Capitol Reef

Kate found a great, free spot on BLM land and we got our tent set up on the doorstep of Capital Reef, our twelfth National park of the trip.

Now, you might be thinking: “Another Ryan post, I bet he’s going to geek out about sedimentary rocks again.” Well, yes, yes I am. I understand it might not be that interesting to read something like: in the first views entering Capital Reef the top layer is Wingate sandstone formed in an ancient desert, the blueish white slope is the remains of a Triassic swamp, and the base is the muddy silt from a sea that existed 245 million years ago. Maybe if you saw it?

I definitely think it’s interesting, but I also got to see it live, touch it, and hike through it. This story of vast time and changing environments as told through rainbow colored stone has got me fascinated. The volunteer who took us on a guided hike was also enthusiastic about it, and helped us understand what makes Capital Reef different.

This place should really be called Waterpocket Fold National Park, because that’s what created this place. At 90 miles long, the fold is the longest exposed monocline in North America. I had no idea what a monocline was and it took me a while to wrap my head around it. Basically, tectonic forces created a “fold” in the earth’s crust, though I have an easier time visualizing it as a bunched up carpet more than a fold. All those layers that were flat are now exposed and tilted sideways. Here’s the dry textbook-looking image that made it click for me, then we’ll go back to Kate Barker originals, I promise.

What that translates to in reality is an incredible, tilted landscape of changing compositions.

Instead of getting one or two formations at a time like in Bryce, Zion, and the steps of the Grand Staircase, Capital Reef has 17 distinct layers spanning 280 million years. And while the Grand Canyon may have more and earlier geological time exposed, you have to go down into the Canyon to really see it. And as they love to remind you there, what goes down must come back up. At Capital Reef you just drive through it, pull over at a view point to have a look around, and then keep driving. It’s only fifteen miles wide. In the first day we barely covered half of that though, as we found plenty to see and do on the west side of the park.

Our first stop was the guided tour to a lime kiln from the early Mormon settlers. Do you see rounded basalt on the upper part? Ok, ok, I’ll shut up about rocks, but it is a cool story. Like much of Utah, the first Europeans to settle here were Mormon pioneers. They had to be incredibly self-sufficient to survive and used the kiln to make quicklime for cement and whitewash for the young fruit trees they planted in the river valley. Our heads full of geology and history, we took our guide’s advice and followed the creek up to a waterfall.

It wasn’t a big waterfall, but there is nothing like the sound of flowing water. In these desert landscapes the recurring theme that water is life keeps coming up. Maybe that is why the sound of a gentle stream can fill us with a sense of peace; it speaks to that deep, animal part of us and assures us this is a good place to be.

Back to the visitor center to see the informative film, of course, and then down scenic drive to see some more rock formations, including the boxy columns of the “Egyptian Temple” and the white “Capital Dome” that gave the park half its name.

The reef in Capital Reef came from early pioneers hitting the “barrier reef” of the Waterpocket Fold that made western progress difficult. I suppose this is as good a time as any to explain that the “Waterpocket” comes from the pockets of water found in the weathered stone of the fold, each a tiny oasis in the arid high desert. The Fremont river served early settlers dual purposes, as it provided them a steady supply of water and cut a way through the reef. It also provided Kate and I a nice place to eat dinner.

We explored the historic town of Fruita, once home to eight Mormon families and their orchards, now the site of the parks campground where you can still pick fruit in season. The rangers at Capital Reef are proud to be cultivating the largest number of fruit trees in the system. We found it a lovely place to explore, and spotted some more mule dear and our very first marmot.

We had a great first day in Capital Reef and had a lot to look forward to for day two. Kate will be writing that post, maybe she’ll solve the mystery of the basalt, an igneous rock among the sedimentary, born of fire, carried by ice… It is a interesting story.

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