Capitol Reef



Wayne, Garfield, Sevier, and Emery Counties, Utah. Area: 241,904.26 acres (978.9518 sq. km). Some 100 miles, lengthwise the ʻreefʼ is fairly narrow (378 sq. miles). Capitol Reef NP encompasses the Waterpocket Fold.

The Waterpocket Fold country provides a unique geographical and geophysical landscaping: Paleozoic and Mesozoic Era formations in spellbinding shapes created by major faulting and folding of the terrain. In short, wrinkles never looked so good!

Established as a national park in 1971, though at one time a national monument, but later recommended only as a national recreation area, Capitol Reef defines a massive crease and stress in the planet’s crust. The term reef refers to any rocky barrier, while a waterpocket is essentially a broad basin formed in many of the sandstone layers and eroded by water. With the majestic Henry Mountains backdrop, the Waterpocket Fold is formidable terrain in every respect. The park just might be the best kept secret of all national parks in the Southwest, mainly because it’s seldom crowded with visitors relative to other highly scenic places throughout the Colorado Plateau (especially the Grand Canyon). Impressive landmarks appear from the Fremont River to Pleasant Creek. Everywhere is seen something unique, something spellbinding in features, some 66 million years old. Newer and older layers of rock formations are also folded over each other are contorted into a classic S-shape. This revealing and warped landform may have been caused by colliding continental plates that also created the Rocky Mountains, and has since weathered rather nicely over millennia. The result has exposed layers of odd-shaped rocks (domes) along with surfeit and diverse fossils.

Kindly note
Before the tour gets started, all my photos currently stored on a photo storage site (ahem!) and their not permitting me access until I cough up money that I never knew was mandatory (because this "You have exceeded your bandwidth" forthwith notice came up out of the proverbial blue) comes down to this finer point: posting pics on future tours, including this tour underway, will be minimal until I find a better source to work with. Meanwhile, I say without reservation how using this other photo site is like inviting a persona non grata type home for supper. Any suggestions by the community are welcomed.

Guided Tour Essentials
The park setting is embellished with brilliantly colored sandstone cliffs, gleaming white domes and contrasting layers of formations representing many geologic periods, mostly from the Mesozoic Era (251 to 66 million years ago). The result is a gallery of sheer cliffs, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, graceful arches, and of course the classic dome-shaped Navajo Sandstone landmarks that inspires the name of the setting. The prolonged warp throughout this region denotes a quintessential monocline (a regional fold with one very steep side in an area of otherwise nearly horizontal layers). Established as a national park in 1971, Capitol Reefʼs rugged features are the result of a 75-mile-long upthrust called the Waterpocket Fold.

Slightly measuring lengthwise over 100 miles in the desert country of central Utah, Capitol Reef is east of the town of Torrey and 3 miles west and southeast of the middle desert defining this region. This rugged spine of topography goes from Thousand Lake Mountain to the Lake Powell country (in the east). The entire region, including the parkʼs sector, was once the edge of an ancient shallow sea that invaded the land sometime during the Paleozoic Eraʼs Permian Period (290 to 250 million years). The deepening sea left limestone deposits (the Kaibab Formation). Much later in time during the Mesozoic Eraʼs Triassic Period (250 to 200 million years), streams deposited reddish-brown silt (the Moenkopi Formation). Some 10,000 feet (3,048 m) of sedimentary strata make up the Capitol Reef foundational materials. These rocks range in age from the Paleozoic Eraʼs Permian Period (as old as 270 million years) to the Mesozoic Eraʼs Cretaceous (as young as 81 million years). Today, the result of these petrified formations is nothing less than stupendous. Miles of paved roads penetrate the park and numerous roads are unpaved, requiring four-wheel drive. Capitol Reef is also known for its excellent hiking, from easy to difficult backcountry trails.

Capitol Reef is a geologic textbook representing stupendous geophysical force and shaping. Namely, a gigantic fold in the Earth’s crust typifying a monoclinal attitude of terrain. In other words, a monocline is a step-like fold in rock strata consisting of a zone of a much steeper dip within an otherwise horizontal or gently-dipping sequence. A fold also denotes a geological event that can be thought of as a step-up in the rock layers.

