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Family Adventure in the Backcountry

Michael Lanza is the author of Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks. He is a veteran freelance outdoors writer and photographer. He is the northwest editor of Backpacker magazine, where his articles about the impacts of climate change on Montana's Glacier National Park and other wild lands helped Backpacker win a National Magazine Award. He runs the website TheBigOutside. Lanza is celebrating Father's Day by rock climbing all weekend with his 11-year-old son at Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve

We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.

By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney. 

My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”

Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.

We do have an ace in the hole, though: our other companion today, my buddy Steve Howe. Steve has been Backpacker Magazine’s Rocky Mountain Editor for years—which is how we became friends—and runs Redrock Adventure Guides. Having lived in nearby Torrey for more than two decades, he knows Capitol Reef’s backcountry quite possibly better than anyone. He and a friend of his made what was probably the first descent of this slot canyon only months ago, and Steve went down it most recently two days ago. 

Although this slot has no known name, for purposes of organizing this park’s largely anonymous wilderness in his own mind, Steve has dubbed it Stegosaur Canyon, and the unnamed but distinctive white fin soaring above us The Stegosaur. He calls the narrows section that we’re looking down on a “butt-crack slot”—a highly visual descriptor meant to inspire a mental image of a slice in the rock that continues narrowing as it drops deeper, eventually pinching down to just inches wide. Someone losing their grip on the walls in the chimney section could fall and become wedged in.

It is definitely serious stuff. But Steve and I had also discussed the difficulty of the slot canyon in painstaking detail at his house last night, and he showed me his pictures of it. I thought about the challenging situations Nate and Alex have handled well before—particularly rock climbing, which most closely parallels this endeavor, and where they had to follow instructions and remain calm. I became convinced that they could manage this.

When I tell Penny again that I think the kids will be fine—and Alex and Nate both insist they want to do it—she gives in to the implacable momentum of will to move forward. But she tells me, not entirely in a joking tone, “I’m holding you responsible.”

Yes, well then. It’s good to know where you stand.

Watch video from the hike at YouTube

A Little-Visited Park

 We’ve come to Capitol Reef in the last week of March, on our kids’ weeklong spring break from school, to spend a couple of days on off-trail dayhikes with Steve and then backpack for three days into Spring Canyon.

Dominated by the Waterpocket Fold, a spine of sandstone ridges, cliffs, canyons, and spires that extends nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is one of the largely overlooked gems of the National Park System. Situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, with minimal infrastructure and roads to attract the masses of tourists who never stray far from their vehicle, Capitol Reef (like Canyonlands, another easterly neighbor) sees a small fraction of the visitors that flood those other parks. So few people venture into the backcountry that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk here on the day you want to start a multi-day trip and grab a permit for wherever you want to hike, no reservation needed. Try that at Yosemite or Grand Canyon.

On previous visits, I had discovered that Capitol Reef has scenery comparable to its neighboring parks—but it feels wilder, less overrun. I’ve squeezed through other slot canyons here, hiked trails through a landscape of rock formations that look sculpted by a giant child with an unlimited supply of mud and crayons, and camped below night skies lit up like Times Square with stars. 

During conversations at home before the trip, the kids had eagerly suggested we go backpacking and descending a slot canyon during their spring break. So we came here fired up for an adventure.

Nate and the rest of the party scramble up a rising, flared crack on an off-trail hike in Capitol Reef. Click on the photo to see the complete photo gallery.

Dayhiking Off-Trail

 Yesterday, our first day in the park, we dayhiked with Steve from the end of the park’s Scenic Drive into Capitol Gorge, a wide, sandy-bottomed canyon of sheer walls. Steve pointed out petroglyphs of bighorn sheep, deer, and sun figures that are 900 to 2,000 years old, carved by Fremont Indians who once inhabited these canyons. After walking 30 minutes down Capitol Gorge, we turned onto The Tanks Trail, ascending steeply a quarter-mile to rock basins the size of small swimming pools, filled with water—features found throughout the Waterpocket Fold, explaining its name.

Then we left the trail behind, following Steve up and up onto the almost barren, wildly contorted, otherworldly rock-scape of the reef formation. Domes of rippled white, red, and golden sandstone, petrified sand dunes from the age of dinosaurs, rose above us on all sides. Alex noticed something moving in the distance, and we all turned to watch a bighorn sheep grazing on one of the rare patches of vegetation growing up there. We scrambled, often on all fours, up a steep slope of loose, shifting talus blocks, traversed a sidewalk-like ledge across a cliff, and wriggled our way up a flaring groove in stone.

Explore Capitol Reef off-trail and you quickly understand why it remains so unknown: It would take years of patient, hit-or-miss forays over its convoluted, labyrinthine topography—and countless episodes of getting turned back by impassable cliffs and canyons—to piece together a twisting, seemingly improbable route that actually got you from point A to point B. In other words, it would take the kind of time that Steve has put into getting to know this park.

At a high pass, we sat down in warm sunshine and gusts of cool, early spring wind for a break. Below us unfolded a valley lined by white and golden cliffs and spires, a spot also unlabeled on maps but Steve says is known to a few locals as Sand Blow Canyon. We hiked to its upper end, to the base of a feature that actually is named on maps and visible from many points in the park, a massive dome called the Golden Throne.

Whenever we walked across beach sand yesterday, I looked for other footprints, but saw none. In 22 years of exploring Capitol Reef, Steve told us, “I have never, ever encountered another person while hiking off-trail in the park.”

As if to punctuate that point, near the end of our rugged, six-mile, mostly off-trail dayhike, as we descended a gully of loose rock, Steve noted, “Probably no one has walked through here since I came here 10 years ago.”

That gully narrowed into a slot that abruptly turned vertical. We pulled out two ropes and we adults rappelled about 12 feet over blocks of stone jammed in between the slot’s walls; we lowered Alex and Nate over. Then we descended one at a time, helping the kids as needed, through a vertical chimney that was sort of like a twisting sandstone laundry chute. That dropped us into a short, narrow hallway that terminated at a cliff, where we made a 25-foot rappel—lowering the kids again—to the ground. As the late-afternoon March sunshine started throwing long shadows across the cliffs and domes in the distance, we picked up the Golden Throne Trail and hiked the two miles back to our car.

After seeing how Nate and Alex did on that rugged day, Steve told me, “Your kids can handle Stegosaur Canyon.” 

Now we are about to find out.

On the rim of Stegosaur Canyon, we put on climbing harnesses. Steve makes the 100-foot rappel first, followed by Nate, who rappels on his own, though I back him up with a belay on a second rope. I lower Alex, then Penny and I follow—and we are in the hole.

I see none of the usual signs of human traffic, like a beaten path or the branches of the occasional bush broken off. We scramble over rocks deposited by periodic flash floods, push through brush, and use a rope to lower over two vertical drops of about 15 feet. The walls steadily close in and rise maybe a couple hundred feet above us, keeping us in cool shade. Then the canyon makes a 90-degree left turn, and we stop at the mouth of the narrows.

The walls close in to two feet or less apart—too tight to squeeze through wearing our daypacks, which we take off to carry in one hand while edging sideways over sand and rocks. At the chimney section, Steve and I cross first with Nate between us, talking him through placing his feet, hands, and back side against small features in the walls to inch gradually across the traverse. Maybe 20 feet below us, the canyon constricts to a crack less than a foot wide with several inches of standing water.

Leaving Nate at the other end of the 100-foot traverse, Steve and I chimney back and repeat the procedure with Alex. Both kids traverse it slowly and calmly—just the way they should—and beam with pride at the other end. Beyond the chimney section, we hike through more sandy-bottom narrows, the walls still not much more than shoulder-width apart, to emerge from the canyon’s mouth, where it ends in a 100-foot pour-off that we rappel and lower off.

Later, back at Steve’s house, he and I measure Stegosaur Canyon’s length on his mapping program: it’s 0.6 mile long. It took us three hours to descend the slot canyon itself, sandwiched between an approach hike of about three hours and an exit hike of another hour or more—a pretty full day, and one of my kids’ most exciting adventures to date.

Backpacking Spring Canyon

 At the park visitor center on our third morning in Capitol Reef, the ranger at the backcountry desk tells me that we’re the only party that has obtained a permit to backpack into Spring Canyon today, our third day in the park. We’ll see a few dayhikers in Chimney Rock Canyon, the tributary of Spring Canyon where we’ll begin and end our three-day hike. Beyond that, we’ll have the entire canyon to ourselves.

It’s at least nine miles from the Chimney Rock Trailhead to the bottom end of Spring Canyon, where it meets the Fremont River. While some hikers knock it off in a day, backpackers often do it as an overnight trip, to spend a night below Spring’s soaring red walls. But at the canyon’s mouth, you have to ford the river to reach UT 24. When we eyeballed the river yesterday, we decided it was moving too fast and deep to ford it with the kids. So we’ll hike in six or seven miles and camp two nights, giving us a day to explore farther down canyon before hiking back out the way we came in.

The temperature sits around 60 degrees and the sun filters through a slight haze; we wear T-shirts and shorts without breaking much of a sweat starting up the Chimney Rock Trail. To our left, burnt red and orange walls rise some 300 feet tall above steep slopes of broken rock and fine sand; to our right stand darker burgundy cliffs of Moenkopi Shale with horizontal striations in hues of red, including the severe pinnacle called Chimney Rock. A 30-minute climb through switchbacks on a good trail brings us to a pass, where we start the gentle descent into broad, sun-baked Chimney Rock Canyon.

Towering red cliffs with patches of white and orange and black water-stain streaks rise up on both sides; enormous boulders pile up below the cliffs. In the canyon bottom, the trail ends and we follow the dry, sandy channel to the junction with Spring Canyon, about three miles from the trailhead. The route continues down the canyon bottom of sand, cobblestones, and slickrock, beneath walls several hundred feet high.

At a pour-off, we walk a wide slickrock ledge above a narrow gorge maybe 12 feet deep, with walls sculpted in dramatic, smooth curves. At another pour-off, we detour up onto a goat path across a steep, crumbling slope. Some six to seven miles in, after more than four hours of hiking, we pitch the tent on a grassy bench beneath cliffs topped by domes and spires—our home for the next two nights.

Accessible and not very difficult, Spring Canyon is one of the more popular backpacking destinations in Capitol Reef. But “popular” has a different meaning in this park. While we’re not exploring virgin terrain, as we were Stegosaur Canyon, not seeing anyone else in here allows my kids to feel like explorers. 

On our middle day we hike a couple of miles farther down the canyon and back. We scramble over boulders and I boost Nate and Alex up into cave-like “windows” in the rock that they crawl inside. Even though daytime temperatures have reached around 60 degrees every day since we arrived in the park, in a narrows that rarely sees direct sunlight we find thick plates of ice in the inch-deep trickle of water flowing from a spring—a reminder that winter only made its exit a week ago. 

The kids spend at least an hour of our walk telling me about wild dreams they’ve had. Their stories sound to me like a perfect soundtrack to a dreamlike landscape—one that we have to entirely ourselves for a few days of hiking and exploring.