Lower Muley Twist Canyon
Distance: 18.1 miles (plus 5.0 miles by car or bicycle)
Elevations: 1,000 ft. loss, 200 ft. gain
• Lower Muley Twist Trailhead (start): 5,640 ft.
• Cowboy Camp: 4,770 ft.
• The Post Trailhead: 4,860 ft.
Trail: There is no trail for most of this hike, but the route is easy to follow. You will be walking down the streambed of a desert canyon for the first day, then 5.6 miles back to The Post along an old abandoned wagon road. The walk is easy, but unfortunately there is no water. In hot weather you should carry 1.5 gallons of water per person just for drinking.
Season: Spring and fall. Summer hiking is possible, but it is very hot. The hike can also be pleasant during winter warm spells. For current conditions call the Visitor Center, Capital Reef National Park, at (801) 425-3791.
Vicinity: Capital Reef National Park, southern section
The silence of Muley Twist Canyon was briefly broken in the late 1800s, when it was discovered to be a feasible route for getting wagons through the formidable Waterpocket Fold of southern Utah. Getting around the rugged, hundred-mile-long sandstone ridge had long been a major problem for travelers in the area-especially the Mormons, who were trying to settle the southeastern corner of the Utah Territory. On their famous Hole in the Rock expedition from Escalante to Bluff in 1879 it took the Mormon settlers six months to travel around the southern end of the barrier, so when Muley Twist Canyon was discovered two years later it quickly became the preferred route. The narrow canyon was said to have so many hairpin curves it could “twist a mule”. Nevertheless, it was much shorter and less hazardous than the notorious Hole in the Rock Trail.
Muley Twist Canyon was probably discovered by a man named Charles Hall, who operated a ferry service across the Colorado River thirty miles south of the canyon. Demand for his ferry increased dramatically for two years after his discovery, and his business thrived. However, in 1883 a new rail link across Utah was completed by the DRG&W Railroad, and communications between the eastern and western parts of the state were greatly simplified. Halls ferry service was shut down in 1884, and the winding trail through Muley Twist Canyon was rarely ever used again.
There are many short, steep canyons running from the top of the Waterpocket Fold into the Grand Gulch on its western side. Muley Twist Canyon is unusual, however, because it runs in a southerly direction for a substantial distance before turning into the Grand Gulch. From its start at the Burr Trail Road, Lower Muley Twist Canyon descends down through the center of the Fold for some 10.7 miles before turning west. As you walk down the canyon you will encounter two or three large side canyons coming in from the west. Bear to the left in each case to stay in Muley Twist Canyon.
After 4.1 miles you will come to a junction, where a wooden sign marks the Cutoff Trail leading to The Post. If you are looking for a shorter hike you can take this two-mile shortcut and avoid the bottom portion of Muley Twist. The most interesting part of the hike, however, is the part below the Cutoff Trail.
Continuing on past the Cutoff trail you will notice many huge alcoves higher up the sides of the canyon. These would seem to be excellent places to find Indian ruins, but the scarcity of water makes it unlikely that Indians ever lived in the canyon. 1.7 miles below the Cutoff Trail the streambed makes a deep swing inward on the left side of the canyon, creating a huge overhang in the cliff above. For some 200 yards the trail continues under the overhang. The cave-like nature of the trail is enhanced by a 30-foot-high pile of rubble on the right side of the streambed that extends upward nearly to the top of the overhang. This stretch of the trail feels like nothing so much as a subway tunnel. Then, 1.4 miles beyond this tunnel the trail enters another similar subway tunnel. The cool air under the overhangs is a welcome relief. At times there may also be pools of water under them, but don’t expect to be so lucky during the hot months of summer.
Throughout most of the Muley Twist Canyon there is no trace of the fact that it was once a major wagon route. Only in the Cowboy Camp, 6.6 miles below the Cutoff Trail junction can one still see a few relics of the pioneers that once passed through. The Cowboy Camp is in another large alcove that has been undercut into the west side of the canyon. This time, however, the wide, flat floor of the alcove is about ten feet above the streambed; hence it is an excellent camping area. For over a century travelers and cowboys have broken their journeys at Cowboy Camp, and now it contains abundant signs of human occupation. The collection includes a pile of old rusted tin cans, a few leaf springs from the wagons and, above all, graffiti. There are many dated signatures on the back of the alcove from the 1920s. Unfortunately the camp floor is also liberally sprinkled with old cow pies. There haven’t been any cattle in the canyon for many decades, but the normal decay of organic material occurs very slowly in this dry desert country.
Soon after leaving the Cowboy Camp, Muley Twist Canyon finally turns east to begin the final leg of its journey through the Waterpocket Fold to the Grand Gulch. The towering canyon walls begin to come together, then their height gradually starts to diminish, and finally the impressive canyon is transformed into nothing more than an insignificant desert gully. About 0.2 mile after leaving the Fold you will see another trail crossing Muley Twist gully. This is the trail to Brimhall Arch, and you will have to turn left at this point to get back to The Post. Watch closely for the trail crossing because there are no signs at the junction.
After you have turned onto the Brimhall Arch Trail it is an uneventful 5.6 miles back to The Post where your shuttle car or bicycle is parked. Again, there is no water along the way.
If you are desperate for water when you reach the Grand Gulch, there are two small water holes called the Muley Tanks 1.0 mile south of Muley Twist. To get there just turn right instead of left when you see the Brimhall Arch Trail and walk south until you see a sign directing you to the Muley Tanks. Don’t expect a clear mountain spring, however. The tanks are little more than two muddy potholes at the bottom of a large slickrock runoff. As their name suggests the tanks are used primarily by pack animals, and the water is usually pretty wretched. If you really plan to drink it you had better have some way of killing it first.