Monday, October 17, 2016

Waterpocket Fold and Burr Trail - September 2016: Part 3

Southern Utah - September 2016
Spectacular Switchbacks, a Secret (Camp) Site, and Hidden Splendor

Part 3 of 4:
Waterpocket Fold, Halls Creek Overlook, and Burr Trail

Monday, September 19th (continued from Part 2)

Click on any photo to see larger versions - highly recommended!

Waterpocket Fold

After leaving Torrey on UT- 24 and passing the entrance to Capitol Reef, I turned south on Notom Road toward the town of Bullfrog on Lake Powell. The road parallels the evocatively named Waterpocket Fold with the west side of the valley being the Capitol Reef itself.

Iconic photo of travel in the west (Notom-Bullfrog Road.)

The first 8 or 10 miles are paved then it's about 14 miles of washboard and gravel to the turn off for Cedar Mesa Campground (not to be confused with the Cedar Mesa located between Natural Bridges and Valley of the Gods). This is the other no-fee primitive campground in the national park.  It is pleasant enough - most of the 5 sites were fairly private, shielded by juniper and piñon, and no one was present. There was no big view as at Cathedral Valley, and there didn't appear to be any nearby canyons to explore on foot.

It had been clouding up all day, so if I stopped here the solar panel would not work well and even with the clouds it was hot enough that the fridge would be working hard. Also, the ranger at the VC said there was a 50% chance of rain. One of the stories told Saturday night at the roundup was about the road between the Cedar Mesa Campground and the junction to Burr Trail Switchbacks. They said there is a nasty stretch of road through Bentonite clay that will turn too slick to drive when wet. Those factors got me back on the road headed south.

Interesting striated rock formation.

Washboard and Waterpocket Fold

Yep, more Bentonite Hills.

It was 11 (bumpy) miles to the junction for the Burr Trail Switchbacks, but I thought to continue farther. From this point the road is considered to be the southwestern end of Burr Trail, as well as the Notom-Bullfrog Road. Once out of the national park and on BLM land there were supposed to be "lots" of dispersed camping opportunities. I also heard from the ranger at the national park that there were many dispersed camping sites near the Halls Creek Overlook and that it was supposed to be "spectacular."

About 4 miles past the turnoff to the switchbacks, the road climbs east out of Strike Valley up to the mesa. It's about 7 miles more of gravel to Eggnog Junction where the road is once again paved (all the way to Bullfrog, though I didn't go that far). I saw a couple double-track roads branch off in this stretch, but it was not apparent if they actually went anywhere. I drove one mile on pavement before I spotted the turnoff west to Halls Creek Overlook. Then 3 miles of bad road to the final turnoff to the overlook and trailheads for Halls Creek and Brimhall Bridge trails.

Halls Creek Overlook

Trailhead at Halls Creek Overlook

I should not have driven the last 100 yards to the end of road and my advice to you is not to attempt it. Maneuvering around the a rock, holes, and ledges I caught one of my front mud flaps and it was darn near ripped clean off. Just before that section of road there were two dispersed camp sites, the only two I'd seen on the drive.

The view from the top was very interesting, especially if you are geologically inclined, but I thought perhaps a bit shy of "spectacular." Or maybe the view was simply diminished by the overcast sky or my expectations, I'm leaning toward being a bit more generous now that I'm home.

Halls Creek Overlook (upstream)

Halls Creek Overlook (downstream)

Directly across from the overlook you can just see Brimhall Bridge (center of photo just above midpoint.) This photo was actually taken the next morning, but I've placed it here for continuity.

The overlook and trailhead are actually in the national park and camping is not permitted there. Although there would likely be no one around to enforce that rule, the top was exposed to the wind and weather. I retreated back down that awful section and pulled into one of the nearby dispersed sites. Nonetheless, it was a very cool spot with a great view of the Henry Mountains and down to the basin of Lake Powell. I got out my tools and removed my dangling mud flap. I stashed it in the cab with the hope it can be repaired and re-mounted at home.

