Do not attempt Cottonwood Wash if there is any chance of storms or significant rain. Attempt in colder months to minimize the chance of monsoons.
Several obstacles require climbing moves that may be difficult for inexperienced canyoneers.
Despite the minimal mileage, Cottonwood Wash takes much longer to complete then a typical trail. The time will be extended as group size increases, and while it is nice to have a helper or two, large groups would cause real bottlenecks at several points.
A long, sandy start leads into very strenuous terrain that requires canyoneering skills to navigate. As such, this is not a recommended route for running.
The run up Cottonwood Wash follows the wash bottom on a mix of gravel, sand, and rocks. The 1.2 miles to where the canyon narrows isn’t particularly scenic, but the distance passes quickly.
As the route enters the Carmel Formation, the walls rise above and the route becomes interesting and far more strenuous. Two faint trails can aide in the early going, especially the second one which follows a sandy climb out of the wash to bypass the boulders below - a welcome option on the return. If you choose to skip the bypass, the boulders in the wash make a fun warmup for the day. The bypass returns to the wash via a slickrock ramp above a scaleable dryfall.
A second fluted bedrock slope signals a nice serpentine narrows with walls about 8 feet apart. Shortly after the narrows, the canyon divides into two quite similar branches, with Cottonwood Wash going right and immediately tightening. A thinner narrows follows shortly with a difficult slot section right behind. A chockstone boulder here may require help to pass.
There’s little easy trail before a skinny, awkward slot with another chockstone. Up next, a huge arrow-shaped boulder blocks the way. Surprisingly, a route goes under the arrow along the right wall, continues under a smaller boulder wedged against the bigger one, and then through a small opening above. Remember this ascent because the return is almost blind.
After conquering the arrow, it’s disappointing to find a long, imposing pool filling an otherwise enticing slot. The pool can be very deep, frigidly cold, and generally unappealing. The difficult chockstone at the end should only be attempted by experienced canyoneers if water is present. This becomes the turn around point for most groups.
Rarely, the pool is dry. If this happens, the chockstone can be passed with a difficult climb from underneath. From this point the route is interesting and relentlessly challenging. A particularly smooth boulder ahead is difficult going for those less than six feet tall. The boulder is best passed by spanning the walls to slither over.
Just beyond is an intriguing pothole with a curving, scaleable entry chute. The reward for this scramble is a long, slanted, narrow slot that may be the best section of the rout. After a pleasant wide, opening in the canyon the home stretch appears. This long section of deep narrows is frequently filled with water. If dry, continue to the 10-foot high dryfall which is the logical turnaround.
This content was contributed by author Rick Stinchfield. For a comprehensive hiking guide to Capitol Reef National Park and to see more by Rick, click here
Above the arrow, the canyon widens just enough for a boxelder tree to maintain a foothold in deep gravel on the side of the wash channel. Boxelders are not common trees in the Capitol Reef area, except in the deep canyons on the east side of the Waterpocket Fold. Here they are able to tenaciously resist occasional floods while taking advantage of little competition and good subsurface moisture.
Boxelders (Acer negundo) are in the maple family, but have compound leaves with leaflets that are more serrated than lobed. Quite often the leaves have three leaflets, and young boxelders may resemble poison ivy on first glance. In the summer, boxelders provide nice contrast in otherwise bare rock canyons, and in the fall their bright yellow foliage can be very striking.