By Michael Lanza
We enter a steep, claustrophobically narrow gully, looking up at boulders that appear barely glued in place by a mortar of dried mud. Ready to rain sandstone jihad upon us, they send a silent message that we have taken a wrong turn in this unnamed side canyon in the wilds of southern Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and should retreat—immediately. This seems about as likely to be our route as we are likely to run into a fish plucking a harp out here in the high desert.
But I set my pack on the ground and tell my friend, David Gordon, that I want to scramble up to the top of this 12-foot-deep gully for a look around. Years of backcountry travels have instilled in me the often helpful, occasionally regrettable habit of wanting to confirm definitively when I’m going the wrong way. At the top, I see only walls of vertical rock a couple hundred feet tall looming above us. “There’s no way we’re going up there,” I tell David. Then I start carefully scrambling back down to him.
My foot grazes a boulder the size of a beach ball, probably weighing at least 300 pounds. It erupts from its nest of hardened mud and crashes down the gully. David leaps out of its path as the rock smashes apart where he was standing, right next to my pack—fortunately, without damaging it.
I reflexively spit out an unprintable noun, then follow it with words to David that sound entirely inadequate: “Sorry about that.” He’s rattled only briefly. A longtime climber, whitewater kayaker, and backcountry skier, he understands that the wilderness hides hazardous surprises. Still, it’s poor etiquette to drop a boulder on your hiking partner.
David and I are attempting a three-day, mostly off-trail traverse of a stretch of the signature geological formation in Capitol Reef—the rugged and vertiginous, 100-mile-long maze of canyons, sandstone towers, and cliffs known as the Waterpocket Fold. I knew this trip would pose some of the most difficult navigational challenges I’ve ever faced in the 30 years of wilderness adventures. But I didn’t think we’d get off-route in the first hour.
We scrutinize the map, check the GPS again, and discover our mistake. Our route actually follows ledges above us on a wall of this tributary canyon of Grand Wash. We are off by maybe 40 horizontal feet, but about 200 vertical feet—illustrating the complexity of navigating off-trail in this labyrinthine wonderland.
Backtracking, we find the way up onto those ledges. Minutes later, rounding a bend, we come face-to-face with a young bighorn sheep. It stares at us, looking momentarily perplexed, and then resumes browsing some scrawny bushes. He appears not terribly excited by the sudden appearance of two humans in a place he may have never seen one before.
Within our first hour out here, we’ve taken our first wrong turn, seen our first bighorn sheep, and I’ve nearly killed David with a loose boulder. It seems a mixed launch for the most unlikely kind of outdoor adventure in America today: backpacking a route that very few people have hiked before us.
Crossing Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold
My longtime friend Steve Howe, a local guide who has lived in the tiny burg of Torrey, near Capitol Reef, for about 25 years, spent many seasons working out this cross-country hike, which begins at Grand Wash and zigzags south a very circuitous 17 miles—through canyons, up and down steep scree and slickrock, and over passes—to Capitol Gorge. Steve calls it the Beehive Traverse, for the towers of rippled sandstone that populate this landscape.
Steve’s route crosses a no-man’s land of topography so violently tortured, so wildly convoluted it boggles the mind that someone could puzzle out a way to walk so far through it without constantly dead-ending at cliffs—as Steve did countless times while exploring it, and David and I are fated to do as well, despite having a GPS and a map marked up with Steve’s detailed route directions. Over the course of three days, David and I will average about one mile per hour on the hike, and several times reach spots where we will look around at walls of nearly vertical stone above and below us, absolutely perplexed, wondering where to turn next.
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At his house last night, Steve told us, without hesitation, that his Beehive Traverse is “just as nice as the John Muir Trail”—the 211-mile footpath through the High Sierra often called “America’s most beautiful trail.” Steve has hiked, backpacked, climbed, and skied all over North America and the world; he brings some creds to that claim.
He knows the local backcountry quite possibly as well as anyone. He has led my family on a pair of one-day adventures in Capitol Reef, a dayhike and a technical descent of a slot canyon. And the day before David arrived, Steve took me on a dayhike of about eight miles in the park to show me another canyon rarely seen by people. We hiked up the Chimney Rock Trail to a saddle overlooking the long escarpment of neon-red cliffs rising above the lone highway that worms through Capitol Reef.
