Trails I've Hiked: Hamburger Rocks At Capitol Reef National Park

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Capitol Reef National Park offers more than a windshield tour can offer/Colleen Miniuk-Sperry

Some couples like to celebrate wedding anniversaries with a steak dinner at an up-scale restaurant. To celebrate our lucky 13th anniversary, my husband, Craig, and I decided to commemorate the special occasion with hamburgers instead - a hike to Hamburger Rocks in Capitol Reef National Park, that is.

Of Utah's popular "Mighty Five" national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Zion), only Canyonlands National Park sees fewer visitors than Capitol Reef. Of the approximately 660,000 annual guests, only a dedicated few travel the long distance along dirt roads to see the striking Waterpocket Fold from the Halls Creek Overlook. Even fewer descend into the monocline and make the nine-mile roundtrip trek to see the fantastical Hamburger Rocks on the western face of the Fold. In other words, it offered the perfect gift of solitude to us.

After soaking in the breathtaking view from the overlook as the morning sun crested the horizon, we contemplated how the first part of the trail would traverse the eastern cliff face and guide us to the Halls Creek drainage meandering a staggering 800 feet (243.8 m) below our current perch. With binoculars, we picked out tiny red polka dots on the western sandstone slope in the distance to the north. Considering those specks were our final destination, we immediately started our celebratory hike from the Brimhall Trailhead.

The trail wasted no time dropping in elevation as it zig-zagged across the precarious precipice. After about 1 mile (1.6 km) of careful navigation down the path over rocks of various shapes and sizes, the defined trail continued descending an additional 0.2 miles (0.3 km) in sandy, desert-like terrain before petering out in a stand of cottonwood trees along the wash.

The now-unmarked route veered to the right and into the creek bed for about 2.9 miles (4.7 km). We located an old, faint Jeep trail cutting across numerous sections of the sandy banks that appeared to bypass some of the creek's twists and turns. However, an abundance of life-giving - and easily-damaged - cryptobiotic soil among these mounds kept us following the wash. As they say, "Don't bust the crust!"

Along the way, we stopped to gaze at a large hoodoo standing as a sentinel of the canyon, study eroded rock walls rich with quartz veins, and speculate about the small aquatic life buzzing about in the small pools of water - a visual feast! With each step, we felt hungry for more.

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Hamburger, anyone?/Colleen Miniuk-Sperry

As soon as the Hamburger Rocks appeared due west, we trekked along a small wash (an off-shoot from the main wash) for about 0.4 miles (0.6 km) until we landed on slickrock. Following the obvious red-colored sandstone vein up the hillside brought us quickly to the main course.

Countless waist-high hoodoos capped with reddish hamburger-like "buns" stretched across a platter of sloped white Navajo sandstone. Walking around these rock formations made us feel as if we were a ball inside a life-sized pinball machine at an arcade. After spending time individually exploring these geological wonders and the surrounding area, Craig and I reconvened to toast our beef jerky and water bottles to this - and our many journeys - together.

With our fill of rocks, we retraced our steps to return to the Halls Creek Overlook in time to catch the sun setting over the Waterpocket Fold...and devour a well-earned steak dinner under the stars.

If You Go

While a long day hike won't disappoint, those wishing to extend their stay at the Hamburger Rocks or within the Waterpocket Fold may choose to do an overnight backpacking trip. The required backcountry permits are available at the Visitor Center near Fruita.

Trailhead: Brimhall Trailhead at Halls Creek Overlook. From Highway 24, travel south on the maintained, dirt Notom-Bullfrog Road for 43.5 (70 km). Turn right at the signed turnoff and continue approximately 0.9 miles (1.5 km). Turn right at the signed spur road for Halls Creek Overlook. Travel about 2.5 miles (4 km) on the main track. Then turn right and continue 0.3 miles (0.5 km) to the overlook. While Notom-Bullfrog Road is passable to passenger cars in dry weather, the rough and rocky spur road requires a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle.

Distance: 9 miles (14.5 km) roundtrip

Elevation Change: 800 feet (243.8 m)

Difficulty: Strenuous

Best Season: Spring and fall. Summer brings hot temperatures and the threat of flash floods. Roads may be impassable during winter.

Maps: Prior to your hike, download the Hamburger Rocks Trail Guide at www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/upload/Hamburger-Rocks-09-25-11.pdf and pick up a park map at the Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center

Don't Forget: Ample drinking water and snacks, sturdy hiking shoes with good treads, hiking poles, wide-brimmed hat, and sunscreen. Practice Leave No Trace principles.

Photographer Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, though based in the Southwest, also has enjoyed three stints as an artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park in Maine, roles that led to herphotography guide on Acadia.