OUT: Haggerty’s Hikes Column April 05, 2009

A grand hike to Capitol Reef National Park

Located in the middle of Capitol Reef National Park in southeast Utah, Grand Wash was simply Grand!

Grand Wash cuts through the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold, an incredible monocline that is the centerpiece of Capitol Reef. My Merriam’s Dictionary says a ‘monocline’ is an oblique geologic fold, and this one’s a beauty.

Beginning about 225 million years ago, sediments in this area were deposited and solidified. Then, about 65 million years ago, enormous compressions inside the earth caused the rock layers to be uplifted, tilted and folded into this geologically fascinating wrinkle in the earth’s crust.

Sedimentary rocks composed of sand, mud and organic materials were transported and deposited here under very different environmental conditions. Some of them were deposited by rushing rivers, meandering streams, shallow seaways, marshes and swamps, or blowing, drifting sand dunes. Over time, these sediments were buried and groundwater seeped through, its minerals cementing the sediment together to form rock layers.

Erosion — and that gigantic uplift — exposed these rock layers, or formations. The Moenkopi Formation was on the bottom, created during the Triassic period on the bottom of the sea. Then came the Chinle Formation, deposited by ancient lakes and rivers. The Wingate Sandstone Formation was created a little later, during the Jurassic Period. It blew in with the wind. The Kayenta Formation topped that and was deposited by more ancient rivers flowing through this area. Navajo Sandstone blew in on top.

Erosion occurred at different times and at different rates, creating an amazing array of landforms — from massive cliffs to elongated valleys, spectacular domes to precarious ledges, soaring spires to twisting canyons and graceful arches — all with colorful textures and designs.

This place is a photographer’s dream and I took about 389 photos of these magnificent landforms. (Digital is both the blessing and bane of this photographer, however, since it took me hours to pick one or two that barely withstood the quality test of my exacting editors!)

There are about 27 different trails and routes you can enjoy on a visit to Capitol Reef. You can also discover how this area was populated by humanity. The people of the Fremont culture lived here as early as 700 AD. They grew corn, beans and squash in addition to hunting and gathering food. They departed sometime around 1250 AD, and left few clues as to why.

Explorers, Mormon pioneers and others settled in this valley in the late 1800s. By 1917 the tiny Mormon community of Fruita was a bustling little burg, known for its fifteen orchards of cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, almond and walnut trees.

Like trees here in the Grand Valley, the buds on a whole bunch of them were lost to frost last week. It was really cold when we visited, but that’s not unusual this time of year.

Capitol Reef’s temperatures can be extreme. June and July are the hottest months when mid-day temperatures in the high 90-degree (Fahrenheit) range are common. The average high temperatures in the winter range in the 30s, but it’s not unusual to see lows in the teens and 20s.

You have to choose your equipment carefully to be prepared for Capitol Reef’s climate demands. In any season, protect yourself from intense sun. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sun screen are essential.

We trekked through Grand Wash with lots of layers of clothes as the wind howled and it snowed the night we arrived. Nonetheless, we were much more protected hiking through Grand Wash — a huge wash cutting generally east to west through the north-to-south oriented Waterpocket Fold — than on the other hikes we took in this park.

There are times of the year where this would not be a preferred route. That would be during a storm. Flash floods are really nasty in Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge, a little further south. Check at the Visitor’s Center for weather and trail conditions before you travel through these canyons.

To reach this area, travel west on Interstate 70 to the Hanksville Exit, about 11 miles west of Green River, Utah. Turn south on Utah Highway 24, and travel another 37.4 miles to Hanksville. Turn right, or west, continuing on Highway 24 for 21.7 miles to the Capitol Reef Visitor’s Center. You’ll find maps, flyers, pamphlets, books, photos, calendars, T-shirts, and excellent information from the staff of the National Park Service as well as Capitol Reef Natural History Association employees who man the bookstore.

The Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (later in the summer). A $10 per night fee is charged at the developed Fruita Campground, located nearby. Stores, food service, lodging, gas stations and medical facilities are available in Torrey, a little town just west of the park.


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