Capitol Reef National Park: Utah’s cascading barrier, oasis
I knew nothing of the Waterpocket Fold that extends nearly 100 miles across southern Utah. But once we arrived in Capitol Reef National Park, I was captivated.
The Fold, a formidable region that blocked travelers like a barrier reef, was the last explored part of the contiguous 48 United States. It is described as a big wrinkle, or monocline, in the earth’s crust that began 280 million years ago with deposits from oceans, deserts, swamps and riverbeds that covered the area at different times. These deposits left 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock, including limestone, sandstone and shale.
Then, between 50 and 70 million years ago, tectonic movement in a fault under the layers lifted them more than 7,000 feet on its west side. You’d think there would be a big crack, but instead, the layers folded over the fault line. Then, about 20 million years ago, another uplift. And, finally, erosion, mostly water, carved away the layers, leaving canyons, cliffs, bridges and domes that reminded people of the U.S. Capitol, thus the name Capitol Reef.
All this geologic activity created a stunning, vast stretch of multicolored, striped, craggy rock formations that we drove and hiked. Scattered in the rocks are water pockets and potholes that collect rain and snowmelt, providing habitat for frogs, snakes, lizards and hundreds of other species of mammals, fish, birds and plants.
We camped at Fruita, at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, where Mormons settled in the 1880s, built irrigation systems following the blueprint of Native Americans before them, and planted apple, peach, pear and apricot trees. The pioneers are memorialized at the Gifford House, where you can buy homemade pie and old-fashioned aprons.
At ranger talks, we learned of the amazing amphibians that live in the Fold and the adaptations they have made to the harsh and changing climate, where annual precipitation is less than 10 inches. The Western Whiptail Lizard has a tail twice as long as its body, encouraging predators to grab its tail, which it can drop and regrow, a trait called abscission. The Whiptails also have parthenogenetic adaptation so that, if there aren’t enough males, the females clone themselves. Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes have teeth that allow them to eat leaches and fish from the Fremont River. The Canyon Treefrog can lose 40 percent of its total body weight to dehydration and survive. And Pediocactus winkleri, a tiny cacti endangered and threatened by poaching, shrinks into the earth and lies dormant until springing forth with brilliant blossoms when rain falls.
All are challenged by climate change, predicted to increase temperatures in the park by 10 degrees in the next 100 years, fragmented habitat, divided by Highway 24, built in the 1960s, and the diversion of the Fremont River.
We hiked through the Grand Wash, where rock cliffs towered hundreds of feet over our heads, their sides scoured by violent floodwater, and up the Fremont River trail, where we could see the Fruita District and the Fold. We walked past petroglyphs of deities and animals left behind by ancestors of the modern-day Hopi, Zuni and Paiute tribes. We drove the scenic road, hugged by overhanging cliffs, and ending at Capitol Gorge, an ancestral path through the Fold traveled before Highway 24 was completed.
The park is wild, stark and unforgiving, with an oasis of lush homey orchards. It’s easy to see why it was uncharted for so long. We’re happy to have discovered it ourselves.