There, Steve and I left the trail and picked our way across a steep slope of crumbling talus. After crossing a pass, we descended into a canyon of soaring, sculpted walls. In spots, we had to scramble up or down short cliffs, using big, hueco-like holds and scooped-out “windows.” Except for a single set of boot prints that reappeared in sandy areas—Steve speculated that a park ranger came down here in recent days—we saw no other signs of people having ever been in there.
Near the bottom of the canyon, where we skirted a pour-off, or overhanging cliff, at least 50 feet high by ascending a steep gully, Steve said to me, “This is what a national park oughta be.”
I’ve thru-hiked the JMT and gotten around quite a bit myself, from numerous U.S. national parks and wilderness areas to tick-list international destinations like Patagonia, Iceland, Nepal, the Alps, and New Zealand. Ever since Steve first told me about his Beehive Traverse, I’ve been eager to see whether it measures up to his lofty claims.
But equally intriguing is the fact that few people—mostly clients guided by Steve—have walked this route before us.
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There Will Be Blood
Not long after passing the bighorn sheep, David and I ascend a slope littered with thorny desert scrub and rocks that tumble away beneath us as often as they stay in place. I whack a shin on a rock; blood starts trickling down my leg, and within minutes, a brightly purple lump rises from the skin. “We’ll be lucky to not go home with bloody shins,” I tell David. He responds, “We’ll be lucky if that’s all that happens.”
We cross another pass and walk along the crest of a fin of rock with precipitous drops to either side. Enormous, white and golden sandstone towers erupt from the earth for miles in every direction; just as abruptly, the ground falls away into deep, impassable canyons. We hike past a distinctive formation that looks like a giant, cream-colored Hershey’s Kiss: Called Fern’s Nipple, it’s visible from some hiking trails in the park and one of just two named features along the Beehive Traverse. The other, the Golden Throne, we’ll pass on our last day. In between lies a nameless expanse that comes as close to terra incognita as one can get in an era when you can go online and look at a satellite-transmitted image of just about any spot on Earth.
It seems impossible that there could still be backcountry in the Lower 48 that remains largely unknown. But this is the desert Southwest, arguably the most forbidding terra firma between Canada and Mexico. Not far from here, in 2003, solo canyoneer Aron Ralston lay trapped for days in Blue John Canyon before famously cutting off the forearm that was pinned by a boulder probably about the size of the one I dislodged above David.
The nearby Henry Mountains were the last place mapped in the contiguous United States. Wayne County, location of Capitol Reef National Park, has a population density of one person per square mile—partly because most of the county is public land, and partly because Wayne County largely consists of parched and desolate canyons and badlands, too hot in summer and too cold in winter, where for much of the year the relentless wind could shave the whiskers off an old miner’s face.
Plan your next great backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, or in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.
Over three decades of traveling through wilderness on foot, skis, a rope, and water, I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve visited a place seen by few other people in modern times, or even just taken a multi-day trip where I’ve seen no known except at the very start and finish. Both of those descriptors will apply to this Capitol Reef traverse.
Those experiences shared one quality that tends to thin the crowds: hard. They included a seven-day ski tour through Yellowstone, following a route that a ranger told us no one else had done that entire winter; trekking the four-day Dientes Circuit at the southern end of South America in Chilean Patagonia; and whitewater kayaking the remote desert canyons of the upper Owyhee River in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon.
On all of those trips, my companions and I not only saw no one, but the passage of hours and days solidified an expectation that we would see no one. Real solitude rearranges the way we perceive the world: It expands the open spaces around us, attunes our ears to every noise, sharpens the edges of everything we see. Solitude in wild country makes us feel more alive.
So the prospect of many wrong turns wasn’t about to keep David and me off the Beehive Traverse. Apparently, not even one tumbling, 300-pound boulder could do that.
After the Beehive Traverse, hike the other nine of the “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
A Rope… Just In Case
That first afternoon, in another dry slice in the Waterpocket Fold that Steve calls Red Man Canyon because of a formation that vaguely resembles a red snowman, we stop at the top of a 100-foot pour-off. To either side rise steep canyon walls. The map and GPS data suggest we must traverse the cliff to our right to get around the pour-off and continue down canyon. But that looks dangerously exposed. From where we stand, there appears no way down.
