Updated: Jan 27, 2021
“The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
The COVID-19 global pandemic has caused many of us to regularly question the safety and appropriateness of our activities. Angie and I both agree that a good way to social distance is to get outdoors on a trail away from other people. Today, this is becoming more and more difficult as our National Parks are becoming increasingly crowded. Thus, we decided to spend our Memorial Day weekend exploring the often overlooked and less-visited Capitol Reef National Park.
Capitol Reef National Park is a wonderland of sandstone domes, arches and bluffs, wide-open desert valleys, erratic basalt boulders, pictographs, and slick rock canyons. The park’s most prominent geological feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile wrinkle in the earth’s crust resulting from tectonic plate movement during the Laramide Orogeny, the same event that created the Rocky Mountains between 50 and 70 million years ago. The Waterpocket Fold is the quintessential monocline: a step-like fold in the horizontal rock strata that left the western side of the fold some 7,000 feet higher in elevation than the eastern side. The term “waterpocket” refers to the pockets that have formed in the sandstone from water erosion. This erosion has been a constant geological force, revealing layers of sandstone that were deposited between 20 and 25 million years ago (National Park Service 2020).
The Waterpocket Fold as seen from the air (Photo credit: Wayne County Tourism 2017)
Despite its inhospitable ruggedness, the Waterpocket Fold has been occupied by humans for thousands of years. The aboriginal Fremont Culture settled in the area around 500 (CE) where they hunted and farmed near the banks of what is now known as the Fremont River. This area was later settled in the 1800s by Mormon pioneers who planted large orchards of pears, peaches and apples in what is now called the Fruita Historic District (National Park Service 2019).
Angie and I rented a jeep to explore the backroads of Capitol Reef. This photo is taken at Panorama Point, a much more accessible area of the park close to the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center backed by the sandstone formation known as "The Castle." Three distinct stratigraphic layers can be seen in this monolith. The dark red sandstone in the foreground is known as the Moenkopi Formation and is about 245 million years old. The gray layer just above it is known as the Chinle Formation and was created from volcanic ash around 225 million years ago. The uppermost layer, where the castle is found, is known as Wingate Sandstone and is thought to have been formed around 200 million years ago (USGS 2014).
Struggling to pass over the barrier that the Waterpocket Fold created, many Mormons referred to this area as a reef - a blockade to entry. The sparkling white domes of Navajo Sandstone encircling the Fruita valley reminded the settlers of the Capitol buildings in Washington. Thus, the name Capitol Reef was born.
Heading into the park towards Fruita, where giant Navajo Sandstone domes provide unforgettable vistas. These domes reminded the settlers of the capitol buildings in D.C.
After years of ambitious lobbying for the area’s protection, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared an area of 37,711 acres a National Monument in 1937. It did not become a National Park until 1971 when legislation was signed by Richard Nixon.
The view from the Goosenecks Overlook where the Fremont River bends sharply
Quickly noticing that the park wasn’t as undiscovered as we were hoping (it was, after all, Memorial Day weekend), we decided to skip the more popular hikes in and around Fruita and put our four-wheel drive to the test in the more remote northern part of the park known as Cathedral Valley. We forded a river and drove into the Bentonite Hills, across vast desert plains, through salt-crested washes, and then finally arriving at the breathtaking Cathedral Valley.
White efflorescent salts form on the soil surface as water evaporates from the river beds
The vibrant splash of Desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) on the desert plain heading towards Cathedral Valley
Our first views of the Cathedral Valley. The sandstone monoliths or 'cathedrals' can be seen in the distance
The Cathedral Valley is adorned with free-standing monoliths of reddish-orange Entrada Sandstone that have been sculpted by the erosive forces of wind and rain. Interestingly, this is the same sandstone layer that formed the arches in Arches National Park. Entrada Sandstone is about 160 million years old and was formed by the deposition of silt and sand in tidal flats during the Jurassic period. The material is so fine that when it is eroded by water, it is easily removed from the area so that talus slopes do not form at the foot of the monoliths. Some of the cathedrals are capped by the green-gray marine sandstone from the Curtis Formation (National Park Service 2020).
