Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Frying Pan Trail

There is a southern colloquialism that goes "out of the frying pan and into the fire", which is taken to mean that one goes from a bad situation into a worse one. Even though this does not in any way describe the experience of hiking the Frying Pan trail, it always comes to mind when I think about this gorgeous front country connector trail in Capitol Reef. The only real correlation between the cliche and the hike is that it in fact does go from one to another, but this is a good thing.

Frying Pan is not a destination unto itself, although the scenery is certainly worth a trip to see. Instead, this 3 mile long connector trail penetrates the infrequently visited region between Cohab Canyon and Grand Wash, allowing for an extended backcountry trip to visit Cassidy Arch from the campground or Utah Highway 24. The hike with a car shuttle is nearly six miles from point to point, or just over 8 miles as a there and back trip, and it offers plenty of opportunities for solitude and viewing some beautiful landscapes.

For this post we'll begin the journey from Cassidy Arch. I recommend hiking the trail in this direction because there is some elevation loss and gain of around 1000 feet, including a steep hill that must be tackled if approaching from the north.

The actual junction for the trail is located about 1/2 mile before the arch, and it continues up along the rock shelf until it reaches the ridgeline.

At the summit you can look back towards the south, with views of Miner's Mountain and the mouth of Grand Wash arrayed before you.

The trail is more or less level here, with an escarpment of reddish brown Kayenta rock on the east rising above a pygmy forest of juniper and pinyon pine.

Lone sentinels of rounded stone elevate above the canopy, like squat continental versions of Easter Island moai. This section is really unlike the typical Capitol Reef hiking experience, where most trails wander through wash bottoms or climb steadily along rocky benches with panoramic views. The change is interesting, but it does not last long.

Cresting the ridge reveals the wide open basin of the Frying Pan. Like most topography in canyon country, there is no direct route between point A and B, so the trail follows the shape of the land. In this case it is down and around, contouring to the east as it drops.

Despite the arid environment, well adapted life finds a way to flourish here. Springtime brings many colorful and varied flowers into play, and their presence adds another dimension to the already attractive setting.

Continuing the descent to the east, the views surrounding the hiker encompass the convolutions of the canyon ahead, and the majestic spires and domes of white Navajo sandstone capping the Reef.

The east end of the the Frying Pan comes into view as the trail approaches the shelf which crosses the canyon. The gorge opens up through the Reef, with the opposite end terminating along Highway 24, making it possible for ambitious hikers to undertake a cross-country trek through the wilderness.

For now the trail wends through a maze of boulders strewn about the bottom as it makes way towards the other side and the climb back up.

On the opposite side it is possible to look back to the south and see the "handle" of the Frying Pan, a narrow and shallow cut through the heart of the rock.

Along the way is this oddity - a square shaped block of stone with an almost perfect circle weathered through it. The symmetry makes it appear as though it was fashioned by human hands, but once again give Mother Nature all the credit.

After a much shallower climb than hikers heading in the other direction will encounter the trail reaches a high point forming the divide between the Frying Pan and Cohab Canyon. From here there is a short walk along the ridge with excellent views to the north.

Whimsical rock pillars have weathered out of the overlying formation, providing guideposts and notable landmarks along the way.

Straight ahead stands the cleft of Cohab Canyon, and the high promontory of the Rim Overlook. At the canyon edge, there is a moderate descent to meet the Cohab Canyon trail near the bottom.

At the north trail junction, left leads to the Scenic Drive, campground, and Visitor Center. A right turn takes you to Highway 24 and the trailheads for Hickman Bridge or the Rim Overlook. No matter which way you go, you've made a "connection" with the glorious landscape using the Frying Pan trail.

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