Think of the strata and topography as a geologic layered profile tilting down (toward the east), where the oldest rocks are in the western sector. Layers here reveal ancient environments as varied as rivers and swamps (Chinle Formation), a Sahara-like desert (Navajo Sandstone), and shallow oceans (Mancos Shale). These formations are all from the Mesozoic Era (251 to 66 million years ago). Most of the erosion that carved this landscape happened after the great uplifting of the Colorado Plateau some 66 million years ago, and most likely took place within the last twenty or so million years. The actual carving of the parkʼs canyon recesses probably took place between one to six million years, and like Bryce Canyon, this benchmark makes Capitol Reef a relatively newcomer in the Colorado Plateau’s geologic gems. The distinct landforms throughout the park are a result of different responses of various rock layers to the forces of erosion (differential erosion). Thus, harder sandstone layers (the red Wingate and white Navajo Sandstone) form cliffs, while softer shale layers (Chinle Formation) form slopes and low hills. And here's why verifies why this national park deserves its unusual name:

Bonus Details
The extraterrestrial-looking barren slopes throughout the park is due to bentonite clays in the shale which creates an inhospitable environment for plants to anchor and grow. Equally engaging are the revealing black boulders scattered throughout the Fremont River Valley, as well as along other drainages. Their conspicuous forms typify volcanic rocks from lava flows some 21 to 31 million years old. These anomalous rocks made their way here during the end of the last Ice Age some 20,001 years ago. (Note: The Pleistocene epoch covers 2.5 million to 12,000 years BCE, in which extensive global glaciation was common.)

From Utah pictures (here called "The Castle"), Capitol Reef's colorful and singular facade look is fairly common:

The black boulders of the Fremont River Valley are a testimony to volcanic activity that was common here millions of years ago:

Monoclines & Faulting
It’s the above mentioned monocline geophysical feature in this region that directly relates to Capitol Reefʼs slanted appearance. Rock layers on the west side have been lifted more than 7,000 feet higher than layers on the east. The resulting fold is associated with underlying faults. Itʼs thought the Laramide Orogeny is the geophysical force that reactivated an ancient buried fault by which all else followed. (This orogeny marks a lengthy period of intense mountain-building in western North America that began 71 to 81 million years ago and ended some 35 to 55 million years ago.) When the fault moved, the overlying rock layers were draped above the fault. This activity deep below the ground is what formed the expansive monocline. More recent uplift of the Plateau region estimated between the last fifteen to twenty million years. The uplift resulted in new erosion and has since exposed this great fold at the surface. The Waterpocket Fold reflects this ongoing and relentless erosion of the rock layers.

Traveling Through The Park
The Waterpocket Fold forms a north-south barrier that even today is barely breached by roads, surfaced or otherwise. Early settlers referred to parallel, impassable ridges as reefs. Indeed, the first paved road was constructed through the area in 1962 (SR 24). This sinuous thoroughfare threads its way through the park traveling east and west between Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon. Few other paved roads even penetrate the rough-hewn landscape beset with deep canyons. Most of the park is also arid desert country.

A view of Capitol Reef NP by way of Hwy. 24 is like driving into an immense matte painting (only it's not a canvas with a singular backdrop that awaits visitors):

While all around this landmark setting is a very rugged and demanding topography that stymies people even today. . .

Naturally, where this is exposed sandstone, there is also oxidation, and in most cases the patina (a/k/a "desert varnish") adorns the rocks, as though strokes from a painter's brush:

More Geology Essentials
Reading the terrain and knowing the difference among the various rock formations is helpful to point out to visitors. Geology, as rock formations, is a blueprint of form, substance and color. Once these fundamentals are understood the knowledge provides an immediate and reliable classification to those who know how to recognize differences in rock formations. Apart from the previously mentioned geologic rock formations, the principle rock formations throughout the park account for the Triassic and Early Jurassic periodʼs Glen Canyon Group (Mesozoic Era rocks): Wingate Sandstone (sand dunes on the shore of an ancient sea), Kayenta Formationʼs (thin-bedded layers of sand were deposited by slow-moving streams); Navajo Sandstone (fossilized sand dunes stemming from a huge Sahara-like desert. Following this (in a lengthy span of time) are the Triassic Periodʼs distinct looking San Rafael Group. From oldest to youngest, these are the Carmel Formation (gypsum, sand, and a limey silt); Entrada Sandstone (from barrier islands and sand bars in a near-shore environment); Curtis Formation (made from a conglomerate of sandstone, and shale); Summerville Formation (a reddish- brown mud and white sand deposited in tidal flats); and the Morrison Formation (mud and sand and in swampy plains).

