By M.C. O’Bryant
For The Transcript
Capitol Reef National Park, located 175 miles or so south of Salt Lake City, Utah, has been labeled by many National Park aficionados as a “Best kept secret.” It is isolated, but, loyalists see the miles of harsh terrain surrounding its boundaries simply as nature’s bridal veil hiding the face of the park’s awe inspiring beauty. It is one of the most spectacular, yet, one of the least visited of the National Parks.
Those relatively few intrepid adventurous enthusiasts who arrive at the park are gloriously rewarded with a vast assortment of cascading colors and fantasyland rock formations. The park’s delightful array of hoodoos and stunning vermillion cliffs has made it a must see, when touring Utah’s much ballyhooed, Standing up country, which encompasses two other National Parks, Zion and Bryce canyon. Hoodoos, stone formations found in abundance throughout the region, have been shaped by the forces of nature to look to the imaginative mind like caricatures of both man and beast.
A ‘young’ park
One of the lesser-known national parks not only because of its remoteness but, also because of its relatively young age (not having been designated as a national park until 1971), Capitol Reef abounds with storied accounts of its early inhabitants ranging from early Mormon pioneers who envisioned building exalted communities where angels might abide, to an impenetrable hideaway for what could well be America’s most romanticized outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid.
In the late 1800s a vein of uranium (the stuff of which atomic bombs are made), was discovered in a mountainside near what is today the north end of the park. Three quarters of a century before Einstein’s formula E-MC2 led to the use of radioactive uranium, from other sources, to build atomic bombs that ultimately ended World War II, local entrepreneurs were busy selling tonics laced with uranium taken from the Capitol Reef mines as a cure for rheumatism. The practice, long since recognized as a very bad idea, was halted and today, access to the mineshafts is barred by iron grating welded into place at the mine entrances. What happened to the arthritic sufferers who imbibed the uranium cocktails remains a mystery.
However, if the giant sequoia-sized cottonwood trees growing in the vicinity of the mines is any indication, the minerals found in the soil, if not uranium, must contain some other highly charged properties.
A more plausible explanation for the amazing growth and longevity of the more than century old trees is that they have been the beneficiaries of a very effective irrigation system developed by early Mormon pioneers in the late 1800s. The Park’s ranger tells me that Capitol Reef’s strange sounding name is an eponymous composite. Capitol, he explained was devised by the early settlers who found the mega domes in the park resembled the domes crowning the state and national capitol buildings. Reef was tacked on by later visitors who thought the Waterpocket Fold resembled an exposed ocean reef.
The nationalities of foreign visitors to Capitol Reef National Park is vastly diverse, with Europeans and Asians leading the way, serving as a reminder of how nature’s wondrous renderings transcend human differences.
Packed with the added emotion of nostalgia, I have given my just completed visit to Capital Reef National Park an off-the-charts rating. As experienced by so many other visitors to the park it has truly been a life-changing event. Remembering my first venture into Capitol Reef nearly a half century ago and more than a decade before the area was designated as a National Park has added immensely to the enjoyment of my most recent visit there in April.
Traveling the new paved roads through and around the seemingly bottomless canyons and dry washes that, back during my first visit, served alternately as roads during the dry season and rampaging flood channels during the frequent flash flood occurrences, gave me the opportunity to relax and enjoy the park’s elaborate grandeur as never before.
It has taken hundreds of millions of years and a relentless cataclysm of seismic behavior to maneuver this once ancient sea bed five thousand feet skyward onto the expanse of the Colorado plateau, then blending it together into a veritable kaleidoscope of hues. The equivalent of a geological Rosetta Stone, the park’s countless numbers of spectacular formations provides a world of definitive information to the trained eye. Park rangers have identified some fourteen separate layers of rock laid down, in some cases, millions of years apart.
The five most prominent of the layered formations from top to bottom is composed of the Navajo (ancient sand dunes) white in color, the Kayenta almost blood red, sandy ledges on which pinon pine and juniper grow. Wingate formation emitting an orange hue, Chinle is an ordinary sandstone mixture of gray purple and green often containing finds of petrified wood. The soft gray Moenkopi formation at the bottom of the cliffs was formed by the ancient tides washing in and out. This paint palette of spectacular color when electrified by the glow of the evening sun transforms the rocky bulwarks of Capitol Reef into a gleaming Broadway of the great outdoors.
Quite a journey
Fresh out of college and teaching at a high school in the northern part of Utah my wife and I decided to explore the rugged fantasyland a four hour drive to the south which had out-of-doors enthusiasts raving about its colorful cliffs, stark monoliths, soaring spires, massive domes, graceful arches and twisting canyons. With our three year old son, who, perhaps, not surprising, grew up to earn a degree in archaeology, in the back of our old 1950 Chevrolet we headed south. After spending the night in historic Escalante, Utah, located about 30 miles from the south entrance of what is now the National Park, we descended off the Hell’s Backbone Ridge of the Aquarius Plateau into the south end of the main canyon on a narrow twisting, rutted track in hopes of reaching Fruita, the current location of the National Park Visitors Center before nightfall. Today, this is a two-hour trip on partially paved roads. Back then, Fruita consisted of a ranch house, with three, rarely slept in cedar shake cabins, whose infrequent occupants usually arrived there as a result of taking a wrong turn somewhere up the road.