We stopped to hike the Cathedrals Trail, a 2.4 mile out and back trail where we were provided with up close looks of the cathedrals. Some of the plants we noticed along the trail were desert Great Basin sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), roundleaf buffaloberry (Shepherdia rotundifolia), paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa), common globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), prince’s plume (Stanleya pinnata), showy 4 o'clock (Mirabilis multiflora), and Desert Mule's Ears (Scabrethia scabra). The birds were noticeably skittish and hard to detect along our hike.
Roundleaf Buffaloberry (Shepherdia rotundifolia) is a common shrub found in this part of the desert. It's white-gray leaves make it stick out of its surroundings. The berry has a complex taste, initially sweet with a bitter aftertaste. The bitterness is due to saponin, and it can be overcome with large amounts of sugar. Native Americans learned that the bitterness can also be reduced by whipping the berries into a foam. This more stable foam is sometimes referred to as Indian ice cream (Mitton 2016)
Common globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) grows abundantly here. Like other plants in the cotton family (Malvaceae), the petals are saucer or cup-shaped and the stamens are joined into a column in the center of the flower. The leaves can be mashed up and applied to the skin as an antidote for rashes and other skin infections. The Dakota Heyoka chewed up the leaves and applied it to their skin as a protection from scalding by hot water
Prince's plume (Stanleya pinnata) has a beautiful flower that caught my eye. Readily concentrating selenium from the soil into their tissues, these plants can be toxic if consumed
Showy Four O'clock (Mirabilis multiflora) belongs to the Nyctaginacea, a family represented primarily in the tropics. Mirabilis multiflora is one exception. The genus name Mirabilis means "marvelous, wonderful" in Latin and refers to the beauty of this plant. The flowers tend to open up in the late afternoon, hence the name showy 4 O'clock
Desert Mule's Ears (Scabrethia scabra) grows throughout high desert communities on open sandy areas
Angie in discovery mode at the Cathedrals Trail's endpoint
The afternoon heat was enough to convince us to pry off the jeep’s rooftop. As we sputtered through the desert we occasionally fishtailed through thick drifts of sand and slowed to cross long-emptied washes. Soon, appearing out of the blue sky with a stately brilliance, the fluted temples of the moon and sun towered overhead us.
We spent the afternoon and evening admiring the shifting colors along the vertical walls of the massive monoliths. We were joined by a vocal Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) and a bug-eyed Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), neither of which we were fortunate enough to capture on camera.
Temple of the Moon (left) and Temple of the Sun (right). This part of the park feels downright sacred
Soft sunlight gracing the high desert near the Temples of the Sun and Moon
Capitol Reef National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park. This means that the night sky brightness is routinely equal to or darker than 21.2 magnitudes per square arc second (also known as ‘astronomer units’) measured with a Unihedron Sky Quality Meter. The higher the number, the darker the night sky. When I left our tent to pee in the middle of the night, I could not believe my eyes. I had never before in my life seen such a magnificent night sky. The milky way hung low in the ether and thousands (probably millions!) of stars resembled phosphorescent jellyfish floating in the dark sea above me. Two trailing shooting stars arced across the extraterrestrial world above me in the short time it took me to urinate. I’ll never forget it.
The second part of our trip brought us to the southern reaches of the park via the Notom-Bullfrog Road through the desolate Strike Valley. We turned off and at the Burr switchbacks and wound our way up the side of the mesa, admiring the quality of the road and the feat of engineering it took to build it. We stopped to take a photo of this sacred Datura (Datura wrightii). This plant is used by the Chumash, Tongva, and Zuni people of the American southwest in some coming of age and divinatory ceremonies.
Sacred datura (Datura wrightii) is an entheogen that is used by several indigenous cultures of the American southwest. The active drug (found mostly in the seeds and roots) is scopalamine and can cause temporarily blindness and even death if consumed recklessly
We continued our drive up to the top of the mesa, where we followed the road towards the Strike Valley Overlook and the Upper Muley Twist trailhead. Here, we packed our backpacks and set off on an overnight journey via a 9-mile loop trail.
Some of the highlights of this hike included many sandstone domes, 6 different arches, a steep hike to the top of the canyon rim where we were afforded sweeping views of the Strike Valley and the Henry Mountains beyond it. The rocks bent and warped into narrow slot canyons and multi-colored bands of sediment were sinuously painted across the walls as far as the eye could see. On the ridgeline we walked over billowing, brick-like, segmented rock formations and to the west of us, the white rocks of Navajo Sandstone starkly abutted the red Wingate Sandstone. Mother nature is the most creative of artists.
