Field Notes: Lower Muley Twist
I’m hiking Lower Muley Twist alone, my first day out this year, on a spring afternoon under cloud-streaked skies. It’s been a long, un-aerobic winter, and my body feels a little baffled by the dumb, animal demands of backpacking. The trail past Cottonwood Tanks is all sand and sharp snags of sagebrush, and my newly acquired trekking poles feel desperately awkward. I can’t figure out how to hold them, and I think too hard about which stride goes where— left foot right pole, right foot left pole. I become hopelessly discombobulated, stutter-stepping in an attempt to catch myself up with myself. Physical multitasking has never been my strong suit; during the brief, ill-conceived period in college when I took drum lessons, this bodily incompetence was, surely, my downfall. That, and a willful hatred of practice.
The first evening I camp by Halls Creek, nestled back against swelling sandstone domes and the bright, sudden sunset exploding behind them. In the dark, I read Edward Abbey and poke my head out the tent zipper occasionally to check on the night. The sky isn’t black or indigo but instead, a kind of liquid blue, plush with stars, the only sounds the whispers of the many synthetic fabrics swathed around me in my sleeping bag. Ed says, “I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation." I sleep deep and hard, dream of nothing.
Spending days and nights in the Utah desert is intense— it’s nothing like the Sierra Nevada, the Wasatch, or the Uintas, soft green mountains with clear fresh water everywhere you look. The mountains are infinitely more forgiving— beautiful, but far less demanding, happy to serve you just one more alpine lake, another brook babbling with snowmelt, another patch of shade. The desert slaps you in the face, requires your full attention— here, your missteps mean something. I slightly underestimate the amount of water I need for the trip, and a mile and a half from the car, hazy-eyed and increasingly thirsty, focusing hard on each step, I realize my brain is moving like quicksand, and I'm not feeling so great. I’ve spent enough time outside to know where my limits are— I was in Type II fun territory, not serious danger territory. But the desert holds you accountable. If you make a mistake, you own it.
And at the same time, the desert meters out these moments of wild, private magic. It rewards you with solitude, with perfect late afternoon light, with tiny bats ricocheting across a fluorescent pink sky at sunset. Hours before I shuffled my dehydrated body back to the car, Muley Twist peeled back into a side canyon and revealed a pothole deep and green enough that I could slip my whole body inside, red mud slick on my skin, up to my ears in cool water, giggling at the luxury of it all.
I have a lot to learn about spending big time in this desert. I’ve grown up in Southern Utah, spend countless hours and miles exploring desert backcountry— and, in other parts of the wild, I’ve developed a deep comfort with backpacking into the heart of nowhere and making dinner and lying down to sleep. But I’ve never spent time backpacking in the desert, always quietly intimidated by the lack of water, the heat, the fierceness of climate and landscape. It had been a long time since I looked closely at that reticence— and this week, I realized I’m a lot stronger and more experienced that I was the last time I decided desert backpacking was Just Too Hard.
As it turns out, desert backpacking is hard, but it's just hard enough. I’m plenty strong enough to cover ground, plenty smart enough to find my way, and stoked enough that I can find some kind of joy even when I’m liters short and hours from the trailhead. The desert doesn't cut you breaks, but it's a fair trade— water only feels like magic when you have to work for it.
Route-finding and Where to Camp
The Lower Muley Twist Loop (via Halls Creek and the Post Cut-off) is 15 miles, with 5 miles of dull creek-walking through Halls Creek, and then 10 miles of glorious canyon hiking after that. You need a permit to overnight in Lower Muley— free from the Capitol Reef Visitor’s Center — and while there is water throughout the canyon, it’s unreliable and you’d do best to carry everything you need. I got a late start on my trip; starting at 4pm, I hiked about 5 miles to camp near Halls Creek, and then hiked the remaining 10 miles out through Lower Muley Twist the following day.
Especially if you’re traveling in a larger party, be extremely cautious of cryptobiotic soil when you pick out a campsite— anyplace that looks like a nice, soft, flat place to pitch a tent is likely also covered in gorgeous, vital, ridiculously delicate crypto. A few minutes after entering Lower Muley Twist, you come into a wide, dreamy oxbow with a broad meadow on your right. If I could do it all again, I’d hike the extra 1/2 mile and camp there.
I used this trail beta for my Lower Muley loop, and it’s excellent— good topos, accurate mileage & landmarks, and well-written. I’ll make one small addition, though— route-finding is not hard. The trail is aggressively cairned and generally pretty dang obvious, and if you’re using Gaia GPS or something similar, you’d have to work extremely hard to get lost. For his description of the Post Cut-Off trail, the author mentions questionable route-finding and challenging friction slopes. The trail is friction-y, but it’s also well marked and fairly intuitive. Any desert hiker with a modicum of sense or slickrock experience should do just fine.
When to Go
A month ago or ASAP. It’s already brutally hot in Southern Utah during the day— temps this weekend in March were well above 80, which in direct sun can be a real adventure. I cope with desert heat by compulsively covering as much skin as possible— see below.
An Unsolicited Endorsement of Sun Shirts
As a general rule, the more ridiculous you look while wearing a sun shirt, the more effective it is. Don’t be fooled by the potential radness of bright colors or loose-fitting hoods— the best sun hoodys are the ones that make you look like a deranged, fly-fishing ninja. Stick to light colors (white is best, even if it looks like disgusting garbage after a week in the field,) and elasticated or cross-over hoods that protect your chest, neck, and ears.
I wear Patagonia Sunshade Hoodys— they’re lightweight, comfortable over multiple days out, and effective. The Patagonia model does have an unfortunately placed zipper pocket that tends to rest right under the hip belt of your pack when backpacking, but I’ve found that some quick adjustment after you buckle up prevents any problematic chafing. The rad thing about wearing a sun shirt (besides fashion, of course) is it means you can forego sunblock on everywhere except your face— a small mercy when you’ve been out for multiple days and the thought of rubbing thick, greasy lotion into all your exposed skin makes you want to weep. And in desert summers, any opportunity to keep the sun off your skin is one with taking.
Backcountry Breakfast: Blueberry, Chai, & Chia Oatmeal
1/2 cup quick oats
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon powdered milk or substitute
1/2 scoop chai concentrate powder
Mini marshmallows (not optional)
These oatmeal packets are best made in bulk— if you get an assembly line going, you can make backcountry breakfasts that’ll last you for ages! Once in the field, boil water, add oats, turn off the heat, and put the lid on. Let sit until oatmeal is thickened or you’re tired of waiting, whichever comes first.