Hmm, racy name, you think. Who, you ask, is Fern, and why would I want to hike up to her nipple? I’m glad you asked. Ferns Nipple, a prominent (ahem) point in Capitol Reef National Park, is a glorious swirl of sandstone proudly jutting toward the sky. Reached by one of a few circuitous, fairly ambitious trails, Fern is not advertised by the Park. Search for it on the official NPS website and you’ll come up with nothing. Search for it online in general and you’ll find plenty of suggestions.
This isn’t a hike for beginners, those without trail-finding skills, or anyone fearful of heights. But if you’re game and have chops, head on up. The view is great.
How to do this hike:
1. Check in with the rangers upon or pre-arrival to discuss your route. There are variances, and the rangers will be happy to direct you to the one most recommended. Or, if they eyeball you and upon reflection decide they’d rather not spend their afternoon searching for your poorly-equipped carcass, they’ll point you in the direction of Hickman Bridge instead. Seriously, Fern’s Nipple is for experienced, fit hikers. If that doesn’t describe you, consider taking a local guide.
2. My route: Drive south from the visitors center down the Scenic Drive ($5 entry fee per vehicle). At the Grand Wash turn-off, go left (east). Park at the very first wide pull-out you encounter, on your right-hand (south) side.
3. Face south. You’ll be presented with bentonite (clay) hills and a forbidding climb up onto sandstone layers. Get hiking. There is a way up through the cliff to the top, and there are cairns here and there. Experienced canyon hikers will be able to pick out the best route. Again, chat with the rangers to get better specifics pointed out to you on the topo map.
4. Once you’re on the very top of the mesa, head south and slightly east. You’ll be circling in a long horseshoe to get to the Nipple. It seems like there’s a more direct route, but a deep canyon cuts east of you, and you have to go south to get around it.
5. Once you reach the southernmost point of the mesa, curve around east. Trust me, you can’t miss it; dropping into space is your only other option unless you turn around. The trail is marked by occasional cairns, and experienced eyes should be able to pick out the faint trail itself. After the initial curve east, you’ll head north and uphill.
6. From here, pick your best route toward the nipple. You’ll be approaching from its western side. Skirt along the orange-pink base to find your best way up. I chose to ascend from almost due south. As you can tell from the photos, it’s a good uphill climb.
7. Summiting: Again, find your best way up. This is where you’ll discover whether or not you have a fear of heights! The day I went the famous area winds were whipping in excess of 50 miles per hour, so we elected not to make it to the very top for fear of literally being ripped off. I was clinging to the rock and crawling in places. (Notice the wildly whipping clothing in the photos.) However, if you make it all the way up, there is an ammo can trail register for you to sign your name and proclaim that you have climbed Ferns Nipple.
8. Return the same way.
Tips on doing this hike:
1. You might want trekking poles or a walking stick. Plenty of up and down to pulverize your knees. This might not help you as much on the final, sandstone ascent, however, so think about leaving your poles tucked away just before this section.
2. Maps are great. Ranger trail hints are even better.
3. Due north of your parking area is the old Oyler Uranium Mine. Yes, uranium. The mine entrances are boarded up, but you can walk up for a closer look if intrigued. From 1901 till 1937, there were at least 75 mining claims in the immediate vicinity. Thankfully for the future of this national park, the Oyler Mine never really panned out.
Random facts about this hike:
1. Where’s the name from? A few theories: a) Back in the day, a madam named Molly (or Fern) set up shop near Capitol Reef (back then it wasn’t a national park). She apparently had several lovely ladies out “to let” to the local miners, ranchers, bored husbands, what-have-you. (Yes, I’m talking about Mormon country. What, you thought all Mormons were starchy types? Eh…they were human.) The services were so sweet, they named the place Candy Ranch, which you can visit if you’d like. It’s totally broken-down now, of course. Anyway, Fern (or Molly) was one of the ladies, and I guess her nipple was lovely enough to have a giant rock formation named after it. Oh, Molly has a nipple too, in case you were wondering… Another hike for another day. b) Cassidy Arch is right around the corner, so to speak, from Ferns Nipple. Cassidy as in Butch, who definitely roamed the area at times. Fern as in one of his girls. Possibly a favorite? If anyone knows the real, definitive history, I haven’t discovered it yet.
2) The top protuberance measures in at just over 7,000 feet.