Chasing Waterfalls and Backpacking 'Pleasant Pocket Mesa' in Capitol Reef NP

Having recently celebrated Jessica's birthday, I had planned to gift Jess a night off from the kids and out in the backcountry.  As we typically do, we traveled to Torrey to spend Memorial Day weekend with her parents and made plans to do some backpacking in Capitol Reef National Park while there. The route we ended up on was a reverse of the loop I had done two years before as well as being the latter section of the Beehive Traverse I had done last fall.

- Day 1 -
Monday - May 27, 2019
We had initially wanted to hike Halls Creek Narrows, but recent rains had made road conditions out there uncertain.  Not only that, but another big rain storm was forecasted for Monday.  And when Monday arrived, rain it did, very much, throughout the day. mid-day, we ended up gathering the kids into the car and went for a ride along with my in-laws to go chasing waterfalls down in Capitol Reef along the highway, ephemeral waterfalls that is, created by said rain.  

Wingate waterfall

Waterfall across Fremont River

Fremont River and waterfall

Ephemeral pool created from waterfall

Pool close-up

Waterfall faded into a trickle

Tufted Evening Primrose

We continued on down the highway until we arrived in Hanksville and ended up pulling up at the diner there for lunch.  While there, I learned about an old historic gold mill that had been reconstructed out at the BLM office there in Hanksville.  So...we made a quick trip over there to check it out after lunch and learn all about Edwin T. Wolverton, a prospector who had migrated out west here, having learned of legends of lost Spanish gold mines, and had high hopes of prospering from such a mine himself.

E.T. Wolverton Mill

Inside the mill

Coming back to Torrey, we were surprised to find that the day's storm had even brought in some snow to the area.

Snow in Torrey

- Day 2 -
Tuesday - May 28, 2019
Tuesday came and with it, a forecast for more showers, at least in the afternoon.  It wasn't nearly the forecast for what hit the area the day before.  In fact, the morning featured a fair bit of sun with the promise of drying things about a bit.  Despite more showers forecasted for the afternoon, Jess and I opted to go for it and put in a night up on the mesa top that lies between Capitol Gorge and Pleasant Creek.  Because it has no official name, and is part of the Waterpocket Fold that does indeed feature a lot of waterpockets and potholes throughout many of its drainages, I'm hence forward calling "Pleasant Pocket Mesa".

We pulled into Capitol Reef's Visitor Center about mid-day and secured our backcountry permit.  From there, it was on down the road to Capitol Gorge.  I had brought a bike down with us to Torrey to serve as a shuttle for the Pleasant Creek Road and trailhead, but again, due to the rains the day before, that road had been closed.  So...that meant we'd have to hike an additional 5 miles and do a complete loop.  To split those miles up, we parked at the upper trailhead for Capitol Gorge beneath Ephraim Hanks Tower.  From there, we hiked the 2+ miles down to the dirt road to the lower trailhead.

Hiking the road down upper Capitol Gorge

Tafoni wall at bend in upper Capitol Gorge

Prickly Pear Cactus

Claret Cup Cactus

Once at the lower trailhead, we took a brief rest and prepared to haul ourselves through the rest of the gorge out to the other end.  As we began, the clouds started to move in and tease us with some sprinkles.

Jess pauses for a second near Pioneer Register in Capitol Gorge

Jess in Capitol Gorge

Near the end of the gorge, I led Jess up to see some of the rock art that Devin and I had discovered last fall along our big Beehive Traverse trip.  While there, we got teased with a bit more rain.

Fremont rock art panel

Princes Plume
Also along the wall of rock art is an interesting pattern of organic looking streaks of red coursing through the rock.

Veins on the wall

Lower Capitol Gorge

We made our way back down to the wash to finish out the gorge.

Princes Plume at upper end of Capitol Gorge

Me and the old car (photo by Jess)

Once out of the gorge, it was time to make the long hike up and out to the top of the mesa we were after.  Rain clouds continued to swarm around us and threatened.  It was here that I started to feel a bit nervous, hoping we didn't come to regret our decision, due to now feeling exposed to potential lightning strikes with very little stands of vegetation to lie low in.

Desert Storm

I kept listening for thunder and watching for lightning further out, but thankfully, nothing.  As we continued to progress upward, I became more confident and comfortable again.  A variety of flowers also began to appear as we got higher.

Showy Four'o'clock


Eventually, we dropped down into another drainage that would lead us up to one of my favorite views within the park.

Shiny slickrock along bottom of wash

What I didn't anticipate with the big view was a big waterfall flowing off the cliffside out across from us when we got there.  I had been to this spot twice before, under much more "favorable" weather conditions where such a waterfall had not been.  As with the ones encountered along the highway the day before, this was one that is a very rare sight, formed only when enough rain hits the area, producing enough run-off to form such a spectacle.  We felt privileged to witness this almost mystical display of nature.  Such a sight was indeed worth the cold, blustery winds and stinging rain drops that was now assaulting our faces.

