Saturday, November 17, 2012

Capitol Reef National Park

from the Scenic Drive road
Capitol Reef National Park is often bypassed by Utah visitors traveling from Bryce Canyon National Park to Arches National Park, the latter two being much more "famous" and photographed.  But this gem has a lot to offer and its beauty is jaw-dropping.  For those of you who know anything about Utah's national parks (southern Utah has FIVE national parks!:  Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion), Capitol Reef is more like Zion with towering red sandstone cliffs and canyons chiseled into interesting and gravity-defying shapes.

Storm brewing
For the first two days, we camp on BLM land just outside the park along the Fremont River, but an impending storm and cold front threatening rain and/or snow drive us to the campground inside the park where the roads and trailer pads are paved.  The slippery clay/adobe mixture of the BLM areas are undrivable when wet, let alone when trying to pull a 14,000-pound trailer.  The park campground is quite nice, settled into the Fruita valley, originally a Mormon settlement, with lots of big trees for shelter, and we are visited by herds of mule deer in the mornings and evenings, which Grady enjoys.  The storm turns out to be mostly gusty winds with a bit of rain that barely wets the pavement, and lots of cold air.  But Utah being Utah, the sun still shines for at least part of every day providing us with a bit of solar energy to help our batteries (there are no electrical or water hookups at the campsites).  A couple who arrive when we are in the Visitors Center checking the forecast had just driven here from Escalante, further south where we plan to go next, and they say the weather there was horrific - fog, ice, snow, slush - the roads were very bad and that highway winds through a mountain pass at about 10,000 feet; hence the reason we bunker down here waiting for the storm to pass, begrudgingly paying the $10/night fee.
Grady watching the mule deer watch him - Fruita Campground

During our first full day in the park, we visit places we can easily get to by vehicle, and as our day progresses, we realize that we did all of these roads/trails on our last visit here three years ago.  Of course, we don't remember that until we're actually reliving the moments, but we enjoy it just the same.  We must be getting old!  This repeat day includes taking the 10-mile Scenic Drive to Cathedral Gorge where we drive a good dirt road through the canyon to a trailhead (fantastic scenery), hiking to the Pioneer Register (interesting history), and visiting Panorama Point and the Goosenecks high above Sulpher Creek (nice but not unique).  On our last full day we hike Cohab Canyon which rises 320 feet from the campground via a series of steep switchbacks, then through a pretty canyon with red striped walls full of "swiss cheese" holes to the valley overlook.  We do this two days after the storm, so it's very cold (barely above freezing) and windy until we get into the canyon at the top, but worth the 2 hours and the view.

Driving in Catheral Gorge
The drive along the Scenic Road from the Visitors Center is pretty with red cliffs and striped clay-like formations to the east, but the dirt road through Cathedral Gorge is incredibly beautiful, with the canyon narrowing to perhaps 30-40 feet.  The road ends at a parking lot/picnic area and, after lunch, we hike further into the canyon for about one mile, seeing the "Pioneer Register" along the way, which is where pioneers carved their names and dates into the sandstone walls - historic graffiti.  Some of the carvings are fairly high up, and the park ranger in the Visitors Center tells me that in the late 1800s, engineers wanting to play a hoax on their friends, lowered each other from the top to leave their marks; then years later told these friends "that's how quickly erosion has occurred here - we were standing in the wash bed when we carved our names just a few years ago!"  See?  Engineers DO have a sense of humour!  Some names are not carved into the rock, but are a series of holes that form the letters - these were made by gun shots!  You'd have to be a pretty good aim to do that.

Marilyn on the Burr Trail Switchbacks - strange slope for rock!
A full day trip takes us south down the dirt (and often washboard) Notom Road in the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold.  This is undoubtably the most interesting feature in the park and, in my opinion, one of the best natural features I've ever seen.  Geological forces pushed the earth upwards about 1,000 feet along a fault-line on one side, and downwards about 200 feet on the other side of it.  The result is that the west side of the "Fold" is pushing up out of the earth at a more than 45 degree angle, exposing layers of red, orange, green, yellow and white  rock that 65 million years ago was deep underground; east of this ridge is a depression - the "Waterpocket" - harbouring creeks, small trees and bushes; east of the Waterpocket is another ridge about 400-500 feet high straight up forming a flat plateau stretching miles to the east.  This feature is best seen from an airplane, but since we don't have one of those, we drive up a series of switchbacks (more frightening twists and turns on a dirt road overlooking a cliff!) and drive/hike out to the Strike Valley Overlook, where we stand atop the "Fold" and look up and down the "Waterpocket".  Behind the eastern plateau are the Henry Mountains, which will probably be covered in snow after the aforementioned storm passes (it's supposed to start later tonight).  The sun is peaking through clouds today, and it's late in the day, but Brad manages to get a couple of photos before the lighting flattens and the Fold is in shade.  The Waterpocket Fold is such an amazing site that we are transfixed for several minutes just soaking in the magnificent views.  Man, this beats working!
looking north up the Waterpocket Fold with Golden Throne in the background

looking south down the Waterpocket Fold

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