone. The next section of the hike gets very, very interesting.
Everything up to this point would be considered quite easy. Yes, we had to scramble on some pouroffs in the canyons, but overall the Upper Muley Twist Canyon wash is a piece of cake. That was suddenly about to change.
Returning to the cairns on the right of the wash, we began the ascent to the rim. Your route-finding skills now become very important. You might also want to get your compass and topo map out to have them handy. My suggestion: don’t leave one cairn until you spot the next. It is extremely easy to get lost.
At first, you climb only about 120-150 feet above the wash to an occasionally very narrow ledge that you have to pick your route through for at least a half mile. The wash below is filled with cottonwood, and again we were treated to a golden seasonal display. It seemed to me as if this ledge trail went on and on and on, quite a bit farther than what it looked on our map. In fact, I became a bit concerned that this wasn’t actually the trail to the rim, but instead another trail that continued way farther north.
The good news is this area is incredibly unusual. Views to the west from along the ledge route reveal petrified sand dunes that have eroded into unique shapes due to the tilt of the Waterpocket Fold. We had missed out on The Wave lottery earlier in the week, but here we had our own smaller version.
Finally, the wash came up to meet the level of the ledge and we reached a very welcome sign that pointed to the Rim Trail. I will admit I breathed a few sighs of relief. Little did I know, I would be back in full tension mode again very shortly. The trail now begins to climb in earnest. It is tricky, difficult, technical climbing… and… you are hanging high above the canyon on narrow and potentially slippery slickrock. Whoa Nellie!
It is even more difficult to follow the cairns now. We got turned around a few times, but tried to use the plan of not moving forward until we saw the next cairn. There is occasional all-fours climbing with an unfortunate slip meaning certain doom. I don’t want to minimize this point: this section of the trail can be very dangerous, especially with rain or ice. Be very careful. The exposure for harm if you make an error is real. There were several times I wondered to myself just what I had gotten into. The easy stroll through the wash had now become an extremely stressful undertaking. Having done this now, I am very happy we chose to go up this route rather than come down.
The climb from the sign to the rim is only about 700 feet of elevation change, and it takes roughly a half hour. If you can keep your phobias in check for that amount of time, it is well worth it. You pop out on a plateau high above the wash with the Henry Mountains peaking over the horizon to the east. You are safe now, at least for the time being. It’s another 5 minutes of scrambling over the plateau to the next sign indicating you have reached the Rim Trail and your first view of the incredible Waterpocket Fold. We paused here for a well-earned lunch break.
The Waterpocket Fold is a total freak of Nature. Known as a monocline, it extends for nearly 100 miles in this semi-arid plateau region. It defines Capitol Reef National Park. Nearly 10,000 feet of sedimentary strata are found in the Capitol Reef area, representing nearly 200 million years of geologic history.
From 70 to 50 million years ago a major mountain-building event created the Rocky Mountains to the east. The uplift possibly acted on a buried fault to form the Waterpocket Fold. More recent uplift of the entire Colorado Plateau and the resulting erosion has exposed this fold at the surface only within the last 15 to 20 million years. Whether the science means anything to you or not, I can assure you that it is really, really cool. You must see this at least once in your life.
As we reached the rim we could see clouds moving in from the south, putting just a touch of urgency on our completing the hike. We did not want to be caught on the exposed rim in a lightning storm. Due east are Swap Mesa and the Henry Mountains and Colorado Peaks. To the south is a giant s-curve in the fold looking somewhat like a high-speed race track. My favorite view is toward the north and the touristy area of Capitol Reef. You can see for 50 miles or more and follow the route of the Notom-Bullfrog Road down in the fold 800 feet below.
Now that we were on hard, level slickrock the going was considerably easier and faster. We stuck to our plan of not leaving one cairn until we spotted the next, and never had any problem. The trail gets roller-coaster-like with lots of dips and summits. We encountered the last of the hikers we were to see, this time a trio. They were coming the opposite direction, so we stopped to compare notes. We each shared information and warnings about what lay ahead.
We reached an overlook where I could see the trail ahead, and oh-no, there it is hanging on the top of a several hundred foot drop. For seemingly a quarter mile it clung to this scary edge. I did my best to stay as far away from the edge as possible. Edges and I don’t get along too well. Again, several sighs of relief were breathed when that was over.
We were now getting back into arches territory. Across the canyon we could see third arch and Gap Arch among the Wingate Sandstone. We were above their level enabling us to see them quite clearly. This is a much better view of these two than the view from the wash. By now we were down to comfortable t-shirts in the warm afternoon sun.
The trail actually begins its descent from the rim on the east side, then winds its way back to the canyon side, then back to the Waterpocket Fold side. This alternating of views is very nice, and allows you to follow the changing scenery on both sides of the rim. You stay on the rim for close to four miles, so it takes a while to complete, but it is some of the most scenic hiking you will ever do. I can’t choose whether I liked the Canyon Trail or the Rim Trail better. They are both unique and beautiful.
As the trail makes one last twist over to the canyon side, Saddle Arch comes into view and the trail begins its steep descent back to the wash. Yes, it is steep, but unlike the other end of the loop, you aren’t hanging on a ledge here. It is a comfortable descent through juniper and sage. No paranoia. Watch your step though. It would be easy to turn an ankle or stumble.
Once we got back to the wash it was a repeat of what we had done in the morning. 1.7 miles back to the trailhead. By now, the sun was low enough in the sky to cast shadows in the wash again, so we dug into our packs to put layers back on. I was beginning to tire somewhat by the time we got back to the Subaru. The GPS trackers said we had done about 11 miles in 9 hours. That’s a pretty healthy day hike.
Best Hike I debated for some time about whether to give Upper Muley Twist Canyon one of my Best Hike designations. There is no doubt it is one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever done. The arches are amazing, and the slot canyons are simply stunning. I felt like I was on Mars when looking at the petrified Wingate sand dunes. The views of the Waterpocket Fold and beyond from the Rim Trail are not soon forgotten. It is multiple hikes in one.
But this trail can be dangerous. I would hate to recommend this to an inexperienced hiker and have them get themselves in trouble. There is a definite risk of getting lost. There is exposure to slipping and falling… a long way. Over the course of 9 hours, I came to thoroughly respect this trail. For me, it was a best hike. If you approach Upper Muley Twist Canyon with a great deal of respect, it can be an adventurous hike for you too.