A closer look at the park's rugged geologic showcase:

And a view of Sulphur Creek's backdrop:

Temple of the Moon stunning backdrop:

Human History
Sometime around the 10th Century the Fremont people lived near the Fremont River in the north part of the park. They irrigated crops of maize, lentils and squash. They also stored excess grain in stone granaries above the ground. Many years earlier the Ancestral Puebloans were here as well. Capitol Reef, for all itʼs arduous terrain, was apparently a setting favorable to these indigenous cultures. In more recent times, the Southern Paiutes settled here and elsewhere throughout the region. It was they who referred to the Fremont granaries as moki huts. These newcomers thought or assumed the granaries were the homes of a race of tiny people sometimes referred to as moki. True, the Ancestral Puebloans were diminutive in stature, perhaps 63 inches on average. However, they certainly were not Lilliputians. Ensuing, as a mixed culture, were the Anglos, starting with the Mormons. They settled in the Western territories around the mid-19th Century and claimed much of Utah as their new enclave. In 1872, a surveyor (Alan H. Thompson) attached to Major John Wesley Powellʼs second expedition (of 1871) crossed this region and spent several summers studying Capitol Reefʼs fascinating geology, as did the later and famous geologist and USGS surveyor, Clarence Dutton. However, it was the Mormons who first settled the Fremont River Valley in the 1880s. In the early part of the 20th Century, uranium was discovered throughout the region. This prized ore brought a new influx of people and commerce to the area. To help protect the future parkʼs natural resources, President Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating national monument (1937), and later earning a national park status (1971).

Some of the many Indian rock art ("glyphs") that are abundant throughout the park (and quite a lot of them inscribed by the Fremont culture):

Flora & Fauna
Throughout the park is found typical high desert critters and plants widely dispersed throughout this parched sector of the Colorado Plateau. Mountain lions are plentiful as are bobcats, foxes, coyotes (a/k/a/ Godʼs dogs by some accounts), a variety of raptors and less aggressive avians, lizards and snakes of all kinds. A variable and large inventory of plants and flowers also adorn an already dressed-up setting.

Scenic Places & Inviting Hikes
For delectable scenery, the best choices are the Temple of the Moon, Cathedral Valley, Capitol Gorge, Chimney Rock, Hickman Bridge and Cassidy Arch. Among the most celebrated trails are the following: Capitol Gorge (2 miles); Sunset Point (.7 miles); Hickman Bridge (2 miles); Cassidy Arch (strenuous 3.5 miles; Park Avenue (1 mile); Fremont River (strenuous 2.5 miles; Grand Wash (4.5 miles); and Old Wagon (strenuous 3.5 miles). There are other backpacking and backcountry trails worth the adventure, if one has the stamina. Keep in mind how most of these places require a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to the trailhead.

Westbound from I-70 take Utah Hwy. 24 west toward Hanksville (exit 149). Stay on this highway for 95 miles to the park entrance. From I-15 take Hwy. 50 east at Scipio (exit 188) toward Salina for 30 miles. At the junction of Hwy. 89/259 go right (south) for another 9 miles, then turn left (east) on Hwy. 24 toward Sigurd. Continue on this road for 82 miles which leads to the Visitor Center.

Contact Information
Capitol Reef National Park HC 70 Box 15 Torrey UT 84775. Phone (visitor information): 435-425-3791 ext. 111; Fax 425-3026. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL ( (click on “Email Us”)

Some parting shots to entice your interest for a future visit (or even a return visit for those DKos community members who already know this unusual landscape and its stunning long view over the 'Fold' country. . .

Hickman Bridge:

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.

Happy Trails!