Capitol Reef National Park
Wonderfully sculptured rock layers in a rainbow of colors put on a fine show here. Although you’ll find these same rocks throughout much of the Four Corners region, their artistic variety has no equal outside Capitol Reef National Park (435/425-3791, www.nps.gov/care, $5 per vehicle). About 70 million years ago, gigantic forces within the earth began to uplift, squeeze, and fold more than a dozen rock formations into the central feature of the park—Waterpocket Fold, so named for the many small pools of water trapped by the tilted strata. Erosion has since carved spires, graceful curves, canyons, and arches.
Waterpocket Fold extends 100 miles between Thousand Lake Mountain in the north and Lake Powell in the south. The most spectacular cliffs and rock formations of Waterpocket Fold form Capitol Reef, located north of Pleasant Creek and curving northwest across the Fremont River toward Thousand Lake Mountain. The reef was named by explorers who found Waterpocket Fold a barrier to travel and likened it to a reef blocking passage on the ocean. The rounded sandstone hills reminded them of the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C., hence the name Capitol Reef.
Roads and hiking trails in the park provide access to the colorful rock layers and to the plants and wildlife that live here. Remnants exist of the area’s long human history—petroglyphs and storage bins of the prehistoric Fremont, a schoolhouse and other structures built by Mormon pioneers, and several small uranium mines of the 20th century. Legends tell of Butch Cassidy and other outlaw members of the “Wild Bunch” who hid out in these remote canyons in the 1890s.
Even travelers short on time will enjoy a quick look at visitor center exhibits and a drive on Highway 24 through an impressive cross section of Capitol Reef cut by the Fremont River. You can see more of the park on the scenic drive, a narrow paved road that heads south from the visitor center. The drive passes beneath spectacular cliffs of the reef and enters scenic Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge Canyons; allow at least 90 minutes for the 21-mile round-trip (plus side trips). The fair-weather Notom-Bullfrog Road (paved as far as Notom) heads south along the other side of the reef for almost 80 miles with fine views of Waterpocket Fold. Burr Trail Road (dirt inside the park) in the south actually climbs over the fold in a steep set of switchbacks, connecting Notom Road with Boulder. Only drivers with high-clearance vehicles can explore Cathedral Valley in the park’s northern district. All of these roads provide access to viewpoints and hiking trails.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition