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Boulder, CO

A guide to the wilderness of the West.

Through the Waterpocket Fold


Through the Waterpocket Fold

Derek Bartz

Trip Date: May 30th-June 1st, 2015
Location: Capitol Reef National Park
Miles: 29?
Vert: 5,000'
Start/Finish: Chimney Rock Trailhead / Capitol Gorge
Permit Required?: Free, Stop by the Visitor Center
Season: March-October, just depends on the forecast
Directions: Found here

I've been here before I think to myself as we descend a ridge bisecting two unnamed drainages in the remote backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park.  It is day 2, Michele and I are 18 miles into our planned 37 mile route through the heart of the Waterpocket Fold.  This is the exact spot where a group of four of us had bailed on the route the previous year on our first attempt.  The trail-less route relies solely on GPS waypoints for navigation, and even though I had bought the USGS Quads covering this portion of the park; they become useless when my phone died and we could no longer rely on the data guiding the way.  The terrain here is so complex the tightly grouped maze of contoured lines on the map become meaningless, and forget even thinking about busting out the compass.  The route here was so unobvious, that we aren't even sure if we could retrace our steps from the day before.  High on the ridge, I had a general idea of where we were on the map; but how to continue heading south was all a big guess other than the fact that I knew the Notom-Bullfrog Road was practically visible directly in front of us some 2000 feet below and an unknown distance away; the following morning we decided to bag the trip and head for the road. 

High on the ridge in the center of the Fold near where my phone died

Your intuition tells you to get to the bottom of the drainage and follow that out to gentler terrain.  Steep, slabby canyon walls guarded entry into the drainage bottom to our North at most places, but we managed to find a gully that brought us down to the pothole filled canyon floor.  We filled our empty water bottles and continued down canyon only to come upon an impassable dry fall a short distance later. That way won't work.  Back up on the ridge, we continue descending keeping an eye out for a way down either side canyon.  The terrain is easy going, but in the back of our minds we are wondering when the ramp system will end and cliffs will block our way once again.  The later never happens though and we continue down, navigating a few minor side canyons and meeting up with Notom-Bullfrog near where Pleasant Creek crosses the road.  Looking back on the experience it is amazing we made it out as easily as we did. 

So there we are again, descending the same ridge, a fully charged phone in hand leading the way.  The route takes us South off the ridge through a loose, chossy drainage into a gully leading down to our next canyon system.  So simple had we know it was there, but without the beta we would have never guessed the correct way.  And this is what makes this route so unique, and IMO one of the best backpacking trips in the Southwest.  Every turn is a mystery revealing some of the most varied and interesting desert landscapes I have ever scene.  Plenty of scrambling over exposed slickrock, a bit of elevation gain and loss, and an unavoidable chest deep water filled slot to keep things interesting until the end.  Oh, and once off trail we didn't see a single soul; yes this place really is remote.  

Our trip began at the Chimney Rock Trailhead where we walked 10 miles through through the towering Moenkopi walls of Spring Canyon down to the the Fremont River.  This canyon alone if worth the trip. 

Spring Canyon

After a swim, we crossed the knee deep water and Hwy 24, took a stroll through Grand Wash, and then cut cross country up Bear Canyon to the base of Ferns Nipple (another worthy trip in itself) where we cowboy camped for the night.  In the morning we headed up Ferns Nipple only to be turned around by the final exposed class 4 moves; just wasn't feeling it.  From there the route is hard to even describe.  Not one of the 11 canyons/drainages the route crosses are named, and as stated before most of the time you have no clue which one you are crossing exactly anyways.  We simply continued following the waypoints given to us on the Trimble Outdoors App.  "Ascend Ponderosa filled gulley", "Chimney down crack in canyon bottom", "Dry fall.  Climb left up exposed slickrock ramp" are a few of the route descriptions listed along with the GPS track.  "Potential chest-deep to swimmer pothole in slot like canyon" was the note that stuck out the most.  An alternate route could be taken to avoid this, but it appeard to loop way around on mellower ground, even exiting and re-entering the official boundary of the park; so it was an obvious choice that we were getting wet. 

It was worth it.  Upon arriving at the pool, clouds covered the up to then sunny skies and a dark slot unfolded before us.  At first glimpse it didn't look like it would even go, a mysterious pool led to a huge unclimbable chockstone.  I took my pack off and tested the waters.  Cold, but not quite frigid the pool was in fact chest deep, for this tall guy at least.  I was able to duck under the chockstone and climb above to another pool, held by yet another chockstone.  This one only hip deep but requiring some stemming to escape to yet another pool and eventually dry ground.  Nice!  Now to do it with packs!  I reversed the sequence, and led Michele through; at one point lifting here over the deeper portions.

We continued on, passing through slickrock amphitheaters filled with potholes chocked full of water from the wet spring the Southwest had received.  The walking is pleasant, even easy a majority of the way albeit for being cross country travel.  After leaving the canyon floor and climbing yet another steep gully, this one a bit bigger, we crest a ridge that reveals perhaps the most beatiful little paradise on the Waterpocket Fold.  A flat, sandy meadow dotted with Ponderosa's, surrounded by towering cliffs/spires, a checkboards mesa-esce formation, and the Golden Throne is perched up high in the fold.  Situated at the head of the drainage, the basin is unlike anything I've ever seen in the desert.  It's early, just after 5:30pm but we make the decision to stop here for the day to soak in the setting; figuring this is as good a place to see the days last and first rays of sunshine.  We cowboy camp on slickrock in the dry wash just above a huge poor off that blocks further exploration down canyon; a few potholes offer water nearby.  The Henry Mountains and the badlands to the west turn vibrant red as the sun sets, toads and frogs emerge from the potholes after dusk and we chase them across the slickrock.  Lying awake on our backs we stare up at the stars, watching the near full moon creep over the ridge.  The white slickrock illuminates almost as if it is brighter than during the middle of the day.  This is one of the best campsites I've ever had. 

Sunrise over the meadow

Water source.  Plenty of these along the route this time around. 

Yet another incredible golden hallway to stroll through on the route.