Canyoneer Capitol Reef National Park
I just got back from hiking/wading/swimming through Cottonwood Wash in Capitol Reef National Park. We enjoyed a great little canyoneering adventure – perfect for our group, which included some energetic teenagers.
Zion Park is well known for its slot canyon adventures. People come from around the world to canyoneer the technical slots found there. Fewer people know that Capitol Reef also offers great slot canyons – some that compare with the best in Zion Park. Cottonwood Wash is one of the great ones.
We hiked in from the bottom and successfully negotiated several challenging obstacles before being chased out of the canyon by thickening clouds and threatening rain.
If you hike Cottonwood from the top down, it is a technical canyon that requires three rappels and some serious down climbing.
Utah is now under a “monsoon” weather pattern. Mornings are clear clear and beautiful. Thunderstorms often build during the heat of the day. The Capitol Reef area has been receiving afternoon rain, and some serious flooding occurred last weekend. We were caution as we proceeded into the canyon, knowing that flash floods pose a serious danger in narrow canyons.
We stayed at the main campground in Capitol Reef, which is very nice. This morning we awoke to an overcast sky. Temperatures were very nice, perfect for hiking.
I was concerned because of the clouds. The campground is sandwiched between high sandstone walls and we had a limited view of the sky, so we decided to drive toward the trailhead and evaluate conditions when we got up where we could see around.
The trailhead at the bottom of Cottonwood Wash is located about 10 miles down the Notom-Bullfrog Road. As we approached we could see out over the Waterpocket Fold and up toward Boulder Mountain. The sky was completely overcast but the clouds weren't dark and heavy. We decided we would hike up canyon to the first set of narrows and then evaluate again.
We cautiously went through several sections of narrows, including one that required an exhilarating swim through cold water, watching the sky all of the time. On this lower end, the tightest narrows are not particularly long and there are escape routes possible in several spots. If the canyon had long sections of narrows without escape routes, I would not have hiked there today.
When we were about two miles in, the clouds started to darken and we felt a cool breeze. We decided not to press our luck and so we turned around and made our way rapidly out of the canyon.
It started to rain just as we reached my truck. Driving home, we went through heavy rain in the Bicknell area. Boulder Mountain looked like it was getting plastered.
We really enjoyed the hike, and also camping in the park.
If you want to do similar hikes, use caution and talk to the rangers at the park visitors centers to get reports on weather and conditions.
Last week a flash flood swept 3 hikers over waterfalls in Zion Park. It is incredible that they survived. Here are details about their ordeal.
- Dave Webb