Of Capitol Reef National Park’s three strenuous slot canyons off the Notom-Bullfrog Road (Sheets Gulch and Burro Wash being the others), Cottonwood Wash is, to many, the most frustrating. The culprit is a deep, chilly pool—frequently over head high—encountered just as the canyon begins to narrow significantly. Even if swimming is not in the cards, however, hiking up the wash to this point remains a worthy adventure—and one that will test the strength and technique of canyon hikers. Cottonwood is not a pee-wee slot canyon experience, and those attempting it should be prepared to navigate difficult chockstones, tight squeezes, and boulder jams. It is a little over two miles from the trailhead to the near-perennial pool; in summer, swimmers can advance beyond, eventually turning around at an impassable, 35-foot dryfall—or, in rare circumstances, you’ll catch the slot when it is completely dry.
(Note: Technically, the entire hike up to the pool is on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For all intents and purposes, however, Cottonwood Wash is considered part and parcel with Capitol Reef National Park.)
(Note: Conditions in slot canyons can change frequently and dramatically, especially after flash floods. The following describes the status of chockstones, water levels, and other obstacles as they were on March 23, 2015. Be sure to check with the Capitol Reef Visitor Center for the latest.)
From the eastern boundary of Capitol Reef National Park along Highway 24, drive about nine miles south on the Notom-Bullfrog Road. At a BLM sign marked “Cottonwood Wash,” turn right onto a sandy track heading west. Vehicles with low clearance will be able to continue 50-75 yards down the track, but high clearance and four-wheel drive (4WD) are recommended beyond. Technically, 4WD vehicles may drive 1.2 miles up the wash, cutting the hiking distance to the pool almost in half. However, most will want to err on the side of caution, parking just off the Notom-Bullfrog Road (in the shade of one of the many cottonwood trees) and walking the 1.2 miles upstream.
This introductory section is less than dazzling, but the flat and sandy walking to the end of the 4WD track can be completed in around 30 minutes. At a fork in the canyon a little over a mile from the trailhead, stay left, following the wider, more obvious wash. The drive terminates abruptly shortly thereafter, and a sandy single-track hiker’s path continues beyond. This trail quickly drops into the wash bottom, which at this point is littered with logs and boulders.
Around the first right-hand bend, hikers will encounter, in quick succession, three short dryfalls in the fluted bedrock, some of which may harbor puddles of water. They are easily bypassed on the left. A fourth is encountered a minute farther, again on the left.
Level with the fourth pouroff, hikers will face a choice: continue upstream through the rock-strewn gulch, or catch a hiker-made bypass route that ascends the left-hand slope. Most will elect for the bypass, but at 50 feet above the canyon bottom, it is relatively exposed in places. Following the wash bottom requires skirting three considerable boulder jams, followed by an 8- to 10-foot pouroff (surmounted via a ledge system on the left). The bypass route returns to the wash just above this dryfall.
The hike to this point has cut through the relatively uninteresting Entrada sandstone and Carmel formation, but it will soon enter the slot-forming Navajo sandstone. 5-10 minutes beyond the pouroff, the wash meanders through twisting narrows—not the best in Capitol Reef, but pleasant and photogenic nonetheless. A handful of boulder chokes in the narrows necessitate minor scrambling. After two short bends, the canyon opens up slightly and splits. Take a hard right at the fork, turning toward a stretch of appealing narrows to the northwest.
After rounding a relatively sunny corner, the hike becomes considerably more strenuous. Two boulder piles in the west-bearing narrows are relatively easily negotiated, but a 6.5-foot chockstone just beyond is a far more challenging obstruction. Climbing the boulder head-on is likely to be futile; a better option is to chimney, leaning your back against the right wall and pushing off with your feet on the left. A small notch in the chockstone itself provides a fleeting foothold, after which a good deal of strength and balance is required to pull oneself up and over the barrier. (Note: While the wash in this section was dry when I tackled Cottonwood in March 2015, this chockstone may be preceded by a pool of muddy water after recent rains or snowmelt.)
Beyond the tricky chockstone, a short S curve leads to the next significant obstacle—a shallow slot harboring two 3- to 4-foot chockstones. Though a tight squeeze, both are relatively easily overcome.
The most intimidating obstacle to date—a mammoth-sized chockstone known as the “arrow”—lies just beyond. While seemingly daunting upon first glance, a small opening next to the right-hand wall provides a relatively simple passage under the arrow. The notch is just spacious enough to accommodate climbers of nearly all dimensions, and two conveniently-placed boulders lessen the upward stretch.
With the arrow chockstone conquered, the canyon bends slightly to the right, where a minor debris pile (boulders, logs) must be climbed. Then, all of a sudden, the wash ahead disappears into a thin slot. Readers of this post will know what is coming: a deep, murky pool that cannot feasibly be avoided. Advancing up-canyon from this point will likely require swimming…unless you are lucky enough to catch the pool when it is dry. Determined hikers may continue ¾ mile through the slot until reaching an impassable dryfall of approximately 35 feet. (Note: For a fuller description of this final section, see Rick Stinchfield’s Capitol Reef National Park: The Complete Hiking and Touring Guide.)
Most hikers will turn around at the pool, returning down-canyon to the 4WD track and the trailhead. Be careful on the descent: in slot canyons, time and distance are irrelevant, as obstacles should be tackled with caution and care.