Multiple arches and stunning sandstone formations in this remote section of Capitol Reef National Park
Distance: 11.0 miles roundtrip
Type: out and back (lollipop option available)
Best season: spring & fall
Day six of our spring vacation to Utah for some fun in the sun. Our hike for the day was Upper Muley Twist in the southern part of Capitol Reef National Park. This hike had eluded us for several trips—each time we planned to hike it, the weather deteriorated. There are roughly 20 miles of clay road to access this hike, so we hadn’t wanted to attempt it on a wet day.
Upper Muley made my bucket list in 2010 on our first Utah trip. We were driving the Burr Trail just before it drops down into Strike Valley when I noticed a road to the left. Peek-a-Boo Arch dominated the skyline and the sandstone formations looked intriguing. I remember thinking, “Oooo, we’ll have to check that out someday.” Someday was finally here.
I had done a lot of research on Upper Muley over the years. The first couple miles of road to the upper trailhead are recommended for high clearance vehicles only. From there you could do an out and back hike up the wash to several arches or you could climb up to the Rim Route for your return hike. Adding the Rim Route forms a lollipop route that provides stunning views of the Waterpocket Fold and down into Strike Valley. Numerous sources describe sections with significant exposure along the Rim Route. My plan had been for us to hike the full lollipop route starting from the upper trailhead (access would be no problem for us in the Jeep) and adding the Rim Route, but a forecast for 50+mph winds in the afternoon had me concerned about those exposed sections.
It took us roughly an hour to make the drive from our hotel in Torrey. Turning off the Burr Trail Road, we followed signs for Upper Muley Twist. Almost immediately, the road was deeply rutted and I was a little concerned it might be a bit much even for the Jeep. The road surface was clay, so I took it slow and we cleared just fine. We drove about half a mile to the lower trailhead where we found room for about four cars.
I looked around at the stunning scenery—the morning light on the sandstone was beautiful and I had pretty well made up my mind that I didn’t want to attempt the Rim Route with gusting winds. Since we wouldn’t be doing the full loop, the mileage was reasonable for us to start from the lower trailhead and I figured I’d get some good photos walking the 4WD road. It would also give me the opportunity to photograph three roadside arches at a slow pace and from every angle.
We left the lower trailhead (elevation 5,631’) under sunny skies and temperatures in the low 60s. Ahead of us was a couple mile mostly level walk straight up the middle of Upper Muley Twist Wash. The surface was sandy in most places with a few pretty good rocky stretches. The Jeep could have made it no problem, but it was a lovely morning for a walk and this stretch was quite scenic with colorful sandstone formations.
Just under two miles in we came to Trinity Arch on the left. Trinity is a lovely little double arch. Shortly past that was Double Arch, also a double arch. I had good light for photos, but from below it was hard to get a good angle that showed the impressive double spans.
We reached the upper trailhead at about 2.5 miles from the Jeep. One sign pointed to Upper Muley Twist on the left while another pointed right to Strike Valley Overlook. We continued up Muley Twist which was still a wide wash at this point. Sometimes we hiked on a bench trail, but primarily we headed right up through the middle of the wash. The hiking surface was loose sand or packed dirt in places, but for the most part we navigated a rocky canyon for the next few miles. Other than taking care not to twist an ankle, the hiking was generally easy on nearly flat trail.
About ten minutes from the upper trailhead, we came to a split in the wash. The path to the right seemed the obvious route and this was confirmed by a set of cairns and footprints in the sand. The scenery from the upper trailhead to this point had been a bit pedestrian, but significantly improved after this as the canyon narrowed.
At 1.5 miles from the upper TH, we came to Muley Arch on the left. Just 0.2 miles later we came to Saddle Arch on the left. To the right, cairns marked the Rim Route heading steeply uphill.
Continuing on, we came to a pretty little stretch of narrows.
We continued about another mile to Shy Arch and then another quarter mile or so to Dome Arch.
By the time we reached Dome Arch, we were 5.5 miles from the lower trailhead and figured that was good turn around point. We missed seeing Cap Arch, the last arch in Muley, but we’ll be going back again to do the loop around the Rim Route and we’ll catch it then.
The winds began as we started our return hike. They increased in intensity over the afternoon and easily gusted at 50-60 mph as predicted. We took a nice snack break in the shade of a juniper tree at the upper trailhead then had a nice stroll down the jeep road to the lower trailhead.
At about a half mile from the lower trailhead, we were treated to spectacular views of Peek-a-Boo Arch. The afternoon light on the arch was fantastic and I got some great angles as the road snaked through Upper Muley Twist.
Back at the Jeep, our mileage for the day was 11 miles. This wasn’t one of Jason’s favorite hikes, but I enjoyed it. The terrain was rugged, the colors intense, and it was neat seeing so many arches in one day. I am looking forward to a return trip when we can start from the upper trailhead and take the Rim Route in addition to bagging the short hike out to Strike Valley Overlook.
We returned to Torrey and pulled into Rim Rock Patio for dinner. Despite the gusting winds, we were able to find a sheltered table on the patio where we enjoyed fantastic views toward Capitol Reef National Park. Our table neighbors were four Germans in their early 60s. They were hilarious and a lot of fun to talk to. They had been there the night before and had “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” pizza. This night they were having another Clint Eastwood inspired pizza (I think it was A Fist Full of Dollars). They were the perfect age to appreciate the Spaghetti Western tributes.
I had planned for us to camp somewhere between Torrey and Cedar Mesa that evening, but the weather had us checking into a hotel. The winds howled all night and at times would shake the hotel. Despite the dry forecast, a fresh layer of snow fell in the mountains above Torrey. By morning, we awoke to calm conditions and another beautiful day for our next hike.
Directions to Upper Muley Twist Trailhead: from the junction of highway 24 and Notom Road at the eastern boundary of Capitol Reef National Park, turn south onto Notom Road. Travel 33 miles south and turn right onto Burr Trail Road. Climb up the steep washboard switchbacks. At the top, travel approximately another mile to the signed turnoff for Upper Muley Twist on the right.