We had penciled a backpacking trip onto our calendar for fall break months ago, but it wasn’t until the week before that we actually decided what we were doing. We’d originally wanted to backpack in Canyonlands, but didn’t realize how competitive the permits were and that our fall break was at the same time as the entire state of Utah. Undeterred, this just challenged us to go even further off the beaten path. Finally, we decided to backpack the Halls Creek Narrows in Capitol Reef National Park. It was longer than anything we’d undertaken as a family, but it was less vertical than other things we’d done so we figured we’d be okay.
This is one of those trips that seemed a bit ill-fated from the start. We’ve been steadily working on our shed. One whole side of the shed was already shingled, but the other side just had roofing felt (the stuff that goes under the shingles) and were having some problems with the wind ripping it up. We weren’t planning on shingling the second side of the shed before going out of town (and didn’t really have the time for it), but we knew if we didn’t cover 75% of the roof in shingles the wind would rip everything up while we were gone. The day we left town, I worked until 12 and when I got home, Noel and I set to work shingling enough rows of shingles to cover all the edges of the roofing felt. After that, Noel had more work to do, Ellen had her friend from her school pod over (her mom had some meetings), and I was doing things like picking up a rental trumpet for Cooper as well as trying to finish packing.
Not surprisingly, we got out of town later than we’d expected. Then we ran into night construction on I-70. All of this made it so we didn’t get to Grand Junction until after 11. We spent the night in a Marriott (they have excellent COVID policies, BTW) and decided to not get up as early as we’d planned.
We still were able to hit the road before 9am the next morning. An hour into our drive, the engine oil light came on in the car. We pulled off the interstate at the first gas station we saw to buy oil. Thankfully, that did the job. We continued on to Capitol Reef arriving just before noon. The Visitor’s Center was bumping. Using the bathroom caused me some anxiety as it was tiny and several people seemed oblivious to social distancing despite there being signs everywhere. As soon as we got our back country permits we skeedaddled.
To get to our trailhead, we had to drive 50 miles off the main stretch of Capitol Reef and then turn onto a 4WD road and drive a little bit farther. It was pretty remote. We had a quick picnic lunch and then donned our packs.
The trail descends 800 feet in the first 1.2 miles and then you follow the canyon until you get to the Narrows. It was a bit steep in parts so we were a bit slow moving. We ran into two young men finishing a trip and they looked absolutely exhausted.
Our goal was to get to the Narrows and set up camp. This way we would be able to have one campsite for the trip and only have to set up camp once. Noel and I had obsessively read every trip report we could and the distance from everyone’s trip report seemed to vary. The park service listed the total trip as 22.4 miles, but we’d seen reports that said the mileage was as high as 25 miles. The National Park Service said our first leg was 8.5 miles and we trusted it was correct.
Cooper was really struggling. (I think he’d had a hard time sleeping the night before.) I was trying to be a great cheerleader, counting off the miles and telling the kids they only had __ more to go. When we arrived at the halfway landmark, Noel quietly expressed concern that we were more than a mile over what should have been our halfway mileage. We had been following the wash and as we started looking around, we noticed shortcuts through the meanders. Apparently, the mileage was measured by taking the most direct route and we were being overachievers. We kept pressing on, but the sun was going down. At just over 9 miles, we decided it was best to just set up camp instead of continuing in the dark. We had been pretty excited about not carrying packs at all on day 2, as well as only setting up camp once so this was disappointing. What wasn’t disappointing though, were the stars. We were so far away from civilization and it was a new moon, so you could easily see the Milky Way. We all slept hard.
In the morning, we made breakfast and packed up camp. Then hiked 2 1/4 miles more to the Narrows.
Here we set up campsite #2 and it was pretty spectacular. We had a spot in a giant amphitheater style alcove where the red rock curls over you like a shelter. It was reminiscent of our trip to Coyote Gulch.
After ditching our stuff, we set out to explore the narrows. We decided to cross Hall’s Divide first and then head into the narrows from the other end, so we’d be in the narrows during the hottest part of the day. This portion of the journey would be an additional 5.5 miles. Crossing the divide wasn’t much to write home about, but we were all very excited when we arrived at the other end of the narrows.
The Halls Creek Narrows, like most narrows, start with pretty low walls that get higher and higher the further in you go. The kids were really excited about this part, and let’s be honest, so were the adults. In many parts, you have no other choice, but to go in the water. It was a warm day (high 70s, low 80s) so the water felt really refreshing. The park service website says the water “occasionally may be deep enough to require swimming,” but none of the trip reports mentioned anything deeper than hip deep. It had been so dry that most of the places you could usually get water along the trail were dried up. We assumed we wouldn’t be swimming. We really should stop assuming things.
