Distance: 10 miles (loop)
Last hiked: 2015 October
Best time of year: Year-round
In looking at the map and reading general descriptions (though probably not carefully enough), I vastly underestimated this hike. Realizing it would make a great sunset hike, I was already en route down Notom Road along the east side of the park around midday when I set the goal to do it that afternoon before sunset, which was roughly 7pm. I knew it was nine or ten miles, but what I didn’t know was that many of those miles were pretty grueling and slow-going. On top of that, reaching the trailhead was a whole other adventure.
There are actually two trailheads for Upper Muley Twist Canyon. One is for 2wd and low-clearance vehicles, the other is for high-clearance vehicles, and 4wd is highly recommended. Though the 4wd trailhead will shave off four miles of your round-trip journey, it changes with each flash flood and could pose some serious obstacles for any 4wd vehicle. Scope it out, ask around (especially at the Visitor Center), and see if you’re up for the challenge. Otherwise, expect this to be a 14 mile or so hike.
The trail from the 2wd trailhead follows the same wash that leads up to the 4wd trailhead. After a bit of fancy maneuvering through the wash (if I do say so myself), I started hiking at the 4wd trailhead and got on the trail at about 2:15pm, shooting to be out shortly after sunset. The trail officially begin here and continues heading up the wash as it winds up through a relatively wide canyon. There are a number of arches high above on the left, so keep your eyes peeled for many different shapes and sizes of them. Some you may be able to scramble up to, others might prove a bit more challenging. At about 1.5 miles in, the trail forks below Saddle Arch, one of the more spectacular arches high up in the sandstone cliffs. Right will take you up onto the rim, which is recommended if it’s morning for lighting, but if it’s afternoon, the lighting will be better if you save the rim for later.
Heading straight, the trail remains pretty much the same as it has from the trailhead. Truth be told, other than the occasional arch high above, it’s actually a little underwhelming and you begin to wonder why this hike gets so much great attention. That changes though upon reaching a large arch much closer to the ground and easily explored. This is where the trail starts to get much more interesting. After the arch, the canyon will narrow extensively, forming a fantastic slot canyon. The only problem is that it’s completely impassible a couple of tenths of a mile up, but is still well worth exploring to see the canyon walls squeeze in around you. Prior to the slot canyon, there should have been a cairn marking a bypass route on the right (east) side of the canyon. This marks the first place where great route-finding skills will become essential.
The bypass heads steeply up above the slot canyon, where now more slots are visible as tributaries to the main slot canyon, all of them forming rolling solidified sand dunes. After a steep and sometimes sketchy ascent up slickrock and boulders, the bypass route levels out for a bit before making another strenuous climb up the side of a cliff giving you higher views of Upper Muley Twist Canyon. My pace slowed down dramatically here, and I began to wonder if I should play it safe and head back so I could have more time to enjoy the hike the next day. I wasn’t about to drive to the trailhead again though, so I pushed on, wondering if I made the right choice.
Note: The next cairn is not always in the most expected, or even logical spot. If you don’t see the next one at first, keep looking around in every direction, even up and down.
As you continue to scramble along the bypass route, you eventually wind up at a fork for the Rim Trail. Follow the cairns to lead you up another steep ascent to the rim.
At the top of the rim, overlooking Strike Valley thousands of feet below, I felt a renewed sense of determination, despite being only a little less than halfway and still needing to hike 4-5 miles in two hours with completely unknown terrain ahead of me. Yet the views were awe-inspiring and I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the sight of all the geologic uplift and erosion far below stretching into the distance. This made all the climbing worth it.
Cairns will mark the trail southward as you begin to make your way back toward the trailhead. You bounce from cairn to cairn high above the surrounding landscape on top of Navajo Sandstone slickrock, and for the most part, it’s pretty easy going. I even used the opportunity to jog a few times to make up for lost time. It’s certainly not the way I’d prefer to hike, feeling rushed in such an incredible place, but at the same time, there was something euphoric and surreal about jogging along the crest of the Waterpocket Fold.
In more than one spot, the trail descends down into a saddle where the fear of heights might be tested for some (if wasn’t already at the bypass route). A couple of spots are reminiscent of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, where the trail is only wide enough to get where you need to go. Once back up on the rim, the trail continues along the top until you reach the trail to descend back to the wash. As with the rest of the rim, cairns will help you find your way down where fantastic views of Saddle Arch are on display all the way down.
Once back down at the bottom below the arch, head back toward the trailhead. Fortunately, I made it out only a short time after sunset, but this is one trail I plan on revisiting sooner than later.
From the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center, get back on Highway 24 and head east (right at the junction) for 9 miles. At the park’s boundary, marked with a large parking area with restrooms on the left, turn right onto Notom Road, which heads up a hill. Follow that road for roughly 33 miles (high clearance vehicle recommended). At a large junction, merge onto the Burr Trail by heading right. Follow that for just over 3 miles, ascending the Burr Switchbacks through the Waterpocket Fold. You’ll pass the trailhead for Lower Muley Twist Canyon and the turnoff for Upper Muley Twist Canyon will be on your right a short distance later. Nearly half-a-mile will bring you to the 2wd trailhead. Another two miles will bring you to the 4wd trailhead. There are few places to turn around so make sure you’re comfortable navigating many obstacles before going farther. Much of the challenge is toward the end of the route.
From Boulder, Utah, head down the Burr Trail eastbound for roughly 33 miles. Look for the sign on your left and continue toward the trailheads.
Note: Do not try to access this trail if it is raining or has been raining recently.