View of the Henry Mountains from the overlook. You can also see where I ended up camping.

My campsite and the view south.

The Henry Mountains in the sunset from camp.

The sunset from camp.

There was a beautiful sunset that evening and as darkness fell I congratulated myself for being far from the works of man... until I looked toward the lake and saw a white & green beacon flashing, and headlights coming down a far off highway. Later research revealed this was the beacon at the Cal Black Memorial Airport near Hite, UT, about 30 miles away as the raven flies.


iPhone panorama (180º plus) from Halls Creek Overlook

It did not rain overnight, but was still overcast in the morning. I walked back up to the top to see if the light was any better for photographs - not really. I then broke camp and headed back down. On the way out, about 500' from the pavement, there was a "road" that branched off. Looking at the satellite view now I can see that one could likely find a place to camp along that very short spur. I turned back north on Burr Trail, headed for the switchbacks.

On the drive I saw a small Class C camper encamped just off the road at a curve in a spot that looked not too bad. Again, looking at the satellite view, there are a couple BLM "roads" that head west a short ways off the main road. One could likely find a place to spend the night there. Note, however, the only road that heads east looks like it just goes to a stock tank.

Colorful rock formations near Post Corral

When I dropped back into the fold, as it were, I turned off on a spur toward what the park map names Post Corral. There's a vault toilet there, parking for a couple interesting hikes toward the west, and a place to turn around - oh, and corrals. Very interesting rock/cliff formations there. I returned to Burr Trail and headed north toward the famous switchbacks.

Burr Trail Switchbacks

At the junction, pointed toward the switchbacks.

Approaching the gap.

The approach to the switchback is very dramatic, as was Shafer Trail, yet totally different. With Shafer you drove into a long box canyon of tall, dark red sheer walls, incredulous that the road would be able to cling to the rock as it ascends. Burr Trail has been paralleling the long straight, magnificent, multi-colored reef structure, then turns directly into the seemingly impenetrable conglomeration of varied colors and shapes. As you enter, the hills turn to stone - gigantic white sandstone dunes, the road skirts an enormous piercing monolith and the climbs the face of deconstructed, red sandstone in a series of tight switchbacks. The view from the top is amazing, but I'm so glad I first experienced this place climbing up from the fold.

Entering the gap.

Looking back as the switchbacks begin.

Burr Trail Switchbacks.

View from the top. There's the Henry Mountains again.

I stopped at the top and walked to an overlook to revel in the view, then drove on. A short ways along the road to the west is the 4WD road that leads to the trailhead for Strike Valley Overlook and Muley Twist Canyon, which is reportedly a great hike.

Looking toward Strike Valley Overlook and Muley Twist Canyon.

Burr Trail

Once over the top, the road is much tamer then becomes paved as it leaves the national park. It passes through a high-desert prairie with a rim of jagged sandstone on the east and as you drive over a rise, the view of far off Boulder Mountain with a hint of red canyons at its feet appears. This area is part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There are a few dirt roads that lead off into the backcountry, including the Wolverine Loop, that I'd like to explore on a later trip. You are supposed to obtain a permit to stay overnight in the national monument. I'm not sure how you get one if you come in from the east as I did.

Burr Trail Road with Boulder Mountain in the distance.

Looking back up Long Canyon from above The Gap.

The road descends into Long Canyon which is very narrow and scenic. I can understand now why folks talk of the beauty of Burr Trail. The road climbs out of the canyon at The Gap. A few miles later I pulled into the Deer Creek Campground, which is located in the small canyon of Deer Creek, just to check it out for future reference. This campground, run by the national monument, is small, but very pretty. Back on the road it climbs again into more red rock and white sandstone toward the town of Boulder.

White rock just east of Boulder

Continued in Part 4: Hell's Backbone Road, Spencer Flat, Natural Bridges, and Comb Wash


  1. What amazing, rugged country! I liked the panorama too. Nice.

    1. Thanks, Claudie, I'm glad I remembered to take those pano photos this time.


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