As I raised the beer to my lips the wind pushed me ahead a good three or four feet. I watched as the cigarette I was smoking had its cherry ripped out and deposited about 20 feet downwind. Yeah, it was a blustery day in Capitol Reef National Park, and that’s putting it mildly. In fact, since Skip and I had departed Salt Lake City earlier that morning, the wind had been gaining force with every mile we drove into it. Well, let this bastard wind whip up all it wants, I thought. I’m here now, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of this excursion, wind be damned!
It had been quite a while since I had a real desert trip. I made a weekend escape to the San Rafael Swell a few weeks earlier, but that had been a quick one night stay and I didn’t get to do any real hiking. This weekend was going to be different. Memorial Day, backup on the way, plenty of hikes planned and three full days to explore. Skip had towed his new pop-up camper down for the trip, and it was teetering back and forth with every gust of wind. We had positioned ourselves on the edge of a ridge high above the Strike Valley, a place I had camped two years prior. We weren’t about to waste any more time fiddling with camp, so into the Jeep we climbed and it sped down the Notom-Bullfrog road towards our first destination.
We had settled on hiking Cottonwood Wash, one of the slot canyons that line the easter edge of the park’s boundary. Initially we planned to hike Burro Wash, but since we only had about 3 hours it was out of the question. The trailhead was located and instead of parking near the pull-off, Skip pointed the Jeep down a shale rock littered road. The machine crept slowly over the rough land but we cut out about a mile of very dull hiking with just a 10 minute drive. We arrived at the end of the line; the jeep trail terminated near the entry to Cottonwood Wash. There was a Toyota parked just a few feet away with a couple hanging out nearby- a prime spot indeed!
Packs were donned and we began our walk up the wash. At first it was scattered rock with no real canyon walls, just small, rounded hills on either side. Soon enough those walls began to close in and the canyon became markedly more interesting. We made our way past a couple small dryfalls and around large boulders. Cottonwood trees, desert shrubs and bright yellow flowers added some outstanding color to the early portion of the hike. Up ahead I noticed the walls grew much tighter; I picked up my pace in anticipation of entering the first real portion of slot canyon.
I can’t explain exactly what makes slot canyons so amazing- they just are. The walls are smooth, high and tight, like a classic 90’s fade. Sunlight is at a premium, and there are often pools of chilly, murky water that require wading. It’s unlike any kind of hiking you can do; to be in those depths, those inhospitable places were nothing but a bold tree or silent chock stone can live. The experience is something I cherish deeply; there is nothing like it in the world. Cottonwood Wash was really wowing us the deeper we went. After a split in the trail the little canyon became increasingly narrow and difficult to negotiate. Skip and I made our way up, over and around several major obstacles. Clearly these problems turned around most people as the amount of footprints in the canyon diminished the further we propelled ourselves. Eventually we reached a section of slot that was as impressive as any I have hiked in. We both wondered aloud how Cottonwood didn’t receive any of the hype that neighboring Burro did. This was one of the most fun and scenic canyons I have hiked in and it deserves to be described as such.
We continued to twist and turn up the slot, but it seemed it would never end. A 35 foot dryfall is supposed to mark the turn around point, but we were running short on time. Our friends Jeff and Jackie would be waiting for us at the visitor center around 6pm and we didn’t want to make them wait. It was almost 4pm. We had been hiking for an hour and a half to get to this point. Skip was ready to turn around, but I asked him to let me continue up canyon for a few minutes. I got the green light and set out a a jogger’s pace…I wanted to see that dryfall. I moved onward as fast as I could through more sections of amazingly narrow walls, walking gingerly over a small ledge that skirted the only water we saw in the canyon, and finally I was deposited at the dryfall. It was quite impressive and certainly impassable without any equipment. I took in the sight for a brief moment, then turned around and made my way back just as quickly as I had come.
As we made our way out of the canyon there were a few tense moments. We had a bit of trouble negotiating one of the harder obstacles…seems things change a bit in reverse. In the end we came away with just a couple of standard scrapes and bruises; just another day in the desert! We ran into an older couple as we exited the main narrows; seems they were turned around by one of the major boulder problems. We chatted briefly and then continued on our way. They were the only other souls we saw the entire time. Back out in the full sunshine I could feel my body wearing down. We had expelled almost all of our energy inside the walls of the canyon and I needed to kick my feet up and relax.
We hit camp for some much needed food and drink, then jumped right back into the Jeep and made our way to the Visitor Center. Sure enough, Jeff and Jackie were waiting for us. They had arrived just 15 minutes before. I penned a note with directions for yet more troops we were set to arrive the next day and tacked it to the bulletin board. We led our new arrivals back to camp where we were greeted with blasts of wind that seemed to be growing in strength. In fact, the wind (over 60MPH) at times, became so unbearable that we resorted to spending most of the day and night hanging out inside the pop-up. Turns out it was a lifesaver; normally we would have had to hunker down inside the jeep and try to make the most of it. Inside the cozy space of the trailer we were able to eat, drink, kick our feet up and actually enjoy the evening despite the windstorm that raged outside. All five of us ended up sleeping inside the camper, and there were a few points that I awoke to the terrible realization that the roof could well be ripped off of the thing.
Luckily we survived until dawn. We milled about camp and began to make plans for the day…our friends Randy and Amy would arrive at sometime in the afternoon, and we had no rock solid agenda before that. We had already packed a lot of fun into 24 hours, but it was about to get a lot better.