We got to this beautiful chasm of water and as we waded in, it became clear that it was deep. There were parts were Noel was barely touching on tiptoes. It was also so cold it took our breath away. Ellen and I tried dog paddling through together and Noel had to come grab her so she didn’t drown me. It was a gorgeous shock to the system.
We kept hiking and enjoying the scenery. We stopped a few times in the sun because we were all dripping wet.
I have Raynaud’s Syndrome, which isn’t anything serious, it just means when I get cold the circulation in my fingers and toes decreases and they turn funny colors. It can be really hard to warm back up once I get cold. My fingers started to turn white and I knew I needed to do something about it before it got worse. My solution? Have the kids turn around and remove as many layers of wet clothing as possible. I had a lightweight long sleeve tee in the day pack, so off came everything else and on that went. It really made a difference and soon my fingers were a normal color.
The narrows were truly gorgeous. Every corner held a new beautiful view. Before we knew it, we were back at camp. We hung up a clothesline, changed into our pjs and hung up all our wet stuff to dry.
We had a lovely backpacking meal, filtered water from the silty creek, and read Harry Potter while looking at a blanket of stars. It felt so peaceful. It would have been absolutely perfect if our neighbors down the canyon weren’t smoking who knows what, but it was still pretty great.
In the morning, we ate, stretched ourselves out, and began packing up camp. We knew we had a long day ahead of us.
We filtered what we hoped would be enough water to get us back to the car and hit the trail.
Our strategy on the way out was to take every shortcut, pause on the even miles for water and take off our packs for a snack on the odd miles. It was the hottest day of our trip, but we kept a decent clip and the kids did a good job of keeping up. We stopped for a pep talk at the bottom of the 800 foot climb out of the canyon. It was just 1.2 miles to the car, but it was a steep climb. At one point, there was a false canyon rim and we thought we were there, but we actually weren’t. One of the kids started crying and hyperventilating. After a few deep breaths and more pep talks, we forged onward and did eventually climb out of the canyon. Even with our vigilance with the switchbacks, the hike out was 9.7 miles, 1.2 miles longer than advertised.
We were all pretty excited to see the car and also to eat whole wheat oatmeal chocolate chip cookies we’d left in the car in the cooler. When we checked the water bladders, they were basically empty. Everyone’s hips, shoulders, and knees were spent. I also had some pretty blistered toes. We were thoroughly exhausted, but in an accomplished sort of way. Our original plan was to snag a dispersed campsite and pan fry some hamburgers. We realized we’d forgotten the frying pan and we were so exhausted that the thought of setting up camp again made us feel like crying. We decided to drive to where we could get cell reception to see if we could snag another night at the Marriott and grab some food from a restaurant.
We had to drive all the way to Green River before we had cell reception. There aren’t a ton of restaurants in Green River, so we ended up at the Chow Hound. Noel bravely went into the restaurant to order us a pizza. The employees weren’t wearing masks which is just crazy to me. I know the town is conservative (fun fact: my dad had his first teaching job there so I lived there for a few years as a kid), but I would have thought they would have tried harder to put on a front for tourists. You have to understand that in Colorado there is a mask mandate and in the metro area compliance is really high. You basically can’t enter a respectable establishment without wearing a mask and you better believe the employees are wearing them. I love it. Anyway, we took a gamble on the restaurant. We ate outside and filled our own glasses with the rootbeer we’d brought in the cooler. The pizza was mediocre, but we were absolutely starving. We also were in luck and were able to get a room at a Marriott in Grand Juction. We paid more than we usually do, but with the prospect of sleeping in a bed and taking showers on the line it was absolutely worth it.
The next day, we slept in, ate breakfast in our room, and then hobbled to the car. It was good to be home, but also kind of sad. As hard as the trip had been physically, it was SO good to be away. When we get away, especially to remote places without cell reception, it feels like COVID doesn’t exist and we’re oblivious to whatever frustrating things are happening in politics. We also bond as a family – laughing, reading, and talking in ways we don’t always have time for at home. It was absolutely blissful to be surrounded by red rock and to fall asleep looking at stars. I shared this on Instagram when we got back:
I find it helpful to occasionally level down on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and focus on the basics like food, water, and shelter. As the noise of the world fades away, my soul is rejuvenated and I feel better able to deal with life upon my return. I understand why ancient prophets and even Jesus would sojourn to mountain or desert to commune with God.