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National Parks: Capitol Reef

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

I thought the rope would solve my problem, but as can happen with ropes, it only led me deeper into trouble. I was trying to extend an unproven route through Capitol Reef, solo, and the rope had enabled me to descend one more rotten cliff band. But rigging an anchor in loose boulders had eaten up time. Now I was standing on an isolated sandstone fin that protruded out over a yawning canyon, with no way forward. Dead-ended again.

Fortunately, I’d long since learned that getting stymied in the Waterpocket Fold was never a true failure. I knew that finding which routes didn’t work would eventually help me zero in on ones that did. And I’d discovered yet another site to put on my personal, expanding map of Capitol Reef. The table-flat mezzanine that had thwarted me was easily the most spectacular campsite I’d ever stumbled across. To my east was a poster view of the snow-capped Henry Mountains, risinglike abandoned pyramids. To the west, 1,000-foot cliffs of blonde sandstone slammed in close, their walls like overlapping El Capitans, interweaving to pinch off the gorge’s headwaters. But I had no overnight gear, my water was long gone, and the late October temperature was quickly skydiving from warm to frigid. So as sunset dimmed toward darkness, I dug my headlamp out, rigged my ascenders, and began the long, black retreat toward home with a bittersweet pang of regret. I had not succeeded, but I had not failed. I’d punched the route a few more miles. And I’d be back.

It was a cold January in 1990 when I decided, on the spot, to make Capitol Reef National Park my backyard. A friend and I had backpacked into the deep, ochre cleft of Spring Canyon, post-holing down the sandstone gorge through month-old snow that didn’t have a single footprint. We camped in a narrow sandstone hallway underneath a corkscrew pinnacle that reared defiantly overhead like it was giving the finger to the gods of erosion. We tucked deep into our bags as the stars came out and the canyon became a sandstone freezer. Around midnight, I crawled out of the tent into a scene painted by glowing moonlight, so still my heartbeat sounded like war drums.

I’d visited Capitol Reef before, in warmer seasons, and been staggered by the audacious geology of the Waterpocket Fold, a brick-red Wingate escarpment topped by whimsical cones of blonde Navajo sandstone. But it wasn’t slickrock scenery alone that compelled me to move to the nearby hamlet of Torrey. Capitol Reef is special in other ways. There are only a handful of developed trails. Most of the landmarks remain unnamed. The roadside attractions are so-so. The wildest topography lies concealed, accessible only by tough foot travel. In order to find Capitol Reef’s best places, you have to follow your curiosity through crisscrossed gullies, over anonymous slickrock saddles, and across crumbling boulder fields. You almost never reach your goal on the first try. My kind of place.

I spent untold hours running along sandy washes and countless days scrambling through the deep, meandering canyons of my new backyard, often returning by the dim glow of a headlamp. Atop the tortured geology of the Waterpocket Fold, in this place Ute Indians named “land of the sleeping rainbow,” I discovered tans and oranges and shades of vermilion I’d never seen before. And I found my own personal paradise.

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