Utah has five National Parks. Each is unique. Many people visit Bryce with its hoodoos and Zion with its canyon vegetation which are close to Las Vegas. Arches and Canyonlands both have features obvious in their names.
Capitol Reef National Park is not as well known. Its name doesn’t tell the average person much. It is beautiful, but not as distinctive as the others. But despite living on the other side of the country, we chose visit it three times in the last twenty years.
The “reef” is a 100-mile long uplift in the earth’s crust running north-south in the middle of southern Utah from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. Unlike a fault in which the uplift results in a break in the crust, one part rising above the other, this was a fold. In this fold, the layers don’t break but bend in a downward slope to the east.
Millions of years of rain and erosion carved the fold into canyons, domes and cliffs. One dome reminded early visitors of the U.S. Capitol Building and inspired the name for the park. The fold itself is called the Waterpocket Fold. This barrier to travelers coming from the east was like a reef near the shore of a distant land.
First Americans settled in the area near today’s Fremont River between 300 to 1300 A.D. They left their marks in the desert varnish.
Subsequent travelers were either confounded by the “reef” or managed to find their way west through canyons. They left their marks on one canyon wall now designated the “Pioneer Register.”
In the 1880’s, Mormons founded a settlement they called Fruta. They left their mark in buildings, orchards and a couple really huge trees.
A dark skies park, it is a good place to see stars. One can hike, camp and picnic. We did not camp, but we picnicked near the campground. The apple pie purchased in a campground store surely left its mark on my waistline. It was the best commercially prepared pie I have had in many years.
I hope a bite or two of that pie was burned off on a hike down Capitol Gorge. After driving the 8 mile-long Scenic Drive, we continued another 2.4 miles on the dirt Capitol Gorge Road. We then walked the Gorge Trail past the Pioneer Register.
First Americans used this route through the fold. In 1883, a Mormon group worked eight days to clear boulders to make a wagon path. Improved to two rocky lanes, it remained the main road through the area until 1962 when Highway 24 was completed through the Fremont River Canyon. Today, the gorge is closed to autos, but floods still threaten both routes. When we visited in 1997, rock slides prevented us entering from the east on 24.
Click on photos to enlarge.