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Published: October 20th 2012
The hundred mile long Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park
Southern Utah has a nearly unbelievable variety of landscapes.
The desert canyons and slickrock of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument are only a small part of it.
This state will provide as much scenery as a visitor can handle.
Today is a perfect example, heading from deserts to lush mountains and back again.
Hells Backbone Road
Boulder, Utah was once the most isolated community in the continental United States. Mail was delivered by pack mule
In the middle 1930s, the Utah state government asked the Civilian Conservation Corps to build a road between Boulder and Escalante.
They did, the Hells Backbone Road
Although the road has since been supplemented by route 12, it’s still a thrilling and pretty drive.
It’s also one lane of dirt throughout, filled with tight curves, and parts are downright scary.
The road starts by following a wide valley north of Escalante, with a ridge of tan rocks on the right.
The valley climbs into a huge area of pine trees.
The dirt road then forks.
The right branch passes through a number of switchbacks as it climbs a ridge.
As it does
so, a surprising thing happens.
Aspen trees appear between the pines.
More and more of them appear until the roadway passes through a huge sea of golden leafed trees.
This scenery looks like Colorado (see Mountain Majesty
), not southern Utah!
Overlooks in the trees start appearing.
Some of them show a narrow rocky canyon called the Box
It doesn’t look like the stereotype of southern Utah either.
Higher overlooks show the ridges beyond the canyon, also covered in pine trees, and then the big expanse of white slickrock I drove through yesterday.
The road eventually forks again.
The right branch crosses a valley that leads to the Box, and then climbs more switchbacks, onto a ridge called Hells Backbone.
The scenery starts to change, with white sandstone cliffs in the distance.
They get closer and closer until they appear near the road.
I’m now driving right next to a vertical drop off, with no guardrail.
Hogback Ridge from yesterday is bad in the exposure department, but this is worse.
Hells Backbone runs between two gorges,
View into Death Hollow from Hells Backbone Road
Death Hollow and Sand Creek.
Both are classic Utah canyons, with deep walls of yellow sandstone.
Death Hollow is one of Utah’s most difficult backpack trips
The ridge gets narrower and narrower until the roadway reaches the most frightening stretch
, where the ridge is about two feet wider than the road.
Unlike Hogback Ridge, this part has guardrails.
The views are incredible, deep canyons on both sides.
The highway crosses over a bridge.
The ridge in this part is so narrow that parts of it fell, creating a gap.
The CCC built a wooden bridge across it.
Workers called it the death bridge, because any fall would surely be fatal.
The state has since replaced it with a steel and concrete version.
The bridge has incredible views into the canyons on both sides.
The brave can park just beyond, walk back, and then look DOWN into both canyons.
The view is fantastic.
After the bridge, the ridge widens out again.
It starts to drop, and the road drops with it through a series of switchbacks.
These have views of the two
The notorious Hells Backbone Bridge
The road then drops down the side of the ridge into Sand Creek Canyon with even more switchbacks.
Many of these have views of the yellow sandstone canyon with pine covered hills above.
By the time the road reaches the creek, the canyon has become another wide valley.
It passes through more pine trees.
Ranches start to appear.
The trees finally fade away until I’m back in a typical southwestern landscape.
Sandstone buttes now appear on the side of the road, where Hells Backbone Road joins highway 12.
Boulder appears soon afterward, looking much like Escalante.
The road used to end at Boulder.
The State of Utah built an extension in 1957 that forms the final course for this absolutely incredible scenic highway.
North of Boulder the highway climbs.
It enters more pine forest and then yellow aspen trees appear.
The roadway passes an overlook of all white slickrock.
Then the real scenery begins.
The highway climbs up and over Boulder Mountain
At the higher elevations, the pines fade away until everything is aspen trees.
Death Hollow Vertigo!
The view looking almost directly down into Death Hollow from the bridge
A vast sea of golden yellow stretches as far as the landscape allows.
The only negative, and it is a big negative, is that big sections of this forest have been clear cut leaving huge gaps.
Near the top, the highway passes a series of overlooks.
The sweeping view shows a long red ridge below with a set of mountains behind it in one direction, pine covered mountains in another, and buttes stretching to the horizon in yet a third.
The red ridge is a defining feature of this part of Utah, the Waterpocket Fold
, with the San Rafael Mountains behind it.
The pine covered mountains are the Henry Mountains and the buttes are the Book Cliffs.
After the summit, the vegetation switches from aspens back to pines.
The road drops through a series of switchbacks into a valley, where the pines turn into grass.
White sandstone mountains in the distance with golden aspens surround ranches.
The highway then enters an area of red sandstone buttes.
The red wall seen from the overlook dominates the background.
Highway 12 then reaches a junction
Boulder Mountain aspens
A sea of golden aspen trees on Boulder Mountain
with a gas station and a few hotels and ends.
What a drive!
Capitol Reef National Park
The scenery, thankfully, continues.
The eastern branch from that junction heads for the base of the rock wall seen earlier.
