Day 5: The monsoon hits with a vengeance. Our original plan was to do the Navajo Knobs hike but in the rain that pelted us today there were no hikes that could be taken that we were at all interested in. We had decided on the most challenging, most photogenic hikes in the park and wanted to stay away from where the masses were. We spent time at the visitor center and then decided to head back to the hotel. I grabbed this shot from the Chimney Rock parking lot on the way back:
Now, the night before, we had dinner in town and then came back so we could see the sunset. There was no sunset to be had, but at Sunset Point I saw a view that brought me to tears. The Sulphur River winding through its canyon with the cliffs behind and the sun peeking through thick cloud cover.
But today was just rain, rain and more rain. So we sat in the hotel breakfast room and researched alternate plans.
Just before noon we headed back to the park. The rain had stopped. We stopped off at the apricot orchard near the visitor center and had a taste of why the original name of the town that had stood here was Fruita. The Fremont River, which flows through the area, creates a riparian oasis perfect for fruit trees. You can eat all you want right off the tree and if you want to take some out with you it's only 99c per pound. We each had a few apricots. Having fresh fruit was such a wonderful thing.
We decided to drive down the Scenic Drive as it was paved, stopping along the way to take photos of the cliffs. The light just wasn't good enough to get any keepers but it was a great drive. We got to the end of the scenic drive and were presented with a dirt road that takes you through Capitol Gorge...a road that drives through a tall, wide slot canyon. I was hesitant to take the car through after the rains, but cars were coming back from it and a little red Mini Cooper went onto it ahead of us so we decided to go for it.
It was a great drive, slow, and we were never in danger of getting stuck, We made it all the way to the end, where the trailheads for the Capitol Gorge trail and the Golden Throne trail began. Capitol Gorge was a 1-mile round-trip trail loaded with people, Golden Throne was a 4-mile round trip with a 700-foot elevation gain and NO ONE on it. So guess which one we decided to take?
We could not find the entrance to the Golden Throne trail immediately because there was a car parked blocking the well-marked trailhead. The trail quickly ascends, taking you up the side of a cliff.
The terrain is made up of staggered buttes, blocks of rock torn up by long-ago upheavals that formed the Waterpocket Fold, the primary geologic feature of Capitol Reef. This trail takes you right into the heart of the northern part of the Fold. We went around five buttes to make it up to the final destination: Golden Throne.
Golden Throne is a huge knob of Navajo Sandstone stained gold from the iron in the layer of rock that caps it.
The rain started falling in the distance as we finished the hike so we made our way back down much quicker than we came up. We did not want to be caught on that dirt road in the rain! It was the first of three days where the rain threatened on the way back down a hike. It's not fun to have that hanging over your head. On one hand, it was nice and cool, which made the hike a lot easier. But rain and the threat of lightning when out and exposed like that is not pleasant.
Day 6: We woke up early and went to Chimney Rock to do that hike. The parking lot was full of muddy puddles from yesterday. We parked and made our way up the trail. We had to turn back before long because the waist pack I lent my dad turned out to be far too uncomfortable for him to wear so we put it back in the car and started again.
Chimney Rock is a pinnacle that sits alongside the Mummy Cliff. The hike attacks the cliff from the northwest side of it, where one can ascend the Bentonite layer that underlies the harder sandstone capping the cliff. Bentonite is fine when dry but this morning it was wet. It's clay. Thick, gooey, sticky clay and the trail was very steep. It was quite an unpleasant climb under those circumstances.
Once above the Bentonite, the going gets much easier. There is one overlook for Chimney Rock, but it does not give an overly good view of this feature.
While the Mummy Cliff is not the tallest promontory on the Reef, it is plenty high up to get spectacular views of the area. The Henry Mountains dominate the background.
Once we crested the cliff, the main goal of our hike came into view: Chimney Rock Canyon. This lies behind the cliff and dives deep into the surrounding rock and then intersects Spring Canyon, which becomes a flooded slot canyon that goes all the way back to the highway, 13 miles further east.
We headed for the canyon and then went all the way through it to Spring Canyon, where we followed it down to the deep part of the narrows, which have to be bypassed above and to the left. At this point we knew we had to turn back because of time and our lagging energy.