Inside my pack, besides camping gear, food for three days, and four liters of water, I’m carrying 100 feet of rope and a climbing harness in case we need to rappel off any cliffs. The Beehive Traverse is a non-technical hike, not requiring a rope. We brought the cord just in case, hoping to not have to use it—maybe mostly because of what using the rope would mean: that we’re in the wrong place.
David decides to go left, taking a longer but less-exposed route up that side of the canyon, scrambling over talus to circle around the pour-off. I watch him, hearing the rocks he kicks loose clattering downhill.
Meanwhile, I walk up to the cliff that Steve’s map shows the route traversing—and discover it’s not as exposed as it appeared from farther away. So I carefully cross it, following narrow but passable ledges. Eventually, David and I rendezvous below the impassable pour-off, having made forward progress of about 50 meters in 50 minutes.
By late afternoon, we descend a long, slickrock ramp toward an incongruous sight out here: a pool of clear, blue water near the campsite that Steve calls Big Slabs Camp. In the evening, the wind suddenly kicks up, rolling gusts of 30 to 40 mph down the canyon. One gust tugs the tent free of the rocks we used to stake it out and starts rolling our shelter away. So we relocate it to the lee of some ledges. The sunset sets fire to thin clouds hanging low over a canyon rim.
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Reminiscent of Zion
On our second morning, with the sun trying to pierce a thin overcast and temps in the 50s, David and I hike along another high, spine-like ridge to a point where it makes a horseshoe turn. Steve had labeled this point on the map simply “great overlook.” That’s an understatement. We stand on one rim of a canyon walled in by high, white-rock walls etched in the familiar checkerboard pattern of cracks, and capped by mesas of red rock, all of it lightly sprinkled with patches of pinyon-juniper greenery. It reminds me of the most scenic stretch of the magnificent West Rim Trail in Zion National Park—except, of course, that here there are no other people and there is no trail.
Because we’re not following a route that has seen many boots before us—and the sandstone here is so brittle—everywhere we walk, rocks slide out from under our feet, loose soil collapses beneath our steps, and large, stone platters snap in two and shift under our weight. I feel at times like Wile E. Coyote crossing a natural bridge, over a gaping abyss, that’s crumbling with his every step. On trails in this park, many of the loose rocks have already been cleared away by trail workers or dislodged and kicked off by hikers. Out in this virgin terrain, we are the minesweepers.
An hour later, clouds move in and a light but steady rain starts falling. The wind scours the rocky ground and tugs at my jacket’s hood. We reach a cliff band 10 or 12 feet tall that appears to block our way. Again, the map comes out, I check the GPS—it appears we’re supposed to somehow surmount this cliff. Then we see our doorway: a tiny slot less than shoulder width that provides a steep and very tight but passable ramp leading to the cliff top. I take off my pack and squeeze up through it first; David passes the packs up to me, then follows.
By mid-afternoon on day two, we reach a spot Steve calls bighorn skull campsite—and see the bighorn sheep skull exactly where he said we’d find it. We also see the two big potholes that Steve thought would be full of water now, in early April. But they’re dry. We investigate the vicinity but find no water. It looks like we’ll have to hike out to the Capitol Gorge Trailhead today instead of tomorrow morning—a disappointing thought to not get another night out here.
But then we get lucky. About 20 minutes farther up the canyon, we come upon three potholes in succession filled with good, clear water. Golden and sangria-colored cliffs surround us. On a flat area of slickrock near the potholes, we pitch the tent—our second night on the Beehive Traverse saved.
A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
‘Favorite Spot So Far’
It’s an idyllic myth, popularized in magazines, that there remain today unexplored corners of the world. In reality, there aren’t many, especially not within the contiguous United States. But there are places rarely seen by people—and for good reasons, as this traverse of Capitol Reef illustrates.
It’s easy to see why there aren’t many constructed park trails on the Waterpocket Fold. Any effort to build a trail would constantly run up against cliffs or steep talus where inexperienced hikers could get into trouble. Never mind the costs of maintaining a trail likely to be routinely obliterated by rockslides and flash floods. Steve’s secret route should be fairly safe for a while, anyway.
On our final morning, five minutes up canyon from our second campsite, David and I turn left and scramble very steeply up a gully of rotten rock. I take great care not send any boulders tumbling toward him. After a half-hour of scrambling, we reach a notch Steve has named Rabbit Ears Pass, for a rock formation on the other side that looks like a pair of rabbit ears jutting up above the sloping slickrock.
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