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Repeatable delight: Upper Muley Twist Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef hike offers contrasting scenery

One of Capitol Reef’s most topographically diverse hikes wanders through a landscape of contrasts from high and wide-open to a slot inside the earth. The stem-and-loop incorporates four elements: Upper Muley Twist Canyon, Waterpocket Fold, multiple sensational arches and views spanning from Strike Valley to the Henry Mountains. Walk on sheets of cream-colored Navajo Sandstone while hunting for windows eroded in matte-brick Wingate Sandstone.

While this hike gets full treatment in park literature, I have visited the canyon many times over a quarter century and have encountered few people. Wear sticky-soled shoes and bring some courage for two slickrock friction pitches. The canyon served as a wagon route for Mormon Pioneers in the 1880s. The passage was narrow enough to “twist a mule.”

Please observe park rules in regards to COVID-19 before taking on this adventure.

From the trailhead, elevation 5,860 feet, walk northwest in Upper Muley Twist Canyon. Living along the sides of the flat-bottomed, gravel and rock-filled watercourse are Great Basin sagebrush, rabbitbrush, snakeweed, roundleaf buffaloberry, ephedra, fourwing saltbrush, cliffrose, Harriman’s yucca, prickly pear and Indian ricegrass.

The Twist has carved a rift in the Waterpocket Fold exposing the interplay of Navajo and Wingate sandstones. A soaring, vertical red wall abuts the canyon floor on the east, its otherwise smooth, water-burnished surface textured with solution cavities. Deep green Utah junipers and two-needle piñon pines contrast with the colorful wall, a tapestry streaked with the black sheen of desert varnish.

A tributary enters upcanyon-left at 1.2 miles. Begin watching for Muley Arch soon after. Stand under its sharp-edged, inverted catenary curve. The canyon closes in, elements are reduced to stone and sky. At 1.8 miles, muscular Saddle Arch with its expanded aperture rises from a banded platform on the west side.

Rim Route, Waterpocket Fold

An old wooden sign marks the turnoff for the Rim Route. The loop initiates here and can be done in either direction. The conventional circuit spins clockwise, beginning with the canyon segment and returning on the Waterpocket Fold. I prefer to start out on the Fold. The exposed rim is traversed in morning coolness, strong shadows highlight arches and the canyon is softened by afternoon shade.

The route to the rim is not a groomed trail. It winds all around through boulders while exploiting breaks in cliff bands. Follow plentiful cairns carefully. As you crest the Fold, look back across the canyon at the stand-alone, globular stone structure that embraces Muley Arch.

Can you find the arch in this photograph? Walk on the Waterpocket Fold in the morning when shadows cast by windows on the opposite canyon wall make them easier to spot.

In the east is a highly unusual landscape of linearities all running north-south. The Notom-Bullfrog Road cruises along at the base of scalloped, pink-hued Oyster Shell Reef. Above the sinuous oxbows of Halls Creek rests an ultra-flat golden bench incised with trenches intersecting a straight-as-an-arrow rib. Next is the fluted Mancos Shale escarpment of Tarantula Mesa. And finally, the three blocks of the Henry Mountains.

The monoclinal Fold spans nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain in the north to the Colorado River in the south. The traverse north on the Rim Route stretches for 2.6 miles before diving back into the canyon. The route undulates and weaves all around, so link cairns to keep on track and out of trouble. A mix of sand patches and slickrock transitions to pure stone walking. Shallow potholes, or waterpockets, are weathered into the surface. The precipitation they capture and store is essential for the survival of all desert creatures. The name “Waterpocket Fold” references these depressions and “Capitol Reef” in turn, refers to the Fold.

Navajo Sandstone is characterized by domes and smoothly rounded, buff-colored forms. Look across the canyon to the older Wingate Sandstone. Its uniform, flat-brick color is brightened by a hint of salmon. The uplifted wall has eroded into soft-edged pilasters, pillows, reclined fins, and most notably, arches. Arch hunting is sensitive to the angle of the sun and varies with the seasons and even time of day. On one hike, I spotted nine arches from the Fold alone. Every time, I see a different set of windows. If you are serious about counting arches, pack a pair of binoculars.

