Location: Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Distance: 9 - 14.8 mi
Elevation Gain: 1530 ft
Dogs Allowed: No
Season: April, May, Sept, Oct

Backpacking Upper Muley Twist

A steep colorful slope of rock stretching nearly 100 miles, the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park is a geologic marvel. One of the best ways to explore this area is by backpacking Upper Muley Twist Canyon. Featuring over 5 arches, expansive views atop the Waterpocket Fold, and a slot canyon, this is also one of the most unique trips that Capitol Reef has to offer.

The Trailhead

Located off of the Burr Trail Rd, the trailhead can be accessed from two main routes:

If starting from Capitol Reef Visitor Center, pick the Highway 12 route for scenery. Pick the Notom-Bullfrog for speed - especially if you have a vehicle with good suspension: Google Maps suggests the Notom-Bullfrog route is only 10 minutes faster than the Highway 12 route despite the Notom-Bullfrog route being 37 miles less of driving. This estimate is probably factoring in the bumpy and rocky nature of Notom-Bullfrog dirt road vs. the mostly paved Highway 12 / Burr Trail Rd route. Still, I think if your vehicle has good suspension, you can widen this gap significantly, and it would be well worth your time to take the Notom-Bullfrog Rd. On the other hand, driving Highway 12 is an adventure of its own and is one of the most picturesque roads in America so if you've never done it before and have some time to kill, taking that route will be a great experience.

Within the canyon, you have two options for starting points:

The upper canyon trailhead doesn't look very enticing, but it gets better as you progress
The upper canyon trailhead doesn't look very enticing, but it gets better as you progress

The Wash

Assuming a start from the upper canyon trailhead, the beginning of Upper Muley is relatively mundane. You will head north by walking along the wash. The National Geographic Trails Illustrated topo map suggests that the route bypasses this wash by walking along the rim of the canyon, but this is incorrect - the trail follows the wash. It branches off at a couple points, but you should take the northern option each time. Don't expect to find many cairns on this part of the trail. After 1.7 miles, you will spot Saddle Arch with a sign nearby that conveniently marks the start of the loop. You have two options at this point. You can:

Views along the wash
Views along the wash
The twisty Saddle Arch
The twisty Saddle Arch

The Canyon

Assuming you chose to hike the clockwise loop, continue up the canyon where you will discover several more arches. You will also notice the canyon walls becoming narrower and beginning to feel like a classic canyon hike. After traveling 2.3 miles from Saddle Arch, you should see cairns climbing out of the canyon. This is a bypass route to get around the narrow slot canyon found a short way further up the canyon that is blocked by a pour-off. It is worth exploring this slot canyon at least up to the pour-off before taking the bypass route. At the pour-off, you will notice tiny foot-holds carved into the rock on the east side that circumvent this obstacle. Some people use these small holes to climb past the pour-off and continue exploring up the canyon, but it requires a difficult climb and should only be performed by people very confident in their climbing abilities. Most people should return to the bypass route after reaching the pour-off.

The canyon narrows at times
The canyon narrows at times
Upper portion of Upper Muley Canyon
Upper portion of Upper Muley Canyon
A bird? A plane? Nope, it's just a really weird looking rock
A bird? A plane? Nope, it's just a really weird looking rock
One of the many arches found along the trail
One of the many arches found along the trail
The narrow slot canyon found by venturing past the bypass trail
The narrow slot canyon found by venturing past the bypass trail
The slot canyon ends for most people at a pour-off with a very difficult climb
The slot canyon ends for most people at a pour-off with a very difficult climb

The bypass route ascends initially and then levels off. It has a few exposed sections but is frequented with cairns. The route will eventually descend back down to the canyon where you will soon spot a sign marking the start of the rim route. Take the trail east and perform an arduous climb to the top of the rim. Another sign located at the top of rim will confirm when you have climbed to the top.

On top of the bypass trail
On top of the bypass trail

The Rim Route

The 2.7 mile rim route on the Waterpocket Fold offers great views of valley below and has plenty of camping opportunities. There is not really a well-defined trail here, but it is well cairned so make sure you are following them. Like the bypass route, it is fairly exposed in a couple places so take your time traversing it. The exit off the Waterpocket Fold follows cairns west that descend down to the canyon floor where Saddle Arch will reappear. Retrace your steps by following the wash south for 1.7 miles back to the trailhead.

View from the rim route of the canyon route below
View from the rim route of the canyon route below
They call this valley "Strike Valley"
They call this valley "Strike Valley"
Waiting for the stars to light up the Waterpocket Fold
Waiting for the stars to light up the Waterpocket Fold
I've never seen stars brighter than Capitol Reef's night skies
I've never seen stars brighter than Capitol Reef's night skies

Conclusion

Upper Muley is a great quick backpacking trip for someone who wants to explore the unique Waterpocket Fold. While there is definitely more dramatic scenery to be found within Capitol Reef (near the visitor center for example), it would be difficult to find a trip with as much diversity and solace as this one.

Conservation:

Permit:

A permit is required if you are camping overnight. However, permits are free and can easily be obtained at the following locations on the day of your trip (check location for hours):

Logistics:

Be sure to bring:

  • Lots of water. Expect to find no water on the route. This is a pretty barren trip that can end in disaster if you don't bring water with you.

Hazards Include:

  • Exposure. There are multiple places on this route where a bad slip could be fatal. Take your time on these sections!

  • Dehydration. This should come as no surprise.

  • Vehicle malfunction. If driving up to the upper canyon trailhead, make sure you are self-sufficient with vehicle repair. This canyon is very remote. Don't expect to receive help.

Season:

Due to the blazing hot temperatures that occur in the summer, the best time to visit Capitol Reef is in the spring and fall. Shoot for the months of April, May, September, or October for the most comfortable daytime and nighttime temperatures.

Current Conditions:

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Hi, I'm Nick - a backpacker living in Salt Lake City, UT who happily spends way too much time scouring Google Maps in search of the best backpacking adventures. I share my experiences of these trips with you via guides and trip reports that are filled with information I wish I'd known ahead of time. If you would like to see these continue, you can help support the site by sharing this page through the social links below. It makes a big difference, and I really appreciate it.