Friday, June 3, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Cassidy Arch

When the majority of visitors to Capitol Reef select features to see, time and ease of access are often major considerations. For this reason there are basically four popular choices: Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash, Chimney Rock, and Cassidy Arch. Hickman Bridge, Chimney Rock, and the east end of Grand Wash all have entry points right on Utah Highway 24, making them straightforward choices. Getting to Cassidy Arch is a little more involved with a trip along the Scenic Drive to the west end of Grand Wash, then a short span of dirt road to reach the trailhead.

The Scenic Drive is just that - scenic. A narrow but paved two lane road that stretches 8 miles between the Waterpocket Fold and Miner's Mountain to the west, this pleasant excursion offers access to trails and more remote sections of the Park located to the south. There is a $5.00 access fee per vehicle to make the trip, although if you possess an America the Beautiful or Senior Access Pass the fee is waived. Also, just a note for anyone planning a trip in summer of 2011 - the road is undergoing major reconstruction, with some delays and closures planned. Check this press release for more information.

Driving into Grand Wash is not recommended if storms are threatening, as the road literally runs through the stream bed and flooding is a very real threat. When the weather is not at issue sheer canyon walls rising steeply above the road present a visual treat to those unfamiliar with canyon country. At a pullout about .5 miles in, Cassidy Arch can be seen from below, although to actually get any closer will require some effort.

Once at the parking area, hikers can choose to walk an easy path through the canyon bottom along Grand Wash trail to Highway 24, which is 2.25 miles one way. Those looking for a little more vigorous activity will want to make the climb to Cassidy Arch, which is 3.5 miles round trip with an elevation gain of around 1100 feet. The arch is named after Butch Cassidy, who allegedly used Grand Wash as a place to lay low between robbing banks and trains.

Another option available to those wanting to see more of this incredible landscape is a point-to-point hike utilizing the Cassidy Arch trail to connect with Cohab Canyon using the Frying Pan trail. I will detail both of these excellent hikes in future posts, focusing for now on Cassidy Arch.

The trail begins with a short walk east along the bottom of Grand Wash before turning back west and initiating the steady climb upwards.

As mentioned in previous posts the geography of the Reef is clearly tilted in classic monocline fashion. The relatively symmetrical sedimentary layers are thrust upwards, with the west side being significantly higher than the east side. This means most hiking trails which climb follow a particular formation as it rises higher and higher into the sky. In the case of the Cassidy Arch trail, that formation is the reddish-brown Kayenta sandstone, sandwiched between the Navajo and Wingate layers.

The Kayenta was formed by relatively low volume streams and deltas, comprised mostly of silts and sands. The rock forms easily broken ledges and steps, and the trail construction reflects this particular quality of the formation.

Looking down on Grand Wash as the trail ascends, there are also plenty of other eye-catching features to see along the way. One particularly iconic landmark is Fern's Nipple. The name says it all.

After about a mile of hiking the first view of the arch appears ahead, and soon afterward comes the junction with the Frying Pan trail. This cross country path leads deeper into the interior of the Waterpocket Fold and connects with the Cohab Canyon Trail located 3 miles to the north.

Just below the Kayenta ledge and extending out into Grand Wash gorge are beautifully sculpted Wingate sandstone formations. Their colorful marbling, striations, and rounded surfaces present an interesting foreground to the scene.

The final approach to the arch crosses an expanse of slickrock. The arch is no longer visible at this point, being located below and to the southwest from here.

After a short ramble over the naked rock, the opening of Cassidy Arch yawns before you.

There is no practical way for hikers to get to the bottom of the arch, although rock climbers with proper gear can make the ascent/descent. Aside from the view down below off Grand Wash road, visitors are limited to seeing the western aspect of the arch from above. Those individuals without a fear of high places can easily walk out onto the span itself for the novelty, however the opposite side of the arch remains hidden from this vantage point. Even without access to the underside, it is still a worthwhile destination.

Like other well known attractions in Capitol Reef, Cassidy Arch usually attracts a crowd, although the physical effort required to get here keeps the numbers down to those who are fairly fit. On the day of my visit I counted around 20 or so people at the arch and along the trail, and only a few folks were at the arch at any given time during my stay.

Before returning to the trailhead, hikers should continue west across the sandstone bench for a hundred yards or so to take in the view from the escarpment. Miner's Mountain dominates the horizon, with good panoramas to the south and north as well.

Heading back and down offers more opportunities to view the Reef skyline with classic Navajo domes capping precipitous canyon walls. I highly recommend this hike for visitors with tight vacation itineraries who want to experience part of what this unique national treasure has to offer. It also makes a great introduction for travelers who plan to spend additional time exploring the area. If you are like me, it will only whet your appetite for more.

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