A hiker walks on a narrow stretch of the Waterpocket Fold. The park’s signature domes to the north were obscured by smoke generated by regional wildfires in 2020

The ridge narrows to six feet with mild exposure at 2.9 miles. Point 6,470’ is at the abrupt north end of a ridge block; if you were to continue on the spine you’d get cliffed out. Bypass to the west on a short friction pitch, losing 100 feet in elevation.

The steepest pitch is yet to come. The route leaves the ridgetop and steps down to the east on a slanted sandstone slab. Let the cairns guide you. This may challenge hikers with a fear of exposure. To maximize your traction, take short steps and deliberately flatten the soles of your shoes onto the granular rock to create suction.

The route drops into a notch. Look directly north across the saddle and find the trail climbing steeply up a buttress and back onto the ridgecrest. The last segment along the Fold is mellow and broad. Reach the north end of the Rim Route at about 4.8 miles where the Canyon Route sign guides you off the Fold. The route drops along the west side of a vertical wall that looks like a sherbet-banded whale. There’s one Class 2+ scramble down a 10-foot wall with nice holds.

Upper Muley Twist Canyon

Contact the floor of the canyon at about 5.2 miles. Just as the fluted waterway begins to slot up and deep tanks develop, the route leaves the wash for a 0.8 mile bypass. Watch for cairns downcanyon-left leading you steeply out of the drainage. The bypass threads ledge systems together with mild exposure.

Upper Muley’s slot canyon puts on the squeeze. The walk up the finger canyon ends all too soon at an impassible (for most of us) pouroff.

If there is no danger of a flash flood, upon returning to the wash walk upstream and enter a slot canyon. Glowing light in the constriction highlights tafoni, smooth-edged cavities in rock surfaces, also known as honeycomb weathering. In just 0.1 mile a 12-foot pouroff turns around casual hikers. Shallow divots in a vertical wall can be scaled by canyoneers but while the slot can be explored further, it can’t be passed through.

Heading down the Twist, flaring red walls contact the flat floor allowing easy passage through the corridor. Be on the lookout for arches, all unique in form. A few minutes downstream, walk into a gap to stand under Upper Muley Twist Arch. You can’t miss massive Rimhandle Arch. Scan the south wall of a side canyon for two small skylights.

Close the loop at Saddle Arch at 8.5 miles. On the jaunt back to the trailhead, you are likely to see arches you missed at the beginning of your hike.

http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.

Travel Basics


Drive south from the junction of Utah State Route 24 and Notom-Bullfrog Road (nine miles east of the Visitor Center). The road is paved for 16 miles before transitioning to graded clay and dirt. The track can be impassable when wet and has short segments of deep sand when dry. Peek-a-Boo Arch, visible high on the wall to the west, precedes the right turn onto the Burr Trail at 23.4 miles. Drive carefully up the steep switchbacks cleaved into a break between stone walls. Turn right on Strike Valley Road, 3.1 miles from the Notom-Burr Trail junction, following the sign for “Upper Muley Twist Canyon, 3 miles.” To reach the trailhead, four-wheel drive with good clearance and sturdy tires is recommended. Most of the track is buff but there are some seriously rocky sections. There is room for six to eight vehicles at the trailhead parking lot. No facilities, no water.

Fees and Camping:

Please see the Capitol Reef National Park website for current information.

Distance and Elevation Gain:

10.3 miles with 1,100 feet of climbing.

Total Time:

5½ to 7 hours


Wash bottom and cairned route; navigation moderate--experience following cairns is recommended; Class 2+; mild exposure; carry all the water you will need and avoid on hot summer days and when there is any threat of electrical storms or rain.


Hiking Map and Guide: Capitol Reef National Park; Trails Illustrated: Capitol Reef #267, available at the Visitor Center.