Another 4th of July and another of MPK’s planned backcountry backpacking trips. I will forever, and affectionately, refer to these trips as Hikes to Hell.
Let’s start this one with some background. MPK hates the winter months in SLC. He craves warmth. No, strike that. He craves ridiculously hot temperatures (I think the weirdo wants to live in Tucson or some godforsaken place like that). Two years ago, he planned what would be my first backpacking adventure with him to Canyonlands NP over the same holiday weekend (El Scorcho I). It was hot. It was long. It was painful. But, it was actually a really enjoyable time and we saw some of the most beautiful scenery the US has to offer. It’s also when I fell in love with Canyonlands.
Last February, attempting to speed the arrival of spring, MPK planned a weekend backpack into the backcountry of Zion NP. While it wasn’t El Scorcho, it was definitely a Death March. Col ended up with horrible blisters slogging through the mud with his pack. When we woke up to icicles in our tent, we decided enough was enough. We packed out and spent the last night in the national park’s campground with a toasty fire after a nice meal and lots of margaritas.
So, when a holiday weekend in the backcountry of Capitol Reef NP was proposed, I knew it would be hot. I knew it would be painful. I thought it would be a really enjoyable time.
MPK, Col and I left SLC on Friday after work. Apparently, everyone else heeded UDOT’s advice and traveled early because we sailed through the disaster that is Utah County in record time (I still think they should build a giant bridge that bypasses that awful part of the state…at least for those of us who do not need to feed a Prozac or pornography addiction). About two hours into the drive I realized my freshly charged and cleaned camera was at home*. That means it was not in the truck with me. That means I was a pissy bitch for the rest of the drive to our first camping spot. We spent the night at Singletree campground off Scenic Byway 12 just outside Torrey and enjoyed a nice campfire and some beer (eased my pain about the camera) in advance of the torture.
After a restful night sleeping under the stars, we headed over to the Capitol Reef NP visitors’ center to pick up our backcountry permit (free) and get the usual disapproving lectures from the park ranger. “Do you know how hot it is this time of year? Do you know there’s no water out there? Do you know what cryptobiotic crust is? Don’t bust the crust! DON’T EVEN LOOK AT THE CRUST!”
Permit in hand we made the approximately 55 mile drive over rutted, dirt roads to the Halls Creek Overlook, which gives access to the trailhead for the hike to Halls Creek Narrows. We had expected to be the only hikers out there, but after navigating the very rough road to the overlook (commenting the whole time we were glad to be in Col’s lifted 4×4), there was a small Subaru wagon parked at the trailhead. A Subaru. In Capitol Reef. I’ll let you do the math.
We donned our packs loaded with supplies and lots of water (at least a good 40 pounds) and started down the trail. The first part of the trail is a descent of about 1000 feet over 1 mile (think STEEP) to the drainage. Once at the base of the canyon, the rest of the hike is essentially flat in the (usually) dry creek bed. This should have been a piece of cake. Except…we started our hike around 12:30 in the afternoon. So, while the sun was bright, we were definitely not. This hike was already killing me. Kicking my ass would be an understatement. We had decided to make camp at the five mile mark to position us well for a day hike to the narrows on Sunday, and it took us nearly five hours to get there. I was so sapped from the heat and the blazing sun I had to keep plopping down to gulp my limited supply of water. Each time, I could hear the voice inside MPK’s head: “OFF TASK!!”
The 4.7 mile mark seemed far enough, and we found a nice spot on higher ground to make camp. There’s plenty of nice camping along the drainage in the high spots created by the meandering creek bed, and most seemed fairly sandy. We dropped our packs and everyone immediately took a nap in the shade. We set up our tents and wandered down to the creek bed to make dinner and watch the stars slowly fill the sky. I’m still trying to decide whether Capitol Reef or Bryce Canyon offers a more spectacular view of the stars. Either way, it’s awesome. We even saw the International Space Station race across the sky. Pretty wild.
On Sunday morning I awoke to the only other hikers in the area packing out past our camp. It was two women (another part of that math problem from above if you haven’t figured it out yet) and their timing meant they’d be making the ascent around high noon, which made me feel like even more of a pussy.
We set out on a day hike for the narrows. The plan was to hike early in the day when the sun wasn’t as hot to reach the narrows and then hunker down for the heat of the day before hiking back. While it was easier trekking along the creek bed without a full pack, the sun and heat still kicked my ass. I found myself stopping more often than planned and really slowing us down. The trail isn’t particularly difficult; it’s mostly flat, but there are spots where you have to navigate over river rock or trudge through soft sand. We made it to the narrows just as the sun was peaking above us, and it couldn’t have been better timing.
The canyon narrows quickly into a classic slot canyon and the scenery becomes spectacular. About a half mile into the narrows we reached an alcove that stopped us all in our tracks. The canyon wall curved up and out over our heads, towering hundreds of feet above us. It creates a cool, lush pocket where ferns grow from the cracks in the rock. They are so green we all thought they were fake for a minute. Water from the last thunderstorm was still captured in deep, clear pools. We decided to hike a bit more into the canyon and return to this spot to wait out the day. We made our way about another half mile or so to some running water where we filtered and filled our bottles, then returned to what MPK dubbed the “Siesta Alcove” to soak in the cool water and nap. Quite a nice way to spend an afternoon, and the high point of the weekend for me.
The trek back to “base camp” was arduous again. Even though we waited until about 4:30 to start back, the heat was still intense and I was still a pussy. MPK kept having to wait for us to catch up, but since he had re-injured his leg at one point I was really just doing it as a favor to him so he could rest and still save face. Yeah…that’s the ticket. By the time we made it back to camp I was pretty wiped out from the almost 12 miles we’d hiked. I think I may have had a little bit of heat stroke since I wasn’t really hungry and just wanted to sleep. We made dinner and hit the hay early and tried to sleep through a very windy night.
We got up at 4:30 AM to pack up camp and try to make it out of the canyon before the sun got the better of us. It was like a totally different experience hiking in the coolness of the early morning in the canyon. The four miles that took us four hours on Saturday took us less than two hours to cover. In fact, we only stopped once…to filter the last bit of water we’d need to get back to civilization.
The canyon wall was our last obstacle back to the truck. And, it was a big one. In fact, the ascent back to the trailhead is like Halls Creek’s big “fuck you” to anyone making this trek. At some points it actually borders on mountaineering as you scramble up rocks and boulders, sometimes losing the trail entirely. MPK was ahead of us and was nice enough to make some cairns to point the way for us. It took me nearly two hours to make the ascent. At times I had to stop every 25 feet or so to catch my breath (and keep from puking), constantly cursing the canyon and the lesbians (ah, yes…there’s the solution to the math problem!!) for making me look like a loser.
We finally reached the top of the trail and saw the beloved, little red truck waiting for us. I guzzled the last of my water and plopped in the front seat with the AC on high. I was a happy camper. Finally.
Our total was around 23 miles. I’ve told a few people about my weekend and they all ask me why in the world I did this. I can’t really think of a good reason. I’ve thought about blaming it on the fact it was three humans with penises who planned this thing, but then there’s that whole pesky lesbian conundrum. So, really, I think it boils down to a little stupidity, a little naivety and a lot of sense of adventure. In the end, we made it through the weekend and saw some pretty cool things. So, yeah…it was worth it.
But…I’m not doing it again.
Here is the photoset for this trip: Halls Canyon Narrows – July 2011
Planning this Trip
*All photos are from MPK’s camera; I took some shots, but most are his handiwork.