Billowed rock on our trek along the ridge. I am still searching for how this was formed. If you are reading this and know anything about the ontogenesis of this rock, please comment on the bottom of this post
The Upper Muley Twist route provides stunning vistas of the Strike Valley and the Henry Mountains
Stopping for a brief rest before descending back into the canyon
The slick rock wilderness was not void of life by any means. Instead, it had just the right amount of life for what resources could be afforded to it. As Edward Abbey noted so astutely, the desert harbors an extreme individuation of life forms that speaks of openness and freedom. I would add that life forms in other places don’t have this same quality.
Both images above highlight the jarring contrast between the red Wingate Sandstone and the white Navajo Sandstone
In the canyon washes we were greeted by the pleasant aroma of cliffrose (Purshia mexicana), Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii) and pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida). Firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii) and yellow catspaw (Cryptantha flava) were among the few of the vibrant colors making up nature’s palette. Juniper Titmice (Baeolophus ridgewayi) danced playfully among their namesake shrubs, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s (Polioptila caerulea) sounded their raucous buzz, and a secretive MacGillivray’s Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei) poked it’s head out of a shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia) bush.
We smelled the cliffrose (Purshia mexicana) even before we noticed it. It has shredded bark that has been said to have been used by natives to make sandals and mats (National Park Service 2020)
Wood's rose (Rosa woodsii) lining the draw of Upper Muley Twist Canyon
Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) is easy to identify because of the pale yellow patches at the base of the flowers. They have long thin stamens bearing yellow anthers
Drawing of a Macgillivray's Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei) in my nature journal
On the canyon rim, we marveled at a flowering smallflower fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus parviflorus) and the magnetic bloom of the plains prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha). A male Cassin’s Finch (Haemorhous cassinii) landed on a pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), the sun catching its red head in an eye-opening flare. A side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburniana) sun-bathed on a basalt boulder and as we descended back into the canyon down exposed cliffsides, White-throated Swifts (Aeronautes saxatilis) energetically bombed each other above our heads. Paying attention to what was going on above me, I nearly stepped on a curious insect I had never seen before: a Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla vestita).
A flowering smallflower fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus parviflorus) on the ridge bordering the Strike Valley
A flowering plains prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha)
A side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburniana) sun-bathes on a basalt boulder
The wingless female velvet ant (Dasymutilla vestita) is known for its painful sting, which has awarded it the nickname Cow Killer. They are predators of ground-nesting solitary bees (e.g. digger bees, sweat bees) and wasps (e.g. sphecid wasps), laying their eggs on the host's cocoon, which is later consumed by the velvet ant's larvae
After a seven-mile hike, we found the perfect campsite on a juniper-sprinkled hill above the wash. We relaxed under the slowly revolving night sky, sharing our flask of whiskey, recounting the beauty we had witnessed throughout the day.
Our short two-mile hike back to the jeep in the morning brought us past Saddle Arch and as we looked up at the balanced strip of sandstone, we sipped our last bit of water and felt thankful that the trailhead would be welcoming us in under an hour. Out there in the desert it didn’t matter that we came equipped with a water filter. There was simply no water to be seen the entire route.
Capitol Reef National Park left an indelible impression on us both. The desolate wilderness away from the masses of human beings had recharged our batteries and reinstated a healthy sense of humility. On our return home, we were surprised to remember that we were living out our days in the midst of a global pandemic. We felt refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to take on the modern world and all of its daunting challenges.
United States Geological Survey. Capitol Reef's Castle. Accessed June 26, 2020. [https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/capitol-reefs-castle].
National Park Service. Geology. Accessed June 26, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/nature/geology.htm#:~:text=The%20Waterpocket%20Fold%20defines%20Capitol,up%22%20in%20the%20rock%20layers.&text=The%20rock%20layers%20on%20the,the%20layers%20on%20the%20east].
National Park Service. Plants. Accessed June 26, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/nature/plants.htm]
National Park Service. History and Culture. Accessed June 26, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/historyculture/index.htm]
Mitton, Jeff. Leaves of Roundleaf Buffaloberry Addapt to Hot, Dry Environments. Accessed June 26, 2020. [https://www.dailycamera.com/2016/06/16/jeff-mitton-leaves-of-roundleaf-buffaloberry-adapt-to-hot-dry-environments/]