Step by Step: A Backpacking Adventure in Capitol Reef National Park

A dirt road in the foreground and a red and white Waterpocket fold in the background

“It’s too quiet out here, and I’m sleeping without the rainfly. The thin mesh netting seems a flimsy barrier to anything outside. But I feel a sense of independence and pride to have my own tent, to have carried all my things here, 9 miles, over the waterpocket fold and through winding canyons with tall, sheer walls hemming us in. Today I felt strong.” – Excerpt from my journal, May 21, 2016

It was bright and eerie in the stillness of the southern Utah desert as I wrote those words in my tent. Switching off my headlamp, I watched the full moon crest above the cliffs facing us, sending a column of white light across the floor of the cave.

Camping in Capitol Reef National Park

This trip was the first step toward one of my goals, to go on a solo overnight camping trip. I’d organized the outing with some women I’d met through a local hiking group, and it was my first time backpacking. We decided on a one-night, 18-mile excursion deep in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. The trail we chose to follow, Lower Muley Twist, climbs over a geologic formation called the waterpocket fold and then follows a deep canyon for seven miles before exiting out onto wash-filled flats.

The other-worldly Waterpocket Fold

The others in my group had backpacked before, and they were confident in our ability to complete the hike. Theoretically, I knew that I could do it with proper planning. Yet with this being my first backpacking trip, there were a few things that made me a bit nervous:

It was remote. The trailhead was 30 miles down a rarely-traveled and deeply-rutted dirt road, an hour’s drive from park services. Moreover, the trail was unmaintained and saw few visitors.

It was dry. There was no water available on trail, meaning we’d have to carry everything we needed for two days of hiking in the early-summer heat.

Finally, could I walk 18 miles in two days with a heavy backpack on my shoulders?

Weeks later, I snapped shut my rented REI backpack and hoisted it on my back. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to tote this monstrosity 18 miles across the desert, but as I looked out over the wild expanse of twisted rock and then back toward my eager friends, I knew I had to try.

Ready for whatever comes my way

Our first day brought a steep climb over the waterpocket fold, its white rock sloping upward toward the sky as we meandered past rock cairns and occasionally braved steep dropoffs. Two miles in, we dropped over the ridge and descended into Muley Twist Canyon, so named because it was narrow and crooked enough to “twist a mule”. Pioneers had used this path since the late 1800s, emigrating south with their wagons. Later, cowboys would use the canyon’s massive caves as a shadowy respite from the hot desert sun.

Breathtaking scenery make the hiking worth it

We wandered along the canyon floor, our path easy to follow as thousand-foot-tall Kayenta sandstone walls soared above us. Occasional gusts of wind sent sand flying, scouring our limbs as we shielded our eyes. But mostly it was a pleasant walk under a heavy pack that felt more tolerable as the day wore on.

We covered ground quickly on flat, sandy paths and slowly picked our way across scattered pebbles in dry washes. Occasionally we’d encounter huge piles of boulders or soaring, curved ceilings of stone, undercut from the rock above.


Late in the day, we began looking for a spot to camp. Finally we arrived at the Cowboy cave, a massive bowl carved out from the rock. We marveled at the markings left by young cowboys nearly a hundred years ago and examined the artifacts amassed around a fire pit. Old tin cans of beans, cigarette cartons, and bits of tools had been preserved by fellow hikers, a testament to their respect and also the remoteness of this place.


While we relaxed and had dinner, two hikers passed by, making them the only other people we’d encounter during our journey. Soon after, the sun began to set and we set up our various sleeping systems: tents or bivvies or open air pads.

I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, looking out across the cave floor and into the sky above. I’d done it, I thought, at least halfway. Too exhausted to write more than a couple phrases about my journey, I was asleep by 9pm.


The next morning dawned with blue skies and bright sun, and we lingered over breakfast before hoisting our bags on our backs once more. Only another mile of canyon walking remained; the rest of the route was in open fields over sandy trail. After exiting the canyon, we decided to detour to Hamburger Rocks, a peculiar formation of round, red stone up on the waterpocket fold.

Hamburger rocks, an oddity on the Waterpocket Fold

After several goofy photos and some trail finding confusion, we continued on under intense sun, finishing the final 5 miles over flat, red dirt with dreams of cold Apricot Hefeweizens dancing in our heads.

The cars became visible at least a mile out, becoming somewhat of a tease as we continued to walk and seemed to get no closer. Finally, finally we arrived. I’d done it. Survived my first backpacking trip, suffered very little, and experienced so much. I felt strong, I felt relaxed, I felt badass. I’d fallen even more in love with the desert, and I’d turned acquaintances into friends.

What’s funny is that once it was over, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore. The thought of carrying everything you need to survive off into a remote place sounds so daunting, but with a bit of planning and optimism, it felt easy. I suppose that can be true for many unknown projects, destinations, or ideas – it’s only in going for it that you wonder why you’d waited so long in the first place.

All in all, the trip was a success. And my new backpack (which I have since purchased) is ready for another adventure!

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