“There might be water in the Muley Tanks, but it is hard to know.” We were talking to the rangers at Capitol Reef National Park, picking up permits and gathering intel on that most precious of desert commodities- water. Drought has stricken the southwest in recent years, and formerly reliable water holes can often be empty. We were assured however, that the slot canyon we intended to explore on our third day would have a six-foot deep pool blocking the route.
With this information in mind, we finalized our trip plans, called home to tell our wives about our route, and started the drive to the trailhead. The day so far had been taking down the tents in our unremarkable campground, eating a middling breakfast, and trying multiple places to find drinkable coffee (success was found at Dark Sky), so we were eager to be on our way and start the trip. There was still hours of driving to do, but the road through the park was especially scenic. It was hard to know when to stop and take pictures, because it seemed like every butte and cliffside could yield a hundred viable images.
We drove to the Halls Creek overlook, where we ate lunch and packed our backpacks. I discovered that one of my largest water bottles was leaking. I had enough other bottles to carry a little over two gallons of water, but it was enough to trigger some anxiety. With desert hiking, trip types and distances are often constrained by how much water you can carry. Based on our conversation with the rangers, the four-day trip had two possible water sources on the third day, but nothing for the first two. Leaving Doug’s truck at the trailhead, we rode together in our Jeep to the Burr Trail road and our upper trailhead. It felt weird to be driving in a car with someone after Covid.
Capitol Reef National Park is centered on the Waterpocket Fold, a geological monocline. Caused by faults, a monocline forms a fold in otherwise horizontal rock layers. In Capitol Reef, the yellow-white Navajo sandstone sits on top of red Wingate sandstone. At the Waterpocket Fold, nearly a hundred miles long, the Navajo forms nearly vertical planes of rock on the eastern side, while the Wingate sits to the west.
At the boundary of these rock layers, a canyon sways back and forth like a sinuous snake. Early pioneers named it Muley Twist, saying it was narrow enough to “twist a mule.” Our first backpack of the trip would take us down the lower stretches of this canyon.
The trail started out with a short but steep ascent to the canyon floor. Our backpacks were enormous and bulging at the seams. In addition to the normal camping gear, we carried over two gallons of water apiece. That’s 16 pounds in water weight alone. My pack was super heavy, but still felt manageable. Doug’s was worse. His pack was super-light, weighing little, but with a suspension system designed to carry ultralight loads to match. Burdened with water, the weight inside far exceeded its comfortable carrying limits.
With the weight on our backs, the hike was a bit of a trudge down sand, gravel, and slickrock. Looking at my feet, the terrain reminded me of Joshua Tree. Looking up, rocks walls hundreds of feet tall provided a very different experience. The canyon gradually grew narrower and taller, although nothing I would call a slot canyon.
“Did we have enough water?” I thought continuously as we walked. “Should I have carried more? Should I have swapped out my tripod for more water? Why did I bring a tripod anyway? There were no waterfalls here and I won’t take any long exposures either.” These are the thoughts that ran through my head in an anxious torrent as the trip began.
We only made it a little over four miles when we began to look for camping spots. We anticipated that the canyon would narrow soon, so when we found a nice slick rock slab perched above the canyon floor, we decided to stop there. It was within sight of the trail, but we hadn’t seen anyone since we left the trailhead. We went tent-less, sleeping directly on the slabs of sandstone. We fell asleep with bats swirling in the night sky overhead.