Capitol Reef is only a small part of the Waterpocket Fold. By taking the Notom-Bullfrog Road, you’ll see nearly 80 miles of the fold’s eastern side. This route crosses some of the younger geologic layers, such as those of the Morrison Formation, that form colorful hills. In other places, eroded layers of the Waterpocket Fold jut up at 70-degree angles.
The Henry Mountains to the east and the many canyons on both sides of the road add to the memorable panoramas. The road has been paved as far as Notom, and about 25 miles are paved on the southern end near Bullfrog. The rest of the road is dirt and gravel. Most cars should have no trouble negotiating this road in good weather.
Keep an eye on the weather before setting out, though; the dirt-and-gravel surface is usually okay for cars when dry but can be dangerous for any vehicle when wet. Sandy spots and washouts may present a problem for low-clearance vehicles; contact the visitor center to check current conditions.
Have a full gas tank and carry extra water and food because no services are available between Highway 24 and Bullfrog Marina. Purchase a small guide to this area at the visitor center. Features and mileage along the drive from north to south include the following:
- Mile 0.0: The turn-off from Highway 24 is 9.2 miles east of the visitor center and 30.2 miles west of Hanksville (another turn-off from Highway 24 is three miles east).
- Mile 2.2: Pleasant Creek; the mouth of the canyon is 5–6 miles upstream, although it’s only about three miles away if you head cross-country from south of Notom. Hikers.
- Mile 4.1: Notom Ranch is to the west; once a small town, Notom is now a private ranch.
- Mile 8.1: Burrow Wash; hikers can explore the narrow canyon upstream.
- Mile 9.3: Cottonwood Wash; another canyon hike just upstream.
- Mile 10.4: Five Mile Wash; yet another canyon hike.
- Mile 13.3: Sheets Gulch; a scenic canyon lies upstream here, too.
- Mile 14.1: Sandy Ranch Junction; high-clearance vehicles can turn east 16 miles to the Henry Mountains.
- Mile 14.2: Oak Creek Access Road; the creek cuts a two-mile-long canyon through Capitol Reef and makes a good day hike. Backpackers sometimes start upstream at Lower Bowns Reservoir (off Hwy. 12) and hike the 15 miles to Oak Creek Access Road. The clear waters of Oak Creek flow year-round but are not potable.
- Mile 14.4: Oak Creek crossing.
- Mile 20.0: Entering Capitol Reef National Park; a small box has information sheets.
- Mile 22.3: Cedar Mesa Campground to the west; the small five-site campground is surrounded by junipers and has fine views of Waterpocket Fold and the Henry Mountains. Free sites have tables and grills; there’s an outhouse but no drinking water. Red Canyon Trail begins here, heads west into a huge box canyon in Waterpocket Fold, and is four miles round-trip.
- Mile 26.0: Bitter Creek Divide; streams to the north flow to the Fremont River; Halls Creek on the south side runs through Strike Valley to Lake Powell, 40 miles away.
- Mile 34.1: Burr Trail Road Junction; turn west up the steep switchbacks to ascend Waterpocket Fold and continue to Boulder and Highway 12 (36 miles). Burr Trail is the only road that actually crosses the top of the fold, and it’s one of the most scenic in the park. Driving conditions are similar to the Notom-Bullfrog Road—okay for cars when dry. The section of road through Long Canyon has especially pretty scenery.
- Mile 36.0: Surprise Canyon Trailhead; a hike into this narrow, usually shaded canyon takes 1–2 hours.
- Mile 36.6: The Post; a small trading post here once served sheepherders and some cattlemen, but today this spot is just a reference point. Park here to hike to Headquarters Canyon. A trailhead for Lower Muley Twist Canyon via Halls Creek lies at the end of a half-mile-long road to the south.
- Mile 37.5: Leaving Capitol Reef National Park; a small box has information sheets. Much of the road between here and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has been paved.
- Mile 45.5: Road junction; turn right (south) to continue to Bullfrog Marina (25 miles) or go straight (east) for Starr Springs Campground (23 miles) in the Henry Mountains.
- Mile 46.4: The road to the right (west) goes to Halls Creek Overlook. This turn-off is poorly signed and easy to miss; look for it 0.9 mile south of the previous junction. Turn in and follow the road three miles, then turn right at a fork and go 0.4 mile to the viewpoint. The last 0.3 mile may be too rough for low-clearance cars. A picnic table is the only “facility” here. Far below in Grand Gulch, Halls Creek flows south to Lake Powell. Look across the valley for the double Brimhall Bridge in the red sandstone of Waterpocket Fold.
