Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

To the Navajos the terrain was “the land of the sleeping rainbow.” To pioneers and prospectors proceeding west the massive cliffs, thinking nautically, were like a reef, a ridge of rocks forming a barrier. To Mormon farmers of the 1880s, the fertile and sheltered valley, dependably watered by the Fremont River, was “Utah’s Eden,” a place where homesteading was congenial and over 2,500 fruit trees were planted, with the settlement itself called Fruita. To early travelers, who favored identifying landmarks with fanciful names, one of the round, “petrified” sand dunes, amounting to a sandstone dome, looked like the capitol building in Washington, D.C.

All of these traditions contributed to the federal decision to declare a special section of south central Utah a National Monument, called Capitol Reef, in 1937. In 1971 the area’s status was elevated to that of national park. Currently, the park covers 378 square miles of geologic marvels.

Getting to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is about four hours south from Salt Lake, the logical fly-in point for some travelers. The park is on Highway 24 south of U.S. Highway 70 and east of U.S. Highway 15.

In the southern half of Utah Capitol Reef is the central park in a trajectory running northeast to southwest, containing five national parks. Arches and Canyonlands are northeast of Capitol Reef, while Bryce and Zion are southwest.

The surprise to most visitors at Capitol Reef is that it is so verdant. Entering from the east, for example, you pick up the Fremont River after crossing a hundred miles of parched desert. Eventually the Fremont River, a year-around water source, cuts through a silted valley filled with water-loving cottonwood trees. Mormon farmers arrived in the 1880s, recognized the homesteading potential, and planted orchards. Gradually, the Park Service purchased all private landholdings after the area was declared a National Monument. In the 1960s the last farmers departed. Today the Park Service hires fruit tree managers to tend the orchards and invites visitors to harvest the fruit for a nominal fee.

One grassy landscape in the park now serves as a hospitable campsite, the only lodging in the park. Aside from a Visitor Center, there are no other services in the park.

History of Capitol Reef National Park

The Fremont branch of the Anasazi Indians and the Mormon pioneer story are the two human tales of interest here. Beyond that the geologic reality is of uppermost interest.

Because of the dependable water supply in the Fremont River, the Fremont Indians flourished here, planting their corn, beans, and squash near the river and supplementing the summer rains with irrigation water when necessary. Their petroglyphs, figures chipped in the rock through the black “desert varnish” oxide on the sandstone surface, feature deer, sheep, and humanoid figures. You can see some petroglyphs at a clearly-marked turnoff from Highway 24 in the park. An example of their stone granaries can be seen along the Hickman Bridge Trail.

The Mormon legacy can be seen at the Fruita Schoolhouse, built in 1896, also along Highway 24. The voice of the schoolteacher can be heard on a taped message as you peer into the windows. Aside from scattered farm implements, the other major legacy is the fruit orchards. Picking fruit here is an annual tradition for some families. The price of U-pick fruit is low. The fruits available are cherries (which mature here early July), apricots (mid July), peaches (mid August), pears (early September), and apples (mid October). Fruit not picked by park visitors is commercially harvested for the Park Service by contract pickers.

Main Attractions of Capitol Reef National Park

Although the  human story here is interesting, it would not have sufficed to create a National Park. Only the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado was explicitly created to preserve a human record, the Anasazi Indian ruins. The major interest in the Capitol Reef park is geological.

You experience the geology by driving Highway 24 for about 30 miles through the park and also motoring a 10-mile Scenic Drive on a paved road running south through the park from the Visitor Center.

As you enter the park from the east, the sandstone formations are impressive. Red, buff, and gray strata present themselves. Some are sandstones and some are shales. Weathering, especially rainwater and frost, has gradually cracked and eroded the stone, with the Fremont River then carrying the deposits to lower levels. The reality of flash floods here became evident on July 19, 1985 when rains in an upper area of the watershed collected with exponential force and raced downstream, destroying part of the campground, washing out a bridge, and knocking over a house. A road turnoff on the eastern edge of the park pauses where the Fremont River goes over a small waterfall. The pool, scooped out below the waterfall, makes a fine wading and soaking area for visitors on hot summer days.