The park attracts a delightful and interesting eclectic mix of visitors from geological researchers, and horticulturalists, along with the plain and simple wide-eyed tourists like myself. Visitors come filled with curiosity and leave longing to return. The geologists who arrive from around the globe to study the Park’s Waterpocket Fold along with the Park’s many other natural phenomena’s. Although difficult to view from the lower elevations, the colossal Waterpocket Fold is a geological aberration in the Earth’s crust stretching for 100 miles across south central Utah.
Viewed from mountain passes along Utah’s Highway 12 reaching elevations of nearly 10,000 feet along the west side of the park, one can take in a sweeping panorama of the giant sinuous rainbow hued wrinkle in the earth’s crust that can be counted upon to send the photo junkies scrambling for their wide angle lenses. The mammoth Waterpocket Fold cradles the pristine, serpentine Fremont River.
The River’s zigzagging channel forms its own eco-system across the vastness of the Water Pocket Fold’s incomparable splendor. As the free flowing Fremont meanders its way through and around soaring spires and graceful arches, it provides habitat for cottonwood trees, willows, deer, jackrabbits, lizards and a vast variety of other plants and animals, which depend on the River’s crystal clear waters for life sustaining substance.
Adding to the Park’s compelling uniqueness is the staff of horticulture specialists who pay high respect to the early intrepid pioneers who braved the peril of a punitive frontier life to bring accessibility to this beautiful but, in certain seasons, verboten comer of creation. The Park’s horticulture staff honors the pioneer legacy by continuing to cultivate and expand the one hundred year old and counting apple orchard, originally planted by the early settlers. Visitors arriving in the late fall are invited to treat themselves to something in the neighborhood of a dozen different varieties of apples which can be harvested from trees in the park. The most popular is a hybrid called Capitol Reef Red developed by the Park’s own horticulturist.
Back in Escalante, the locals were frank in pointing out that the sixty-five mile journey we were anticipating along the Waterpocket Fold to it’s northern end was not for the faint of heart. For five hours we would be on unmarked all dirt roads used only sparingly and then mostly for cattle drives and mining operations.
One wrong turn up a box canyon and, “Oh well! Not to worry,” they reassured us, “The cowboys are good about rounding up the lost tourists along with the dogies each fall. You’ll be all right once you get to the dry wash at the bottom of the plateau. Just follow the dry wash north past the sheep ranch and then onto the big apple orchard. That will be Fruit.”
Getting to the bottom turned out to be five miles of heart stopping cliff-hanging switch backs overlooking unimaginable beauty framed by colossal rock formations of kodachrome brilliance. As we crept our way down the plateau’s wall at a blazing speed of something under five miles per hour, my wife in a perpetual state of high anxiety driven by the thought that I would become so caught up in the splendor of it all that I might drive off the skyway into oblivion, kept admonishing me to, “Watch the road!”
As each new twist of the seemingly endless switchbacks brought into view an even more spectacular scene, she would plead with a mixture of fear and awe at the compelling beauty before us, “Don’t look now!” “Watch the road! Don’t look now! Don’t look now! “ And so it went for the next hour as we descended 1,000 feet over a five mile panoply of jaw dropping grandeur into the Capitol Gorge, a giant dry wash that would become our freeway north.
A few years after our exhilarating odyssey through the gorge, like the uranium mines, has been shuttered, at least to automobile traffic. Hikers traversing through any of the Park’s gorges need to be aware of the flash flood risks. Signs are posted in the park and on all literature regarding safety to stay out of the Gorges if it is raining anywhere in the vicinity. In the 1960s, in preparation for becoming a National Park, a new paved, much safer road on higher ground was constructed.
Today, the enthralling Capitol Gorge, through which we drove our pre-seat belt, pre-anti lock brakes Chevy sedan is more appropriately preserved as a hiking trail.
At the time of the arrival of the first Europeans in the area, the Navajo called the Capitol Reef area the land of the Sleeping Rainbow. It is with a great sense of pride that I tell my grandkids about our unforgettable journey through the Rainbow and how for centuries living as one with nature, the indigenous Americans kept unmolested this magnificent treasure trove of natural beauty.
MC O’Bryant grew up in the Norman area — a life long Sooner fan. He graduated from Washington High School and East Central State University. Also, he did post graduation work at Oklahoma University Kellog Center. An educator by profession, O’Bryant’s writings have been published extensively over the years. He is working on a series of articles featuring our national parks. He can be contacted at (209) 293-4127 or firstname.lastname@example.org..”
By M.C. O’Bryant
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