Jess gazes out at ephemeral waterfall in distance

The Waterfall

'The View' with Golden Throne in the distance (above center)

Golden Throne shrouded in mist

Pano of 'The View'

Had there been a closer water source, it would have been tempting to try and make camp right then and there.  But alas, we had a bit more distance to hike, so onward we went.

Utah Penstemon

Once around the drainage and past the big falls, we were treated to more dazzling displays of gathered rain water flowing along its natural course.

Arriving in a basin along the top of the mesa

Myself, among a bedazzling landscape (photo by Jess)

Jess wandering up glistening sandstone slopes along the newborn stream

Looking down another infrequent stream

Small waterfall

Small pool

It was a magical feeling seeing the clouds, the sunlight, and all the freshly fallen rain combine to put on such a show across this otherwise arid desert landscape.  Once again, it was tempting to set up camp along this stretch, this time with abundant water sources, but to keep the next day's hike out shorter, we chose to keep moving on.

Henry Mountains veiled by clouds

Looking across a checkerboard basin 

Jess takes in the view of the basin below

We eventually settled on the same spot Devin and I set up camp last fall along our trip through here.  Jess and I brought some new chairs from REI, called the Flexlite Air.  Weighing a hair under a pound each, it was certainly a luxury worth packing along.

Jess relaxing in camp

Despite having camped at this spot before, I was still blown away by the scenery surrounding us.  Jess certainly was too.

With camp all set up, we got right to work cooking up some backcountry fajitas for dinner.

Starting up some fajitas

Almost done!

Dinner is served!

They were amazing!  While I certainly enjoy the convenience of pouch meals that simply require adding hot water, it was a fantastic treat to change it up with something that was restaurant-worthy, featuring some fresh ingredients.

A Capitol campsite

After dinner, we wandered around our camp to explore a bit.  While out, I found my way up to an overlook of Pleasant Creek to the south among many other great views we were able to perch ourselves upon.

Pleasant Creek overlook

Our camp with Henry Mountains in the distance

Fun with framing

Looking south from above camp

Looking west from above camp

Pano looking east to south over camp

 Pano looking west to north from above camp

We returned to camp to make some apple crisp.  It's a good thing we weren't in grizzly country, because the recipe we used was very, very fragrant.

Making apple crisp

- Day 3 -
Wednesday - May 29, 2019
The next morning dawned upon us with more partly cloudy skies.


Camp at sunrise

Rocks aglow above camp

Zoomed in to the east

Sun is out!

After having my fill of the a.m. golden hour, I set about getting breakfast going.  Again, I'd put our fry pan to work and cooked up some pancakes.

Getting set for breakfast

Cooking pancakes

Breakfast is served!

Breakfast with a view

All too soon, it was time to pack up and head on out.

Heading up and out

Jess rests atop a ridge for a view

More arrays of flowers could be found here and there.  Winter and spring were definitely good to the desert this year.

Indian Paintbrush

Bronze Evening Primrose

More Indian Paintbrush

The views seemed to never end as we gained another ridge.  

Myself, looking at Henry Mountains to the east from up on a ridge (photo by Jess)

Wider view east

Unexpected reflection

Closer-up reflection

Another overlook of Pleasant Creek out below

It was now time to descend from the ridge and down a drainage to join up with Pleasant Creek far out below.

Descending into drainage

All the tanks, pools, and potholes were full as expected.  Some made for some nice reflections.

Ponderosa reflection

Another reflection looking back up drainage

Looking down the drainage

Pool down below

At the edge of a tank looking up the drainage

More tanks down canyon

As we got closer to the creek, more varieties of flowers became abundant.

Harriman's Yucca

Chinese Saltcedar (Tamarisk)

More Harriman's Yucca

Prickly Pear blossom

Pale Evening Primrose


And then we arrived at the creek itself.  It would be Jessica's first time hiking along this lower stretch of the creek.  There would be many crossings and we were thankful for sunshine to warm our feet up after each crossing.

Lower Pleasant Creek

Heading up toward the narrows

Sandstone dome towers above the creek

Jess crosses the creek at one of several crossings

Big box elder tree along creek

I'm always fan of this dead tree out in the flat

A spire above the creek

One last look at Pleasant Creek

Once at the mouth of the canyon upstream, we joined up with the road and veered to the north to finish out the final three miles of our route and close the loop back to our car.

Jess on the road

Golden Throne, dead ahead

That's a wrap!

This trip, like so many others, taught me a lot about perspective.  There are often unexpected storms that move in on life itself that have a way of spoiling plans we make for ourselves, or at least make conditions more miserable than desired or hoped for.  And yet, with patience and perseverance, those same storms or trials can produce some glorious and beautiful changes and growth to our life's landscapes, much like what we experienced out in this wondrous desert landscape.    

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