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National Parks: Capitol Reef

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

That search eventually turned into a 10-year, stop-and-go effort. Once GPS units and desktop mapping improved, I could explore and later see exactly where I had been, and how that related to neighboring peaks or gullies. It soon became clear I wasn’t looking for a single route, but a braided series of possibilities, weaving the best threads together into an original fabric.

With this revelation, it became less about finding a way through and more about finding hidden gems within. A ponderosa-ringed pothole here, a gymnasium-size slickrock bowl there, a pool of tadpoles, a vertigo-inducing overlook, or a bighorn trail through ancient, fragile cryptobiotic soil. I finally put all the links together and completed the point-to-point journey on a 2005 solo. But by then I knew I wasn’t done. The finish line changes. I’m still working on extending the route farther north and south, finding ever better campsites, imaginative detours, and hidden passes.

The best part? After all those years of exploration, I’m sharing my secret hideaway—yes, including all of that hard-earned GPS data—with you. But make no mistake: Even when you know the way, this backcountry demands respect. I’ve completed the traverse half a dozen times, and I still have to bail when conditions are bad, or improvise detours because of ice-slickened rock or flood-caused changes.

Of course, I want you to exercise good LNT etiquette, but I’m not too worried about newcomers messing up my backyard. Most of the route is on slickrock or sandy wash. With a little smarts, you can travel the entire way leaving literally no mark. Stay off the cryptobiotic soil, and follow game trails when you must cross small patches. Don’t build fires because they’re illegal. And don’t leave cairns or campsite rock piles because that spoils the adventure for the rest of us.

So come see why Capitol Reef is the national park system’s best-kept secret. Or better yet, discover your own private paradise here or in any other wilderness. I’ve found equally remarkable pockets of wild terrain in some of America’s busiest parks—deserted passes in Yosemite, vacant slickrock plateaus in Zion, secret rhododendron-lined swimming holes in Great Smoky Mountains. You can do the same: Just develop the skills and confidence to get off the trail, and forge your own route. Capitol Reef has taught me that anyone can discover a whole new level of adventure, wonder, and commitment simply by looking at a pass, a ridge, or a blank spot on the trail map, and wondering, “Can I get to the other side…?” Do it Author Steve Howe crafted this ideal 32-mile thru-hike (with a recommended detour around the trickiest section). Allow about five days. Start with the hike through Spring Canyon, and camp downstream from the spring. When you hit UT 24, turn left and go .3 mile to Grand Wash. After 1.8 miles through this canyon, arrive at an unmarked wash heading south. Here, you’ll begin 16 miles of off-trail hiking and scrambling, crossing the headwaters of 11 unnamed canyons.

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