Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Cohab Canyon

Cohab Canyon was the first trail I ever hiked in Capitol Reef National Park, primarily because one end of this hidden gem is located right at the entrance to the campground. It is also the trail I've hiked more than any other because it offers access to attractions like Hickman Bridge and Cassidy Arch, making it a convenient connector trail. Additionally the canyon itself is very scenic, with the opportunity to climb to higher vantage points for panoramas of the Fremont River canyon. For all these reasons this is a good choice for the day hiker or those with limited time.

The name comes from the purported use of the canyon by polygamist settlers as a refuge from prosecution by Federal agents in the 1880's. "Cohab" is slang for co-habitation, or the practice of plural marriage. The subject of polygamy and the resulting struggle between the LDS church and the U.S. government makes very interesting reading, and provides useful context for better understanding the history of the area.

The hike through the canyon without visiting the viewpoints is 1.7 miles each way. If both viewpoints are included the distance increases to 2.8 miles. About midway through the canyon is the junction with the Frying Pan Trail, which I will cover in detail at a later date. This path allows a connection with Cassidy Arch to the south, and travels through another beautiful and rugged section of the Park. The eastern end of the trail culminates at Utah Highway 24, almost directly opposite the beginning of the Hickman Bridge and Rim Overlook Trail.

This journey begins on the west side, with the trail climbing swiftly up a series of short, tight switchbacks in the Chinle formation. This badland clay is almost impossible to negotiate when wet, so avoid using this access point when rain is in the forecast. Although the grade is steep, it quickly reveals great views west to the campground and the Fremont River canyon carving through Johnson Mesa.

Thankfully the ascent is relatively short, and the trail reaches a terrace below soaring Wingate sandstone walls. From here it contours along the base in a southern direction, offering sweeping vistas across 180 degrees.

The mouth of Cohab Canyon appears shortly, opening to the east. Many large boulders choke the entrance and the path picks a way down into the dry streambed. Soon towering walls frame the sky, and scattered pinon and juniper trees dot the wash bottom.

One aspect of the geology stands out in this area - tens of thousands of solution cavities arrayed along the gently sculpted cliffs. These seemingly random holes range in size from golf balls to much larger openings, and they present a tremendous amount of variety in their shape and orientation. These miniature "caves" are the result of slightly acidic precipitation eroding weaker layers within the formation. The overall impression is that of many eyes or mouths, or perhaps even cities for imaginary creatures like gnomes or sprites.

There are also a couple of short, narrow side canyons to explore. One of these leads to a shallow alcove with a solitary single leaf ash growing in the center. If the tree survives to maturity this will be a most inviting shelter from the summer sun.

The canyon opens up and the trail follows the broad sandy wash for a time.

At approximately the midway point, slickrock starts to emerge in the streambed while the canyon walls begin to shallow. Some unique features are prominent in this area, including a colorful rock pillar, a small arch, and a collection of black basaltic boulders looking out of place in a smooth hollow.

At one mile in the junction which leads to the viewpoints appears on the north side of the canyon. Here a short climb out of the canyon and onto a terrace encounters another split in the trail with branches to the east and west. Here is the view from the western perspective, overlooking Fruita:

The eastern viewpoint encompasses Highway 24 along the river through Fremont Canyon:

Following the trail eastward after the viewpoint split, it begins a short climb out of the canyon on the south side, primarily due to the increasingly difficult nature of the streambed. Yet another junction appears, this time for the Frying Pan trail, which leads up towards Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash to the south. The Cohab Canyon trail continues on, now skirting the canyon on the southern edge.

Above the canyon now, views of large Navajo sandstone formations to the north are very good. The path meanders along, eventually contouring around a minor drainage while maintaining a gradual drop towards the endpoint at Highway 24.

The descent becomes slightly more pronounced as the trail approaches the highway. From here the hiker can cross the road and continue on to Hickman Bridge, the Rim Overlook, or simply turn around and complete the journey in the opposite direction.

Cohab Canyon trail is a good place to start exploring Capitol Reef, and it offers a vital link allowing for many hiking options. It works especially well for those staying in the campground. Any way you use it, it is sure to provide an enjoyable experience in this ruggedly beautiful landscape.

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