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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two Trips for the Price of None Part Two: The Salvation

After getting spanked in the Wind Rivers, my brother Mike and I called Backpacker Magazine Rocky Mountain Editor Steve Howe to get the lowdown on the biggest burger in Pinedale, WY while we regrouped and picked a new destination for days 5-10 of our trip. The response was essentially, "Screw the burger - COME ON DOWN!!!" And so our salvation was forged. After a 422 mile drive we arrived in the lap of hospitality and at the doorstep of Capitol Reef National Park with a veritable backcountry legend as our guide. Complete pics can be found at my photo site and a summary follows:

Capitol Reef National Park

We arrived in Torrey, UT late night on Tuesday, June 16th and immediately set to drying out water-logged gear in the Howe garage (and drinking beer). The next morning we pulled out the maps and reviewed Steve's labor-of-love CRNP thru-hike which I'd started on a very snowy January trip in 2005, but not gotten very far into. It rained off and on as we sorted gear into refreshingly smaller test packs and then we headed off to shuttle one car to Grand Wash and another to Capitol Gorge. Heading out of Capitol Gorge we immediately climbed into the sidecanyon pictured above which is punctuated with the sandstone spire (actually a fin) which Steve refers to as Fern's Boyfriend (as there is another feature named Fern's Nipple).

Turns out we were lucky with regard to rain on two fronts: 1) we had plenty of it to drink and 2) when it really let loose we were up above on the ridges and missed the flash flood which hit Grand Wash after we left. We did have to hunker down and wait out one little downpour with nearby lightning strikes, but otherwise the weather was stellar.

Because of the vast expanses of slickrock, cross-country travel in CRNP is generally pretty straight-forward. We did have some technical scrambles where we busted out 50 feet of 6mm rope and some loose, crumbly gullies where foot placement and rockfall were of concern, but in general the crux of Reef exploration is in navigating the labyrinthine landscape. I'm pretty sure Mr. Howe could do this hike in his sleep, however, given that he's the one who scouted and mapped it.

Our hike took us to some of the highest points of the Reef with views of the entire formation as well as the neighboring features of Boulder Mountain, The Henrys (last range to be explored and mapped in the lower 48), the San Rafael Swell, Tarantula Mesa (home to a free-ranging buffalo herd), as well as others far in the distance.

We also got down low into some tight slots including one on the last day that required a chilly waist-deep wade that elicited various soprano howls from the crew (sorry, no "moon" shots).

Given all of the water, the flora and fauna was fully present. Bighorn were a constant companion based on signs, but we never crossed paths. Desert Iguanids (small lizards) were everywhere as were frogs and tadpoles (in every pothole), black-chinned hummingbirds, and ravens. We were also visited by a rare Mexican Spotted Owl who soared by just before we reached our second camp. Prickly Pear and HedgeHog Cactus were in bloom as were Milkweed, Paintbrush, Desert Rose, Thistle, Mule Ears, and others. We also came across some wild asparagus.

After descending from the cross-country hike back into Capitol Gorge via The Tanks we dropped packs and wandered the gorge in search of both Native American and Pioneer graffiti - both of which we found. Cowboys exploring the area used lamp black, scratching or bullet-hole-pointillism to make their marks dating back to the mid-1800s while Fremont Indians provided much more impressive works using pecking and long-since-faded paints.

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On our final day we headed back to the outskirts of the reef to do a refreshingly wet dayhike through the Sulfur Creek Goosenecks which is a serpentine canyon which hosts the aforementioned creek an several of its waterfalls.

Enough can never be said of the outstanding hospitality of The Howes (Steve and Jen) at Morningwood. They absolutely blew the top off the chart with beers, steaks, caramel french toast, dilly beans, coffee cake, raspberry crumble, and various spirits - not to mention a backcountry guide and fresh gear. I feel like each time I go on a trip with Steve Howe I should get college credits - the dude is a walking encyclopedia of backcountry knowledge and experience.

And so, my friends, that is how a spanking turned into a triumph and how Peter and Mike got Two Trips for the Price of None.


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