All plants disappear as the road gets close, so I’m driving once again in empty desert.
The wall looks remarkably like the side of a canyon, stretching high above the highway.
In the afternoon, with the sun shining directly on it, the rock glows red.
This place looks as alien as the white slickrock from two days ago.
At the wall, the highway enters Capitol Reef National Park
Where did THAT name come from?
This part of Utah has a number of rock walls like this.
They were thrust up when the North American tectonic plate collided with the Pacific plate for the first time sixty million years ago.
They blocked all travel through them, much like ocean reefs, so early Mormon settlers called them ‘reefs’.
A feature in this one is called the Capitol Dome, so it became ‘Capitol Reef
People think it sounds cooler than
Waterpocket Fold and LaSalle Mountains
The red Waterpocket Fold with the LaSalle Mountains behind it, from Boulder Mountain
‘Waterpocket Fold’, even though the latter is much more accurate.
Once inside the park, the roadway runs along the base of the wall through empty red desert, heading south.
A huge narrow pinnacle appears on the left, the Chimney Rock.
Almost opposite it, a dirt road leads up a sandstone rise to a parking lot.
A dirt trail
climbs the sandstone slabs at the end of the lot.
It quickly leads to a point on the edge of a narrow canyon.
The canyon twists back and forth through long loops like a snake.
Sulphur Creek runs along the bottom, covering the floor from wall to wall.
This is an entrenched meander
, also called a “goosenecks”.
Before the collision that created the Waterpocket Fold, this land was a flat plain.
The creek spread across it, flowing in lazy curves.
As the Fold rose, the land tilted, the creek ran faster, and it started cutting its path into the soil instead of across it.
Erosion continued until it had an eight hundred foot canyon, filled with the curves of its original
The goosenecks of Sulphur Creek, an entrenched meander
This is the second most dramatic goosenecks in the United States.
In the afternoon, the hike has a beautiful bonus.
It crosses sandstone slabs on a hill, so it has a perfect view of the Waterpocket Fold, stretching like a red wall in the distance.
The vista appears on the way back to the parking lot.
After the hike, the road continues south along the wall.
Big red cliffs stretch above the highway, some looking like stair steps.
Surprising layers of white rock mix in with the endless red.
This continues until something unexpected, a large patch of green in front of a canyon.
The Waterpocket Fold is subject to erosion like everything else out here, and streams have managed to carve canyons through the fold.
The roadway has reached one of them, the Fremont River.
The river runs year round, so Mormon pioneers used it for irrigation and set up large fruit orchards here in 1881.
They called the settlement Fruita
It’s all green, a huge contrast to the red rocks all around it.
Waterpocket Fold Panorama
View of the Waterpocket Fold from the Goosenecks Trail
The town officially closed when the Park Service bought the area for the park in 1946, but the orchards remain.
Rangers now tend the trees, and sell pick-your-own fruit
by the pound.
Sadly, they use pesticides so it’s not organic produce.
A scenic drive, which used to be the main road, passes through the remains of Fruita.
Mormon pioneer architecture is not that distinctive, so the buildings looked rather familiar.
The setting, orchards surrounded by red cliffs, is another matter.
The roadway passes by a farmhouse
that the park runs as a market.
Be sure to stop.
They carry homemade small fruit pies and ice cream that taste fabulous.
Arrive hungry enough for seconds!
After Fruita, the landscape quickly returns to red sandstone desert.
The Waterpocket Fold stretches along the east side of the road, just on and on.
The cliffs appear to head to the horizon without end.
They’re over a hundred miles long.
More narrow cracks appear in places, canyons eroded through the fold.
The next big one has a trailhead, Grand Wash
Fruit trees in the desert at the former settlement of Fruita
The road crosses many washes along this stretch.
For all of them, the surface briefly becomes concrete blocks; the washes go over the road surface.
This lasts until the road reaches Capitol Wash, at which point it turns toward the rock cliffs.
Pavement ends and the highway turns to dirt.
It snakes its way between high red cliffs, following Capitol Gorge into the Waterpocket Fold.
In many stretches red cliffs soar high right next to the highway.
Parts of these feature depressions eroded into the side like cubbyholes.
The gorge finally narrows to the point where the highway must drop into the wash, and it becomes rougher with big ruts.
The gorge then reaches a narrow bowl with what looks like a crack on the far side.
The road ends here at a parking lot.
Until 1962, Capitol Gorge was the main route to the east.
Looking carefully at the wash shows that the water flows into the Waterpocket Fold; the gorge must pass all the way through.
Pioneers preferred this route to the Fremont River because it’s almost always dry.
Capitol Gorge roadway
The pioneer route through the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Gorge. The road is through the wash.
road stops here because the canyon soon becomes too narrow for a vehicle to fit.
The signboard at the trail head has a picture of a Ford Model T trying to navigate the next portion of the wash.
The rest of the old route is now a hiking trail
The trail initially is a sandy path above the wash itself.
It hugs the wall for quite a ways, ultimately passing a huge jam of boulders that would otherwise be difficult to scramble through.
