2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on

Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – June 2011

National Parks: Capitol Reef

Discover a private paradise by crossing the park’s convoluted Waterpocket Fold.

by: Steve Howe

Slickrock traverse in Capitol Reef National Park (Kim Phillips)
Slickrock traverse in Capitol Reef National Park (Kim Phillips)
Waterpocket Fold's sliced up sandstone (Kim Phillips)
Waterpocket Fold's sliced up sandstone (Kim Phillips)
View of the Henry Mountains (Kim Phillips)
View of the Henry Mountains (Kim Phillips)
Slickrock bowl in Capitol Reef (Kim Phillips)
Slickrock bowl in Capitol Reef (Kim Phillips)
Henry Mountains form the backdrop to this route (Kim Phillips)
Henry Mountains form the backdrop to this route (Kim Phillips)

The routefinding was more complex than anything I’d ever encountered. Gorges pinched off into dead-ends or died in pouroffs. Cliff bands hid between the contour lines of topo maps. Even aerial photos didn’t have enough detail to resolve the maze of crag and canyon, ledge and gully. Simple out-and-back hikes often turned into mini epics. I learned to rely on obscure signposts like odd-shaped trees and individual boulders. Each trip felt so much more personal, and wild, than it would if I were following signed trails. I reveled in the childlike joys of real exploration. And the more I probed, the more I wanted to find a route through the northern Waterpocket Fold’s soaring domes and faulted canyons—in one side, out the other, witnessing all the geologic mysteries that lay in between.

Capitol Reef is a long, linear park, running 100 miles north to south from the badlands of Cathedral Valley to the narrow canyons of Halls Creek and the Muley Twists. In the south, it’s defined by a long, narrow series of tilted sandstone flatirons, in places less than a mile across. But I was always drawn to the northern reaches, where the Fold is thicker, twisted and broken into a jumble of weathered sandstone peaks crisscrossed by knife-straight faults. It’s a dense desert mountain range, much of it impassable—unless you like to climb dangerously soft rock with zero protection. Slowly, I became obsessed with finding safe ways through the forbidding maze.

Had others done so before me? Maybe. Slickrock country is, after all, the kingdom of hermits, and people here treasure their supposed secrets to an amusing degree. But the more I advanced, the more I came to believe that maybe no one had ever wandered exactly here. There were no local legends, no mapped routes, no desert rat beta, no cairns or paths or even broken branches. The only prints I ever saw were cougar, coyote, and deer, later joined by desert bighorn sheep once they were reintroduced in 1996. Even now, 20 years later, I’ve never seen another hiker off-trail.

I became acutely aware of the consequences of a misstep, while alone, out in some obscure side canyon. Rocks roll, ledges crumble, branches break. I took to hauling bivouac gear, even on short jaunts and trail runs. While most places get tamer over time, Capitol Reef just got bigger and badder.

The first time I actually tried thru-hiking the 17-mile section across the Fold, between Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash, was in 1994, with four friends. We were all lifelong outdoor pros, but we only made it nine miles in three days before retreating down narrow ledges and sketchy sandstone slabs, headlamp batteries dying, tails between our legs. The next year, I managed to pull it off with a pair of New Zealanders, though certainly not by the best way. We spent most of our time in overgrown gullies, and used a rope repeatedly. The success left me surprisingly unfulfilled. It was an inelegant and risky route, stupid even. I wanted a more scenic, less technical path, with room to wander.

Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Address 1:
Address 2:
Email (req):
Reader Rating: -


May 04, 2012

Link is not working, it is saying link is private.

BP Web Producer
Mar 09, 2012

The link is working now. Thanks.

Drew Doty
Feb 25, 2012

Yup the gps link would be nice!

Feb 23, 2012

The link to the GPS tracklog is bad. Any ideas I really wanted to do this hike!


Your rating:
Your Name:


My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Trailhead Register
Falling in the backcountry
Posted On: Aug 20, 2014
Submitted By: Grizzly James
The Political Arena
How ISIS got rich
Posted On: Aug 20, 2014
Submitted By: Ben2World

View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions