Saturday, April 15th, 2023, 0650-1830
End of Swap Canyon to Muley Tanks, S6
18 miles, elevation 4630′
I woke to the usual chill, 32 degrees, which was starting to feel pretty normal. I got used to sleeping with my filter every night from the beginning. We walked out of the canyon in a few miles and entered Capitol Reef, our 3rd National Park on the route. There was a humble sign to welcome us and an easily bypassed fence to keep cows in or out. There was more cow poop on the park side of the fence, plus lots more hoof prints, go figure. We made it to the road leading to the various points of interest in the southern end of the park, where we read a sign about the Waterpocket Fold. It’s the geologic feature that defines the park. It’s basically a 100 mile-long rent in the earth, a fault and uplift of epic proportions. Multiple layers of different colored sandstones stand in prominence, like a fortress against any hikers that dare to penetrate its defenses. The term Waterpocket is derived from the prevalence of potholes throughout the sandstone, creating ample habitats for wildlife.
Lucky for us, the Burr Trail road made 6 giant switchbacks up a weakness in the Fold. I practically ran up the gently sloped ramps, yelling in Count Dracula (Sesame Street) style as I completed each switchback…3, 3 switchbacks ah ah ha ha ah! I was in a very jovial mood all day, excited for a section that’s known to be spectacular. We reached the top and our food cache that we left almost 3 weeks prior. I wasn’t excited to add weight but did relish a few new and different food items. We sat at the picnic table for awhile, sorting stuff, eating some, and drinking more coffee. A man was hanging out with his son and 2 dogs nearby, having driven to the spot. We hoped that he could take our trash and as an incentive, we offered an unused gallon of water. Mojo was super cool and more than happy to help. He even knew about the Hayduke. His son Wiley played shadow puppets with their adorable pup Xala, who neurotically loved to chase shadows. Angie, being a lab mix, was too cool for such a silly game.
We lingered for almost 2 hours, then meandered down to the trailhead to sign the registry. We counted only 6 Haydukers before us, a far cry from the 19 we’d last counted. We knew that maybe 4 were just behind us but what happened to the rest? Later in the day, we met Mac and Artemis, who were still behind us at the trailhead but took a straight shot cross country route from the overlook picnic table down to the canyon, thus missing the registry. Haydukers are so used to blazing their own way, this may have accounted for some of the missing names. But I also suspected that some might have avoided this section because of the snow in the Henries.
In the canyon, we were immediately dazzled and wowed. It gets its name from being so twisty that it will “twist a mule.” The canyon is remarkable in that there are massive overhangs at nearly every bend. And thousand foot walls of the sandstone that forms the fold. The canyon sits on the western side of the fold and eventually broke through at mile 11 of our route. We spent the rest of the day in the canyon, going slow to take in the grandeur.
It was weird that at times I could barely tell which way was downstream or upstream. The scale and angles of the walls were at such odds with gravity and reality. I felt like I was in one of those fun houses, with the walls and floors tilted in such a way as to wreak havoc on a brain. It was a place that inspires thoughts about life, the universe, and everything else. Perhaps 42 is the number of bends in Muley Twist. Mind blowing, isn’t it?
As if the geologic wonders weren’t enough, we came around a bend and almost ran right into some bighorn sheep hanging out next to the wash. We immediately went into freeze mode so as not to startle them. They stared at us for maybe a second, then went back to eating. We admired them for a bit but also didn’t want to continue to disturb them. We advanced but only to skirt up to the opposite bank and go as much around them as we could. One was laying down and the other proceeded to lay down with its back facing us as we got closer. My predator feelings were greatly hurt by such a show of indifference and disregard. But so too, my self-preservation feelings were congratulated on their recognition of an animal with big sharp horns and not fearing humans. Had we continued up the wash so near them, I feared they might not have been so sheep-ish, perhaps even pushy.
While the canyon could be a place of horrors on a very rainy day, the sky was clear and we were in the greatest of spirits. High on life. We saw only one day hiker and 2 backpackers in the canyon. We caught up to the couple and chatted for a bit. They were on a weekend jaunt from Denver and in a hurry to finish the canyon and hitch back to their car. We stopped to check out some cowboy glyphs under a giant alcove near the end and they kept going, short on time.
Thru-hikers often get criticized for going too fast and not smelling the roses. But in this case, I realized how lucky we were…plenty of food and water, no agenda for where to spend the night, and no job to get back to by Monday. We could inspect the old inscriptions from 1920’s and the interesting pile of rubbish for as long as we liked this day, confident we could pick up some extra miles later, if we needed to. I stop to smell the roses a lot, whenever I feel like it. I have the ability to go fast and slow. And today we were happy to go slow…er.
We reached the Muley tanks by around 5 pm. They are a set of natural potholes providing reliable water. In reality, there were tanks everywhere along our route. We met 2 women, Sarah and Katie, who had already section hiked the Hayduke up to this point in 2019. They immediately recognized us as their counterparts and were very cool ladies. They were departing just as some familiar hikers got to the tanks, Artemis and Mac. We couldn’t believe Mac had caught up, seeing as how we’d left him in limbo in town, waiting on a 3-day-late overnight package. He was carrying his packraft too, so we figured he’d be slower, bogged down in the snow. But he’s a beast it seems.
Artemis had tried to go on a higher route and had to backtrack. She’d left town the afternoon before us but we’d passed her. It was fun to meet up at the tanks, which are a great example of the waterpockets in the sandstone. We collected water and shared all the stories about the snow, postholing and thunder grauple. Sky and Leah were not far behind. I also solved a problem with Mac’s stove. He thought it was broken but it just didn’t fit his canister. We switched canisters and his stove worked fine. Now he could cook his meals.
Eventually Mac and Artemis took off to hike a few more miles. We were still on our lollygagging pace and decided to camp at a nice cleared spot under a juniper, near the tanks. It’s a popular spot in the park, especially on a Saturday. We knew we were camping in the vicinity of others but being all backpackers in the backcountry, figured it would be chill. Wrong! The site is probably only a few miles from the road, thus allowing not-so-LNT backpackers easy access. A nearby group was up singing and laughing until after 10 pm. We had a fairly easy day at only 18 miles, so unfortunately I wasn’t pass-out dead tired. That’s ok, at least I got some blog work done. But I couldn’t wait to go back to being in a place where no one else was around, unless it was other Hayduke hikers.