Route 24 crosses Capitol Reef from east to west and covers the heart of the park in only 20 miles or so. This is what travelers see if they are just passing through. The park is long and narrow, so most of the rest is back country. We talked to some people who didn’t even stop in the park because they were on their way to other places, and vacation days are short. Here’s a little secret, if you’re still paying at the gate to get into a National Park: there is no gate at this one. At the visitor’s center, they don’t even care if you pay.
How did Capitol Reef get its name? It all started with a wrinkle in the Earth…sounds like the stuff of science fiction, doesn’t it? The land that is now called Capitol Reef changed over the millennia from oceans to desert and swamps to riverbeds, laying down a thick layer of sedimentary rock. Around 50 to 70 million years ago, an ancient fault lifted the rock and rather than cracking, the rock layers folded over the fault. As with all the rock we have seen, erosion sculpted these rock layers with the forces of rain, flash flooding, and freeze-thaw cycles, to create the one-sided Waterpocket Fold.
Coming from the East, as early explorers and settlers did, the line of cliffs of the Fold looks like a difficult barrier to pass through, like a barrier reef in an ocean. It stretches north to south for a hundred miles. The pioneers thought the rock monolith in my picture below looked like the dome at the nation’s capitol building. The name “Capitol Reef” was born.
There’s a dichotomy to writing about this park, because not only is there the natural beauty of the Waterpocket Fold, but there is also the history of the people who settled here – the Mormons – who called their village Fruta. Before them were the ancestors of modern day Zuni, Hopi, and Paiute tribes. In this blog I will write about our exploration of the park, and then will cover Fruita in the next.
Passing through Fruita and only stopping at the Visitor’s Center at the beginning, we drove the 16-mile round-trip Scenic Drive. On our left was the face of the Fold; on our right was desert scrub. The picture at the top of the blog shows the abrupt change in the landscape.
The Scenic Drive was once a wagonway called the “Blue Dugway” and was used by natives and outlaws alike. Later it became a pioneer throughway.
At the end of the scenic road was fun time for Cal: a two mile spur road that was once the main road through the reef before 1962, when Route 24 was completed. It passes through Capitol Gorge, and is all dirt and gravel.
The towering walls of the gorge pressed in closely through here. My active imagination saw Indians at the top of the cliffs lying in wait for us, like an old Western movie.
On the signboard at the end of the road through the gorge was this picture of cars making their way through, back in the day:
Before cars were in existence, way back in 1883, a man named Elijah C. Behunin led a group of men to clear boulders for this passageway so that wagons could come through. It took them eight days. Remember his name, you’ll see it again in my next blog!
Finally, even this road petered out, and so we hiked the Canyon Gorge trail a mile further in. We saw pioneer registers carved into the cliffs here. There are Indian petroglyphs, too, but we didn’t see them.
It is easy to see the effect that water has on the rocks; this gorge is prone to flash flooding.
After some debate, we veered off to explore the Tanks trail. But we couldn’t find the tanks, which are pockets of fresh water, because the trail wasn’t marked well. From there, though, there was a nice view of the Gorge.
Back to Route 24, on another day, we explored some turn-offs that looked interesting. One of them was Hickman Bridge, which is a 133-foot natural bridge.
Hiking to Hickman Bridge, we passed this set of two miniature natural bridges.
And, let’s throw in a couple of hoodoos, just for fun:
The hoodoos were located near the Fruita Historic District.
Mother Nature did a fine job of sculpting this park, and there were so many things we didn’t see: Chimney Rock and the Goosenecks Trail, a drive down the Grand Wash Road with a view of Cassidy Arch, and a short trail from a Route 24 turnoff to see some petroglyphs. I don’t know if we’ll ever return, but the pies at the Gifford House would be enough to lure us back! I’ll explain about that…next time!
Next time – Fruita Historical Village in Capitol Reef NP