Hiking Cottonwood Wash Slot Canyon
Slot canyons are some of the most intriguing places to enjoy in the Colorado Plateau. There’s just something special about exploring these narrow ditches whose walls sometimes rise hundreds of feet above your head. Capitol Reef National Park isn’t the place that might come to mind when searching out new slots to hike, but along the park’s eastern boundary there are numerous canyons awaiting those who seek these adventures. Cottonwood Wash doesn’t get the hype of nearby canyons, and I’m still trying to figure out why that is. If you’re looking for solitude, beauty and of course, tight spaces, then Cottonwood is the crack for you.
The hike begins 9.1 miles south on Notom-Bullfrog Road. Turn west and park under a large cottonwood tree. Hike one mile in open sun through the rugged and rather uninteresting portion of lower Cottonwood Wash (if you have a high-clearance vehicle you can drive the rough jeep road and cut out this boring portion of the hike). Things start to get interesting beyond this point: the canyon walls begin to take form and the wash becomes a mix of smooth slickrock, boulders and vibrant plant life. Approximately 1.25 miles in, the canyon narrows enough to be considered a true slot. Continue up the sandy canyon floor as the walls slowly envelope you…the best portions of Cottonwood Wash await!
Soon after this section, the canyon forks. Keep right (north) and just a few yards further things get interesting as the canyon narrows to a very thin slot. Sandstone walls rise high above your head and sunlight dwindles in many areas. This section is often filled with water that will require wading or possible swimming*. The canyon alternates between areas of tight walls and open spaces and is littered with chockstones that require some scrambling to overcome. At approximately the 2 mile mark you will find out what level of canyoneer you are as Cottonwood lines up some serious obstacles. For a real good look at the canyon, watch the video below:
Short and demanding is the name of the game. A 1/4 mile section of the middle canyon will truly test your skills. One obstacle requires stemming and bouldering underneath a huge chockstone while another requires you to climb under an ancient cottonwood branch wedged above your head. There are two other problems in the immediate area that will also require some effort to overcome. If you can stem, chimney and wiggle your way through this section you will truly be rewarded. The final mile of this hike journeys through some of the tighter and more varied slots I’ve had the privilege to explore. The hike finally ends when you arrive at an impassible 35 foot dryfall. It’s time to turn around and see it all from the other side…trust me when I say it’s every bit the adventure on the way out!
It’s not hard to tell why this canyon got its name; vibrant cottonwood trees have taken up residence wherever there is enough sun and soil to grow. The only other place I have seen trees this healthy within the walls of a slot canyon is in Eardley Canyon (San Rafael Swell). It’s a truly amazing mix of harsh desert environment and thriving flora. Hikers of almost any age and skill level should have no problem enjoying the lower portion of this hike. It’s possible to make it to where the canyon forks and the short slot just beyond with little to no difficulty. However, if you choose to go beyond this section be aware that the hiking is demanding; you should have a decent set of canyoneering skills at your disposal. No ropes or special equipment outside of good shoes and plenty of water is required, but you should know that it’s no casual stroll to complete the entire hike. Entire distance is 6 miles round trip and will take from 3 to 5 hours to finish.
*Author’s note: I read many trip reports and even watched a few videos showing just how much water Cottonwood Wash can contain. The day my partner and I hiked here (May 25th, 2012), it was bone dry. I cannot speak to the difficulty that water would present in this canyon, but it would certainly change the complexion of the many boulder problems. It’s always best to stop at the Visitor Center before hiking to get the latest information on canyon and weather conditions. NEVER hike in a slot canyon if there is a chance of rain in the forecast.