For the second day in a row, storm clouds were massing by the exit to our hike. We made our way back up the gorge as quickly as we could and eventually got back to the Chimney Rock loop trail and scrambled out. It was hard work after the miles we'd hiked but we kept on as the threat of rain hung in the air. We scrambled back down the now-dry Bentonite as the first few drops fell on our faces. We made it back to the car, escaping the majority of the rain but we drove back to the hotel in it. We had hiked more than 13 miles, the longest hike either of us had ever done in one go. We got back to the hotel and rested, showered and then went to the Rim Rock Patio for dinner. My dad had a brisket sandwich that he declared mediocre and I had spaghetti and "meat boulders" in an amazing pesto sauce. It was heaven after the day we had.
Day 7: We had agreed to vary our hikes, to take one day on and one day off. That fell by the wayside on this day. After a stop at the Visitor's Center, we decided to do the Overlook Trail, which leads to the Navajo Knobs trail, which is the second most difficult train in the park. It's 4 1/2 miles each way and has a total elevation gain of over 2000 feet. We parked in the Hickman Bridge parking lot and started on the trail.
The trail quickly rises about 500 feet, giving a great view of Pectol's Pyramid and Fern's Nipple in the distance. It passes a gorge where Hickman Bridge is visible and then continues around eroded cliffs, up the east and south side of the cliff and down the west and north side, following the tilted landscape of the Waterpocket Fold. Up, up, up. We ran into a husband and wife, the husband a physicist who was without a shirt. We also ran into a younger guy who was moving pretty fast on his way up to the Knobs.
We got up to the Overlook, which was dramatic but the sun was already pretty high in the sky so contrast did not make for flattering photos. We stopped for a few minutes to rest and decided to move on. We continued down longer cliff edges, around the eroded feature called The Castle and made our way to what we thought were the Knobs. Protrusions lying above the underlying cliff strata we were hiking on, on the other side of an amphitheater around The Castle from where we were. We trudged on and on and on. We passed these features and came around the west side of them. There, around one more butte and about 400 feet higher up, were the Knobs.
We stopped for lunch. My dad said he could not make that last bit of the hike but invited me to investigate it while he rested. I saw the clouds massing behind the Knobs and thought better of it. While we sat and ate our peanut butter cheese cracker lunch, I heard thunder in the distance and started worrying.
We started back down the trail, a long, long way to go. We knew we had a long uphill climb when we got to The Castle and the clouds spread thicker towards us. I kept an eye to the sky and started getting scared. We were in a high place, totally exposed to what was rapidly becoming a serious lightning threat. My dad was exhausted and had to stop often and by the time we were headed uphill on that butte the rain was quickly spreading towards us.
In the above photo, the Castle is the feature on the left side and what we thought were the Knobs are the protrusions above the cliff on the right side. The rain is visible between them. We had only gotten halfway up the incline when the rain started falling and, with it, the wind.
My dad wears hearing aids. Hearing aids and heavy rain blown by wind do not mix. I searched in vain for overhangs or other shelter along the trail and my dad stopped underneath a short juniper tree, unable to continue while the rain and wind pounded us. So we stayed in the meager shelter for about 15 minutes as the worst of it hit us. I had barely time to move my small camera to the dry bag in my backpack and get the rain cover on my camera waist pack before the deluge began. I heard thunder but it was thankfully not in our part of the storm.
The rain let up fractionally and we continued on. The storm was spreading further to the east. The Henry Mountains were still in sunshine, but not for long.
The rain moved off to the southeast and we got a respite from the rain but we could see a new storm blowing up to our northwest and knew we had limited time to get off the mountain and back to the car so we grimly picked our way down the mountain, taking fewer breaks now.
We made our way back down, passing the Hickman Bridge overlook and eventually running into a large number of people who were just beginning the hike. It was already late in the afternoon and we warned them about the rain. We made our way stiffly and painfully back down to the car. My ankle was inflamed, my left big toe was in alarming pain and my back was killing me. My dad was similarly afflicted. It had been a grueling hike but it was over. We went back to the hotel. We rewarded ourselves with a gourmet dinner of canned tuna fish and canned chicken with thawed frozen carrots.
After dinner I went out to photograph the sunset while my dad rested in the hotel. It took me about half an hour to get checked out of the hotel and then I drove back to Sunset Point to capture our last sunset in Capitol Reef National Park.
After taking this last shot, with The Castle and the butte we got caught in the rain in on the left and the Henry Mountains on the right, I went back to the hotel and we packed up and got ready for an early morning departure. Our time in Capitol Reef had come to an end. We had tackled three of the most difficult hikes that park throws at its visitors and came out of it banged up, bruised but alive and ready to move on to Escalante.
The next blog entry will feature our short trip to Upper Muley Twist, Long Canyon and our first forays down Hole-In-The-Rock Road.