Frying Pan Trail and Cassidy Arch

Sandy and Mary Beth - ready to start hiking

This past winter our friend Mary Beth moved back to Idaho after living in Wisconsin for several years. Or as we like to say, she finally came to her senses and moved out of the cold faltlands and back to the mountains. Besides getting away from the snowy winters and mosquitoe-filled summers, one of the main advantages of living in the West is being close to so many incredible National Parks. Since Mary Beth hasn't visited many of them (maybe not any of them - I'm not sure), Sandy and I arranged to do a trip with her. The best place to go in the spring is Utah canyon country, where the weather is warm and sunny and the scenery is spectacular. After some discussion we settled on Capitol Reef National Park as her introduction. We chose our dates. We checked out places to stay on TripAdvisor and booked our hotel. We studied several hiking guides and picked out some hikes that looked really good. Everything was set and we were all psyched about the trip.

Near the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is the least known of Utah's five national parks but I think it's as beautiful as any of them. Because it is not as well known there aren't as many people there, which is a major advantage. I love Zion. It's one of my favorite national parks and I visit it fairly often, but I can only put up with the crowds there for so long. Capital Reef has fewer people by an order of magnitude.

It's also not very far, only about an eight hour drive from Boise. We had no problems on our trip out and arrived in Torrey, the gateway town to the park, at about 5 pm.

Sandy and I did a hiking trip to Capitol Reef National Park back in 2011. We stayed at the Torrey Schoolhouse B&B. It's an old historic building, over a hundred years old, that used to be the town schoolhouse (who would have guessed?). It has been completely renovated and turned into a very nice Bed and Breakfast. Sandy and I really enjoyed our stay last time and thought Mary Beth would enjoy staying there on this trip. After checking into our rooms it was time to head out for dinner.

The Castle from the Visitor Center

We went to the Rim Rock Restaurant, another favorite of ours from previous visits. It's a rustic Western-style steakhouse with good food and a great view of the redrock escarpment on the northwestern edge of the park. Sandy and MB had trout for dinner and both agreed that it was excellent. I had a tough time choosing between a steak and spaghetti. Eventually I went with the pasta. I figured it was a good idea to carbo load the evening before a hike. We shared a nice bottle of wine to round out a good meal. The view from our table had us eager to get into the park and start hiking the next day.

We started the next morning with a good breakfast, an advantage of staying at a B&B. I'm not a breakfast person but Sandy definitely is so she was happy. Normally I don't like the delay to eat in the morning before I start out hiking. This time it didn't matter. On this trip we weren't planning any long hikes that would take the whole day. I still skipped the main course since I don't hike well after eating a lot. I have a hard time getting up steep hills with a full stomach. Sandy and Mary Beth dug in though and had a hearty breakfast.

Starting out on a clear morning

There was a cold wind blowing when we went out to the car. It occurred to me that maybe hiking wouldn't be so pleasant after all today. It turned out there was nothing to worry about. Torrey is actually higher, and therefore cooler, than a lot of the park. It was still early, and the stiff wind made it seem really cold. The day actually turned out to be as nice as the weatherman had promised. By the afternoon it was downright warm.

We made a couple of photo stops along the road into the park. The morning light was great for photos and the scenery was spectacular. Eventually we reached the Visitor Center. Although Capitol Reef doesn't get as many guests as other national parks, they really aren't set up to handle many either. We literally got the last spot in the small parking lot. We checked out the tshirts and books, took our photos (there's a nice view of the rock formation known as The Castle from the Visitor Center), and most importantly for us older hikers, went to the bathroom.

Looking down Cohab Canyon from the entrance

Now it was finally time to get to the trailhead. We only had to drive two more miles down the road before we parked the car and began hiking. The trail started out right away with a series of switchbacks that woke us up and got our heart rates climbing. It felt good to finally be on the trail again.

We had a short but steep climb of about 300 feet. At the top of the switchbacks the trail entered the upper end of Cohab Canyon where it started a gradual descent towards another trailhead at the far end of the canyon. Mary Beth seemed to really be enjoying the hike. She was stopping and taking lots of pictures. Distant vistas. Sheer cliffs. Rock spires. Boulders. Flowers. Unusual patterns in the rocks. Pretty much anything and everything. A bit more artsy than than my photography. I usually just do standard scenic shots. I was glad to see that MB was having fun and was definitely getting into the whole national park thing.

Rough terrain in lower Cohab Canyon

Cohab Canyon is typical of what I think of as Capitol Reef National Park. It was fifty to a hundred feet wide, with cliffs that were maybe one or two hundred feet high. Other parks on the Colorado Plateau, like Grand Canyon or Zion or Canyonlands, are huge in scale. The scale inspires awe and makes one feel small and insignificant. The canyons in Capitol Reef are smaller, more intimate. It's a different experience. It's more a feeling of wilderness, of soliltude, where you are a million miles from anyone else.