- A steep trail descends to Halls Creek (1.2 miles one-way), and it’s possible to continue another 1.1 miles up Brimhall Canyon to the bridge. A register box at the overlook has information sheets on this route. Note, however, that the last part of the hike to the bridge requires difficult rock-scrambling and wading or swimming through pools. Hikers looking for another adventure might want to follow Halls Creek 10 miles downstream to the narrows. Here, convoluted walls as high as 700 feet narrow to little more than an arm’s length apart. This beautiful area of water-sculpted rock sometimes has deep pools that require swimming.
- Mile 49.0: Colorful clay hills of deep reds, creams, and grays rise beside the road. This clay turns to goo when wet, providing all the traction of axle grease.
- Mile 54.0: Beautiful panorama of countless mesas, mountains, and canyons. Lake Powell and Navajo Mountain can be seen to the south.
- Mile 65.3: Junction with paved Hwy. 276; turn left (north) for Hanksville (59 miles) or right (south) to Bullfrog Marina (5.2 miles).
- Mile 70.5: Bullfrog Marina in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Lower Muley Twist Canyon
“So winding that it would twist a mule pulling a wagon,” said an early visitor. This canyon has some of the best hiking in the southern district of the park. In the 1880s, Mormon pioneers used the canyon as part of a wagon route between Escalante and new settlements in southeastern Utah, replacing the even more difficult Hole-in-the-Rock route.
Unlike most canyons of the Waterpocket Fold, Muley Twist runs lengthwise along the crest for about 18 miles before finally turning east and leaving the fold. Hikers starting from Burr Trail Road can easily follow the twisting bends down to Halls Creek, 12 miles away. Two trailheads and the Halls Creek route allow a variety of trips.
You could start from Burr Trail Road near the top of the switchbacks (2.2 miles west of Notom-Bullfrog Road) and hike down the dry gravel streambed. After four miles, you have the options of returning the same way, taking the cutoff route east 2.5 miles to Post Trailhead (off Notom-Bullfrog Road), or continuing eight miles down Lower Muley Twist Canyon to its end at Halls Creek.
Upon reaching Halls Creek, turn left (north) and continue five miles up the creek bed or the old jeep road beside it to the Post. This section of creek lies in an open, dry valley. With a car shuttle, the Post would be the end of a good two-day, 17-mile hike, or you could loop back to Lower Muley Twist Canyon via the cutoff route and hike back to Burr Trail Road for a 23.5-mile trip. It’s a good idea to check the weather beforehand and avoid the canyon if storms threaten.
Cream-colored sandstone cliffs lie atop the red Kayenta and Wingate formations. Impressively deep undercuts have been carved into the lower canyon. Spring and autumn offer the best conditions (summer temperatures can exceed 100°F). Elevations range from 5,640 feet at Burr Trail Road to 4,540 feet at the confluence with Halls Creek to 4,894 feet at the Post.
An information sheet available at the visitor center and trailheads has a small map and route details. Topographic maps of Wagon Box Mesa, Mount Pennell, and Hall Mesa, and the 1:100,000-scale Escalante and Hite Crossing maps are sold at the visitor center. You’ll also find this hike described in David Day’s Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails, or in the small, spiral-bound Explore Capitol Reef’s Trails, by the Capitol Reef Natural History Association, available at the visitor center. Carry all water for the trip because natural sources are often dry or polluted.
Upper Muley Twist Canyon
This part of the canyon has plenty of scenery. Large and small natural arches along the way add to its beauty. Upper Muley Twist Road turns north off Burr Trail Road about one mile west of the top of a set of switchbacks. Cars can usually go in 0.5 mile to a trailhead parking area; high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles can head another 2.5 miles up a wash to the end of the primitive road.
Look for natural arches on the left along this last section. Strike Valley Overlook Trail (0.75 mile round-trip) begins at the end of the road and leads to a magnificent panorama of Waterpocket Fold and beyond. Return to the canyon, where you can hike as far as 6.5 miles to the head of Upper Muley Twist Canyon.
Two large arches lie a short hike upstream; Saddle Arch, the second one on the left, is 1.75 miles away. The Rim Route begins across from Saddle Arch, climbs the canyon wall, follows the rim (good views of Strike Valley and the Henry Mountains), and descends back into the canyon at a point just above the narrows, 4.75 miles from the end of the road. (The Rim Route is most easily followed in this direction.) Proceed up-canyon to see several more arches.
A narrow section of canyon beginning about four miles from the end of the road must be bypassed to continue; look for rock cairns showing the way around to the right. Continuing up the canyon past the Rim Route sign will take you to several small drainages marking the upper end of Muley Twist Canyon. Climb a high, tree-covered point on the west rim for great views; experienced hikers with a map can follow the rim back to Upper Muley Road (no trail or markers on this route). Bring all the water you’ll need because there are no reliable sources in Upper Muley Twist Canyon; if you plan on camping overnight, you'll need a free backcountry hiking permit.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition