Upper Muley Twist Canyon is a largely undiscovered gem of the U.S. national park system. It is highly scenic hiking route in the remote southern section of Utah's Capitol Reef National Park. The route covers a variety of terrain, from a pebble-filled dry wash bottom to slick rock scrambles. Along the way hikers are offered stunning views of the park's trademark Waterpocket Fold strike valley, petrified sand dunes, arches and other geological features.
Upper Muley Twist Canyon is accessed by way of a short spur road off the Burr Trail Road in south-central Utah.
There are two common approaches: from the west by way of Utah State Route 12 or from the north by way of Utah State Route 24.
From SR 12: exit the highway in the town of Boulder by turning onto the Burr Trail Road. The Upper Muley Twist Road turn-off is about 34 miles from Boulder. For about 10 miles the Burr Trail will run through the very scenic red rock of Long Canyon before breaking out into the open desert terrain of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The road is paved through to the national park boundary, then is well-graded dirt for the last few miles to the turn-off.
From SR 24: turn off onto the Notom-Bullfrog Road 10 miles west of Caineville near the national park boundary. The Notom-Bullfrog road is paved for the first 11 miles (though this could change in the near future) and then continues on dirt of variable condition an additional 24 miles to the Burr Trail Road intersection at the base of the Burr Trail switchbacks. Drive up the switchbacks. The Upper Muley Twist spur road is about one mile west of the top of the Burr Trail switchbacks.
Low-clearance vehicles will only able to access the first half mile of the spur road. Signage here marks the Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead. Those with high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles can continue another three miles to a parking area at the Strike Valley Overlook trailhead. The route past the lower trailhead is rough and rocky, generally following the wash. Do not attempt if foul weather is forecast.
The Upper Muley Twist Canyon hike comes in two varieties: long or longer.
This depends on where one parks to begin the hike. If parking at the Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead, completing the loop will require roughly 15 miles of on-foot travel. However, the distance is significantly reduced to about nine miles round-trip if parking at the Strike Valley Overview trailhead.
The hike between the two trailheads is relatively uninteresting, so it's advisable to begin at the second trailhead if one's vehicle allows it. Distances in this guide will assume a start at the Strike Valley Overview trailhead. If starting from the Upper Muley Twist Canyon trailhead, add three miles. Whether walking or hiking, watch for Trinity Arch in the space between the two trailheads (approximately 37.873779º N,-111.045167º W along the canyon's west wall).
Upper Muley Twist Canyon can be hiked as an out-and-back, but is best appreciated as a loop. This is accomplished by either hiking up the canyon bottom and returning along the rim of the Waterpocket Fold or vice versa. The decision on which route to take comes 1.7 miles up canyon from the trailhead. A sign at approximately 37.901527º N,-111.059215º W marks the bottom end of the loop. From here, turning right takes hikers on a steep climb to the east for the rim route (completing the loop in a counter-clockwise direction). Continuing straight takes hikers along the canyon route (completing the loop in a clockwise direction).
Taking the canyon route makes the elevation gain needed to reach the rim of the reef more gradual, but also delays the gratification of witnessing Capitol Reef's strike valley from the rim. Hikers going up the rim route exit the wash bottom at the afore mentioned sign and follow cairns to a second sign at approximately 37.900290º N,-111.056537º W. The rest of this guide will assume a hike in the clockwise direction.
Hikers going up the canyon route should turn left immediately after the first trail sign to see Saddle Arch. The impressive, somewhat twisted-looking arch is arguably the most picturesque in Upper Muley Twist Canyon.
Beyond Saddle Arch, the canyon route continues 2.3 miles to the start of the narrows. Along the way, watch for Dome Arch (approximately 37.913583º N,-111.071556º W on the canyon's west wall) and Cap Arch (approximately 37.921139º N,-111.073866º W and easy to miss just off the main trail along a narrow tributary).
A few hundred feet beyond Cap Arch, the canyon will take a sharp turn toward the east and promptly narrow. Rather than entering the narrows, look for cairns climbing out of the wash to the north (approximately 37.923093º N,-111.073878º W). This bypass is unsigned.
The trail now ascends about 150 feet to an at times narrow ledge above and to the east of the Upper Muley Twist Canyon slot. The bypass route is well-cairned, but at times the trail becomes faint and can be dangerous if one is not vigilant for the right path.
Above the Upper Muley Twist slot
Views to the west from along the bypass route reveal petrified sand dunes that have eroded into unique shapes, due to the tilt of the Waterpocket Fold.
Near 37.929113º N,-111.077536º W the bypass will come to an end and the trail will rejoin the bottom of the wash. Continue up the canyon roughly 1/10th of a mile to a sign marking the end of the canyon route (approximately 37.931316º N,-111.078349º W). From here, the trail takes a sharp turn to the east and begins to climb on the buff-colored reef of the Waterpocket Fold. The nature of the hike changes, becoming less of a slog through pebbles and sand. Instead, hikers must watch for frequent but at times elusive cairns.
Upon reaching the top of the reef, hikers will encounter another sign marking the top of the rim route (coordinates missing). From here, head generally south along the reef while admiring awe-inspiring views of the strike valley. The Henry Mountains dominate the eastern skyline. Looking south, a prominent kink in the strike valley draws the eye toward the town of Bullfrog, which is obscured over the horizon. Stay generally toward the eastern side of the rim unless the cairns indicate otherwise.
Travel along the rim is generally easy, though there are a couple of places where short scrambles with some minor exposure are necessary. The worst of these is located at a prominent notch near 37.922099º N,-111.070002º W. Unencumbered hikers in good weather should have no trouble with the slope, but those with heavier packs or encountering adverse conditions should use caution. Between 37.913172º N,-111.066267º W and 37.911764º N,-111.065117º W the trail traverses a saddle above a relatively steep slope that drops into the strike valley. For a short distance south of the saddle, the trail follows the west side of the rim above Upper Muley Twist Canyon. It regains the top of the rim near 37.910476º N,-111.063588º W.
The rim route flattens out and widens near 37.904718º N,-111.058377º W. This indicates the route is coming to an end. Continue south, looking west into Upper Muley Twist Canyon for a different perspective on Saddle Arch. A sign (mentioned earlier, at 37.900290º N,-111.056537º W) marks the end of the rim route and points hikers back down into Upper Muley Twist Canyon.
Once on the canyon floor, follow the wash bottom back down to the trailhead.
Permits & Regulations
Upper Muley Twist Canyon is located entirely within Capitol Reef National Park. Typical rules for backcountry travel in U.S. National Parks apply.
Permits are not required for day hikes. Permits are required for overnight or multi-day trips. Permits are available at the park visitor's center near Fruita. This is a long way from Upper Muley Twist Canyon and should be factored into driving plans if a permit is required.
Spring, summer and fall temperatures can be extreme. There is no shade along the rim route and minimal shade along the canyon route. Water is nonexistent. Carry in adequate supplies.
Relevant Books & Maps
USGS Bitter Creek Divide and Wagon Box Mesa 7.5 minute quadrangle maps.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated - Capitol Reef National Park