A little over a mile from the trailhead we reached a junction. One fork was a short spur trail that climbed up the side of the canyon to a viewpoint. It's for people who are just doing the very short end-to-end Cohab Canyon hike. It lets them get some distant views, although the viewpoint isn't that spectacular. We were doing a longer hike and would have plenty of great views later, so we just continued down the canyon. In another hundred yards was a second junction. One trail continued down the canyon to another trailhead at the lower end of the canyon. If you can arrange a shuttle, it's possible to do Cohab Canyon as a one way hike. It hardly seems worth going through that much effort though for such a short hike.

Not sure why but Sandy and MB were fascinated by this spire

Instead we turned onto the start of the Frying Pan Trail, which climbed up and out of Cohab Canyon. In three miles it would take us to a junction with a trail to Cassidy Arch, our favorite landmark in Capitol Reef and our main destination today.

Cohab Canyon is beautiful but it isn't very deep. It was only a short climb out and we were enjoying more distant views. East of us was the crest of the Waterpocket Fold, the uplift that produced Capitol Reef. To the west we could see distant mountains. Nearby were fascinating cliffs, canyons and rock formations.

Mary Beth was starting to slow down. It was the first hike of the season for her and she was breathing pretty hard whenever we had to go uphill. Sandy started pulling ahead while I stayed back with Mary Beth. The trail gradually rose to a divide where we looked down over Frying Pan Wash. As usual in canyon country, we had to drop down into the wash and then climb back up on the other side. It's always frustrating when you have to give up elevation that you just worked so hard to gain, especially when you know you have to gain it right back again.

Rock formations of the Waterpocket Fold

It wasn't clear to me exactly where the route was going but wherever it went we were going to have to climb back out of the wash eventually. Sure enough, after bottoming out the trail started a slow climb up the other side directly opposite from where we had come down. By this time Sandy was out of sight and Mary Beth and I were climbing very slowly. We weren't doing a long hike so at first I wasn't worried about how long we were taking. But as we slowed down more and more I began to worry about time. I did the math and it wasn't working out. Mary Beth was having trouble with the uphill and could only go a short distance before stopping. As we climbed higher the stops came more often and took longer. I was getting worried about her. She was obviously pretty bonked and I was afraid she wouldn't be able to make it. But she toughed it out and just kept going slowly until we eventually reached the crest where Sandy was waiting for us.

Frying Pan Wash steepens into a sheer canyon near its end

After reaching the top it was all downhill to the junction with the Cassidy Arch spur trail. Mary Beth was pretty wiped out from the last climb so she decided to wait at the junction and rest while Sandy and I went to the arch.

The route is a fun hike across slick rock that takes you right to the arch. It's very photogenic because unlike most arches, you can easily walk right out on to the top of the arch for a great photo. We have a poster size picture of Sandy on top of the arch from our last trip that is hanging on the wall in our office at home. In fact I'm admiring it as I type this. But we still took the opportunity to walk out on the arch again and take more photos. Although it isn't that well known, Cassidy Arch is one of the most amazing rock formations anywhere in the Utah canyon country. I felt badly that Mary Beth didn't feel well and wasn't able to make it over to see the arch and get her picture taken on it.

An interesting erosion pattern

When we got back to the junction we decided to adopt a contingency plan. Instead of hiking four miles of up-and-down trail back to the car, Sandy and Mary Beth continued ahead, taking a short, steep route that descended into Grand Wash in about a mile. While they did that I hiked back to the trailhead where we had left our car. It took me about two hours. Then I drove around to the Grand Wash trailhead. Sandy and Mary Beth reached the trailhead in about forty five minutes and waited there for a while. But it really wasn't a pleasant place. There was no shade, nowhere to sit and the wind would blow a lot of dust from the parking lot. Eventually they started to hike out on the road. I found them on the way and picked them up. They were glad to see me. Hiking out on the road was unpleasant because every time a car when by they were covered in a cloud of dust. And they didn't really want to walk all the way back to Torrey.

This time I pose on Cassidy Arch

We went straight back to the hotel to clean up and get rid of the dirt and dust from the trail. By this time we were all really hungry so we headed into Torrey for dinner. This time we tried a place called the Red Cliff for dinner. Sandy and Mary Beth had hamburgers and fries while I had a cheese pizza. They had a selection of gelato as well that looked really tempting but we were all too full for dessert. We resolved to come back to try it another time.

The weather was beautiful and we had done a great hike. Cassidy Arch is one of my favorites and it was exciting to explore a new route to it. Mary Beth was disappointed that she didn't make it all the way to the arch, but sometimes you just don't have a good day on the trail, especially on the first trip of the season. I've had trips like that and they just make me more determined to go back and work harder to condition for my next hiking trip.