After leaving Arches National Park, we made the drive to Capitol Reef National Park. The drive between the two parks is absolutely breathtaking. With each turn around a mountainside or crest of a hill, we would OOOHHH and AAAHHH! We thought it was hilarious when we got near Capitol Reef and saw a sign for a “scenic route”. Is there a road in this area that isn’t scenic? We doubt it! We got to our hotel with some time to relax. I did two loads of laundry, and while waiting on it to dry, I walked the hotel property to take some pictures. The hotel bordered some grazing land that was fenced off and had an enormous sandstone butte behind it. The boys decided to take a short and very cold swim (the water was OK, but the air temperature was 58 degrees, and it was windy). After getting them out of the pool, I decided to go back out and take some sunset pictures.
After a good night’s sleep, we got up on 6/18/14 and headed to the Visitors Center at Capitol Reef. We met Ranger Anna Vornholt and Geologist Sophie Westacott. They did a great job explaining the geology at Capitol Reef. I must say, this area is incredibly beautiful mainly due to its fascinating geology, but the geology is difficult to see and explain. I’ll do my best here: If you picture the layers of sediment that were deposited in a shallow tidal flat (symmetrically wavy, if you remember the discussion at Arches) as pages in a stack of multi-colored paper lying on a table; all the pages are in horizontal planes. Then picture pushing against the edges of the pages (tectonic plates moving toward each other did this) and making the pages fold upward on one end. If you look at the edges of the pages, you might see an S-shape. This is known as a monocline, or fold. You would still only see the top sheet if you look at it from above. This is the youngest rock. Now picture taking the whole stack, still folded and run a saw through it horizontally. This would represent the erosion that has happened since the fold. This would expose many different colors of rock. Since each layer has a different composition, they erode at different rates (differential erosion, again). For this reason, some of the rock layers look like fins that stick up at angles. Some erode quickly into piles. Each layer is a different color: red, cyan, grey, mustard yellow, orange, white, black, beautiful. OK, if that doesn’t make much sense, watch Sophie explain it with the Geology Sponge. It’s a pretty effective teaching tool. I just might have to make myself one. Capitol Reef has North America’s largest monocline and one of the largest in the world, called the Waterpocket Fold.
Here is a link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCfJU6-50P0
Anna and Sophie also explained our observation that the land looked like someone had sprinkled black rocks all over the surface. This area was covered with a lava flow not long ago. The black volcanic rock that came from deeper within the crust flowed over the surface of the rocks and cooled. As it cooled it contracted, leaving cracks in the rocks. As rain seeped into the cracks, it eroded the layer of rock under the volcanic rock, but left the super hard black rock as it was. Eventually, the underlying rock became eroded away and the volcanic rocks were no longer supported, so they rolled downhill. The black rocks were rounded by all the rolling and tumbling down the hillsides. Everywhere we went in the park, we noticed these black rocks that had rolled and settled temporarily in place. We thought it would be interesting to come back in a few years. Certainly gravity will have shown them the way to lower elevation still.
After our interview, we asked for recommendations on a good hike and maybe a nice drive. We are coming to find that asking rangers these questions can lead to some spectacular sights! Of course, when I asked Anna her favorite trail, she said her favorite hike ever is always the last one she took. They suggested a trail that doesn’t get much use because it is a tough climb up switchbacks for the first half mile or so. They also suggested a drive that was on a dirt road, but passable by a two-wheel drive vehicle in current conditions, so we would have no trouble. We did the hike first, and it did not disappoint. Anna and Sophie had mentioned that Capitol Reef has yellow-bellied marmots, but I assumed that we wouldn’t see any. All these parks have mountain lions, but sightings are extremely rare. I thought marmots might be similarly rare. I was wrong. Not two minutes into our hike, we saw about eight marmots sunning themselves on the rocks that were being warmed by the morning sun.
Once on the main trail, we took our time going up the face of the mountain and got lots of pictures of the valley below. There were some clouds and their shadows drifted across the valley, causing it to take on a different look every time we turned that direction.
Once we reached the peak, we found ourselves in a yellow sandstone canyon. The hike suddenly became easy, with many opportunities for the kids to climb. We noticed that the rock had crossbedding, striations caused by windblown sediment being deposited from different directions, back when this area was sand dunes, before it became lithified. The rock was quite a contrast from the red tidal flat layer we saw lower on the hillside. And of course, the whole area had black, round basalt rocks that had fallen into the canyon. We walked through an area called the grand wash. The trail guide said not to hike here if there was a threat of rain. It was very apparent how water had shaped this area of the canyon. We even saw a little pool of water, but we couldn’t get down to it easily to check for aquatic life.
We only did half of the hike and then went back down to the truck. Evan and Kieran must have been ready for a break because they fell asleep on my favorite drive so far! We drove out of the park onto Bureau of Land Management lands. The area had lots of grazing cattle and was fairly flat for a while. They we came back onto NPS land in the Waterpocket Fold District of the park. We drove along a valley bottom for a while. On our left was a small river that had cut deeply onto the rock. Further to the left, there was a long tall wall of rock. On our near right were fins upon fins of various colors and textures, all sticking out of the ground at a 45 degree angle. Farther off to our right were high red and yellow sandstone walls. The road and river both meandered between various layers of rock. After driving along the fold for about thirty minutes, the road turned right, toward the high sandstone walls and then climbed switchbacks up and out of the canyon. We had amazing views, but I was nervous at the same time. The road was steep and one lane, but not one way. We were happy that we didn’t encounter anyone going the other way! We had hoped to stop at a particular overlook, but missed the turn. Here is a link to the photo on the NPS website that has the picture I was hoping to get. And below are some of the pictures I took of the area. Not quite as spectacular, but lots of color, still.
After the climb out of the valley, we entered the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. This is a huge patch of land that connects the north rim of the Grand Canyon with the other parks that make up the Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau: Bryce Canyon at the top of the stairs with the youngest rock, Zion National Park with older rocks, and the Grand Canyon with lower elevation and older rocks. This was a nice bonus, since we hadn’t planned to go to this Monument! That’s one more beautiful place to add to our list.
Capitol Reef may be my favorite park. I wish I could have stayed longer and explored it more. It doesn’t get as many visitors as some, but it should! It is a truly inspiring place to view the dramatic changes the Earth has been through, and a reminder that it is still changing. It is impossible to really capture its magnificence in photos or video. If you are ever in southern Utah, don’t miss this remarkable park!