The trail drops into the wash soon afterward, and the wash then enters the narrow section.
Big sandstone cliffs now tower over the trail, although it’s too wide to be an official slot.
Like El Morro (see Pueblo Life
), people who passed through here wanted to be remembered.
They carved their names on a particularly smooth section of canyon wall now called the Pioneer Register
Also like El Morro, modern travelers who decide to emulate their predecessors risk a night in jail.
The most important name is Cass Hite, a prospector who explored and mapped much of this area. Hite Utah
Capitol Gorge Narrows
Imagine fitting a wagon through this
town drowned under Lake Powel but exposed when the reservoir drops due to drought, was named for him.
The Tanks Trail
Capitol Gorge passes all the way through the Fold, but hikers can’t take it all the way.
It runs into private ranch land at the park boundary.
The most significant target falls roughly half-way through the gorge.
The Waterpocket Fold got its name because it is filled with little sandstone depressions.
These fill up during rain, and retain their water afterwards.
A set near this canyon was a crucial water source for settlers on this route.
The gorge reaches a junction with two side canyons.
One, completely dry, heads into the cliffs.
The other has a large sand pile in front of it.
Beyond the pile is an eroded cliff.
Looking between the two reveals a small pool of water.
When the side canyon flows, the water drops over a series of waterfalls.
The force eroded pools at the bottom of each drop.
They are in the shade, so they evaporate very slowly.
This series of pools is
Cass Hite on the Pioneer Register
called the tanks
A short distance from the first pool, a side trail branches up the side of the gorge.
It first climbs a steep pile of rocks.
That gives access to a very steep gully through the canyon wall.
Like other trails in this desert, the path is marked only with cairns.
The gully finally ends at a wide rock platform above the canyon walls.
The platform provides a huge view of the gorge twisting away in the distance.
Above it is a long series of white sandstone knobs which can’t be seen from inside the gorge.
The Waterpocket Fold once again looks like a fold instead of just another canyon.
On the platform, the trail heads along the gorge rim toward the canyon seen earlier.
It twists its way through a number of gullies, always marked with cairns.
Some of these have been reinforced with rebar.
Along the way it passes some unusual rocks, ones thoroughly ribbed with crossing veins that show at the ends.
While in the earth the rock layer cracked and molten minerals flowed through
Knobs above canyon
View of the Waterpocket Fold above Capitol Gorge
The hardened mineral erodes more slowly than the original rock, leaving the veins.
The same process produced the boxwork back at Wind Cave in the Black Hills (see Places of Reverence
Close to the rim of the side canyon, the path forks.
The only sign is cairns heading off in two directions.
The upper fork, which is much closer to level, heads into a shallow section of the canyon.
It contains some mud at this point, but no pools.
The path now follows the canyon upstream.
It quickly reaches the first pool at the base of a two foot high ledge.
The ledge is smooth but climbable, and the canyon quickly leads to a deeper pothole pool at the base of a four foot ledge.
This one goes from canyon wall to wall.
Although it looks impassable, skilled scramblers can get further.
A six inch wide ledge runs around the left side of the pool about three feet above the water.
I climbed into it and carefully worked my way around, holding the sandstone above with a tight grip.
Located in a side canyon of Capitol Gorge, these were a litteral lifesaver to early pioneers
Seeing water between my boots is not fun, since any fall will be quite nasty.
Finally, I was around.
The low canyon quickly lead to more pools, larger but shallower, with mud along the sides.
I passed these by walking along the mud.
The hike finally ends when the canyon narrows to a near slot with a deep pool of water at the bottom.
Going further requires swimming.
The shallow canyon runs along the rock shelf above Capitol Gorge.
The stream needs to drop into the gorge somehow.
The lower trail from the fork shows how.
Just below the point where the upper trail enters the canyon, the canyon drops over a series of dry waterfalls.
Each waterfall has a pool at the bottom carved by the falling water.
The canyon itself quickly becomes deep.
The path follows along the upper rim.
Seeing the pools inside the canyon requires getting close to the edge, so step very carefully!
The first pool is reasonably close to the rim, so it’s easier to see.
The second is further
Tanks and bridge
Natural bridge above lower tanks in the same canyon
It’s worth the effort, because the stream has carved a natural bridge directly above it.
More appear further downstream, but I turned around at this point. Torrey
, just west of the highway 12 intersection, is the closest town to Capitol Reef National Park.
Like most in southern Utah, it’s refreshingly free of chains and other signs of mass tourism.
Capitol Reef is the least popular of Utah’s big parks.
Surprisingly, Torrey has some creative places to stay and eat.
Apparently, it caters to locals on vacation.
I stayed at the Torrey Schoolhouse
, a Victorian era elementary school turned into a Bed and Breakfast.
The out of the way location means it’s surprisingly affordable.
I had dinner at Café Diablo
, which serves creative Mexican food.
Pueblo art lines the walls, a big contrast to the log cabin aesthetic of the last week.
The appetizers are large enough I ordered a plate of them and made it my meal.
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