Capitol Reef; Off-The-Grid

5 Day Backpacking Trip

Southern Utah

January 16-21, 2022

Starting this trip took time and preparation. The “route/loop” hadn’t been completed from a trip report I read a few years back, due to the difficulty of the environment. I figured myself and two friends would be able to complete this 40 mile loop of no trails or markers and many difficult dryfalls, with the help of one another and some rope.

Day 1.   Our route led us directly into a canyon, requiring thoughtful down-climbing over boulders to the flat below. A natural spring at the head of the canyon created an ice rink to the canyon exit, where we entered. Between slipping, sliding and busting through the ice, it made for an interesting start. We navigated frozen waterfalls and small cliffs until we exited the canyon, where the life-giving spring was running strong. We re-uped our water supply and continued forward. Up and out, up again, we crested a saddle to see ahead. Massive canyon walls, 1,000+ feet high, that led and disappeared into the horizon. This is where the maze of canyons begin! Mile after mile and spring after spring we twisted like rushing water. A large tributary canyon opened up on the left, time to change directions. Up canyon, not much farther, we scrambled out of the canyon to lay beneath large boulders to protect us from any wind. A fire, Peak Refuel Meals, amazing sunset light, stars as bright as the moon! Goodnight!

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Day 2.   I rose with the sun to photograph sunrise. Zach and Collin loaded their packs, I loaded mine, we were off. Springs were plentiful but were frozen solid. We busted through ice like broken glass, time to refill water with our MSR Guardian filter. Quite possibly the only filter that will last in these sandy, mucky waters. We now each carried about 6 liters, this should last until we find water on the sandstone world above. Three tributary canyons appeared; left fork, middle fork, right fork. We followed the ice up the right fork. Another option appeared, left it is. I took out my phone, looked at my downloaded map and said out loud, “no way! This can’t be right”. The mapped route heads up the steepest, boulder laden field you could imagine! Shit. My phone was passed around, we looked for alternatives. This is the way. We all took off layers of clothing, drank water, tightened our backpack straps, it’s time! One grueling step after the next, foaming at the mouth, huffing and puffing. It was hell. We began to see a small canyon entrance come into view. 

The obstacle course had just begun. The hidden canyon started with a 5 foot dryfall, not a spot to climb up. We boosted Collin up to check it out. A faint, “we got this” echoed out. We handed up pack by pack then hoisted one another up. Another dryfall appears, we scramble around and come to a dead-end. We stare up this seemingly unclimbable wall. To our surprise, there are Moqui Steps (carved foot holds in the sandstone wall from Native Americans! This is the route! I toss up a rope to Collin, we clip the one end to our packs and lift them overhead. We tip-toe around a smooth sandstone edge that drops 30 feet below and enter a tight, steep section of shrub-oak. Pushing through, each branch grabs ahold of you, like walking through an alleyway filled with flesh craving zombies. To the top we come, with only a few scratches and small bruises! Looking toward the canyon floor in amazement at what we just did. We found a great indentation in the sandstone that was filled with dirt, sand, small rocks and two large Pinyon Pines, this is camp.

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Day 3. The night was cold, hovering around 30 degrees fahrenheit. The winter sun rose to warm us. After coffee, we all traveled in different directions to explore. I went west to gaze at the maze of canyons below. Zach to the North to find water. Collin, South. Today is our day to leave the heavy packs behind. A day to experience the sandstone playground that surrounds us. One hike led us into canyon bottoms, washes, to see evidence of flash floods. Southward to a large sandstone formation that seemed to stand alone in greatness. Back at camp, running low on water, we scattered to search. Zach came upon a large 'keeper hole' or natural pothole filled with old rain water. We rigged up a water bladder with rope, lowered it 10 feet off a dryfall to fill it up. After a few variations of knots, we were able to open up the bladder to allow up to three liters of water each time we pulled it back up! The day quickly turned to night.

"Long Path Below"

Day 4. A small breakfast satisfied our growling stomachs. Coffee relieved the bowels. We felt energized for the 9+ mile day. Though, we didn’t know what lay ahead besides the distance. A landmine of cactus, snow patches and a thick juniper forest is what greeted us a few miles in. There was no possibility of looking ahead and determining a path. For about 7 miles we weaved around cactus, dunked under branches, attempting to close distance to our final camp. At one point, before the cactus screwed land, we were high above, gaining miles quickly while the ground sparkled with flint knap chippings (arrowhead pieces).

The view was something out of a movie, but better! We spotted Monument Valley to the South, the Henry Mountains, the La Sal Mountain Range, Lake Powell and more! 9 miles later we descended through a forest to a cliff edge that overlooked the Waterpocket Fold. A quite literal, breathtaking view. Walking along a cliff edge while the floor below dropped 1,000 or so feet. We emptied our packs under some Juniper trees that grew alongside a sandstone wall. This is paradise! Except for one fairly major issue, we were very low on water, with no sign of it for the last 9 miles. As the day turned to night, I watched the shadows move quicker than time itself.

Day 5. I woke up early, walked to the nearby cliff and thought, uhh ohh, there is a snow-storm moving and quickly! I then hiked up to a vantage point and yelled out, “holy shit, it is going to blow up!” I seemed to fly to my previous composition, giddy with anticipation! I set up my camera and instantly the sky exploded with reds, oranges and magentas. Northward, the snowstorm was engulfing the landscape, billowing toward us like an avalanche. Do I keep photographing or do I pack my gear and get the hell out of here? The fireball sunrise lit up the landscape, emphasizing the wall of snow closing it.


When the colors dulled, I bolted it to my gear! The wind started to howl, the storm approaching! One snowflake after the next landed on my gear as I frantically stuffed it into my pack. Hiking along the cliff, a blizzard came and skewed my vision. The snow has made landfall! We were quickly in the landmine of cactus. The forest provided some well needed cover from the sideways blizzard.

Our route out of here is as unknown as ever. What laid ahead was immense route finding, down climbing dryfalls and attempting not to slip on the wet stone that would send us off any cliffs. While in the forest, looking down at a sandstone maze, we all had input on my less than perfect, mapped route. Into the snow filled, maze we went! After many mistakes, up, down and around dozens of knulls, slipping and sliding on wet sandstone, we eventually made it to the correct wash that would lead us to the valley floor, far, far below! After 7 miles, thousands of feet in elevation loss, wet gear, another canyon to navigate and more, we eventually arrived to the truck.

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