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.