Moving west on Highway 24 toward the center of the park, you pass the round sandstone prominence called the Capitol Dome, a typical feature for which the park was named. As mentioned, early visitors fancifully associated the dome with the capitol dome in Washington D.C.

The next prominent turnoff is at Hickman Bridge. An inviting trail walk along the river presents itself here. If you have not had a Utah walk yet to learn about the native flora, this is a good place.

Moving west, you see the turnoff to the Visitor Center and Scenic Drive. The Visitor Center, which has excellent interpretive resources for the traveler. A slide show featuring the park is particularly well done and the range of literature available is extensive. A Scenic Drive booklet is available and is highly recommended. Make the 10-mile Scenic Drive south on the paved road. First you pass through more of the pastoral settlement of Fruita, now orchards and a grassy campground. Then the road proceeds down a valley with jagged examples of the impenetrable rock formations, the “reefs,” for which the park is partly named. An interplay of rock forms, textures, and colors provides the excitement here.

The Scenic Drive booklet explains details of the geologic phenomena, such the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile bulge of earth that is geologically unusual. Many small stone depressions, or pockets, collect water along the bulge when storms occur. If the light is good on the high cliffs, or reefs, the experience can be awesome, with the light almost appearing to stream from the rocks rather than be reflected by them.

Sometimes, as the geologic layers were exposed, harder stone rested on top of softer stone. This is what created some of the spectacular cliffs of Capitol Reef. A hard yellow strata that geologists call Shinarump, part of the Chinle Formation, rests on top of a softer red sandstone called Moenkopi. You see this at named landmarks called Egyptian Temple and Chimney Rock.

Travel west another few miles to the turnoff known as the Goosenecks. This turnoff takes you to a site about 2000 feet above a deep gorge for Sulphur Creek, a tributary of the Fremont River. The Goosenecks is one of the stunning scenic views in Utah, with layer upon layer of sandstone exposed due to the abrasive effect of Sulphur Creek.

Nearby Trips from Capitol Reef National Park

Three interesting side trips from Capitol Reef are the paved mountain road, Highway 12, between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the road west to the Hite Marina in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the drive beyond the Hite Marina on Highway 95 to Natural Bridges National Monument.

The Hite Marina at Lake Powell, on the Colorado River east of Capitol Reef, is a good place to swim, an opportunity to survey the houseboating world popular on the Colorado, and a chance to pass through an attractive countryside of red rock formations north of the river. However, drought can render the marina inoperable, so call ahead and determine if the water level fluctuation impacts your desired activities.

Beyond the Colorado River, Highway 95 passes through a desert environment until you reach Natural Bridges, a geologic tour de force that Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed to be a National Monument in 1908. For the traveler, the monument boasts three impressive natural bridges and an extensive array of solar cells, which furnish all the electricity needed to run the Visitor Center and residences of the rangers.

Natural bridges are different from the arches of Arches National Park. Natural bridges are spans created by a flooding, silt-laden stream washing out soft rock in its course, leaving the span. Arches are holes in rock caused by weathering, mainly from rainwater and ice, aided by wind.

The three natural bridges can all be seen from view sites within a hundred yards of the roadway. You can also hike to the bottom to get below each bridge. The hike to the third and largest natural bridge is the most recommended.

The bridges are called by their Hopi Indian names, which the first surveyor felt appropriate because he found petroglyphs and cliff dwellings that he thought had been made by ancestors of the present Hopi. The Hopi names are all euphonic and the first is evocative.

The first bridge, the youngest, is Sipapu, meaning “place of emergence.” The second, Kachina, a more mature bridge, refers to the masked dancer gods of the Hopi. A view of Kachina from the overlook gives you a particularly clear impression of how natural bridges form. The third and largest bridge, Owachomo, also the oldest, means “rock mound.” A walk to the bottom places you below what may be the longest natural bridge in the world. Desert flora is identified during these walks, making it apparent to you how hard and how hardy life is in the desert.

The photovoltaic array, near the Visitor Center, can be viewed while an auditory explanation describes the silent drama in front of you. These 250,000 solar cells, one of the largest arrays in the world at the time of installation, covers an acre and produce 100 kilowatts of power.

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Capitol Reef National Park: If You Go

When planning a visit to Capitol Reef, review the Park Service website at www.nps.gov/care.

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