Friday, June 19, 2009

Capitol Reef, Waterpocket Fold, and the Notom - Bullfrog Road

The Grand Staircase region encompasses everything that makes the Colorado Plateau such a geologically diverse place, ranging from high mountains to deeply incised canyons. Another very interesting formation is the reef - not the ocean variety, but the kind found in southern Utah amidst the all the other geographic wonders. One of the best examples is found at Capitol Reef National Park where the Waterpocket Fold stretches over 100 miles along the edge of the Park.

This monocline is essentially a "warp" or fold of nearly horizontal sedimentary deposits found throughout most of the region, where layers of rock that lie buried elsewhere are elevated, tilted, and exposed to erosion. Their elevation above the surrounding area sets the stage for the creation of deep chasms with often impressive "narrows", where canyon walls are sometimes barely wider than a hiker's outstretched arms. Early settlers named these formations"reefs" for their similarity to the barriers faced by seafarers as they attempted to navigate the seas. The Fold also contains a wide variety of domes, fins, and buttes including one that resembles the nation's Capitol building - hence the name of the Park.

The upper layers of the 60 million year-old Fold are composed mostly of Navajo sandstone, which weathers into pockets or depressions. These "pockets" hold water from rain or snow and give the reef its name. Several factors make the Fold unique in geological terms - first, the east side is offset nearly 60% from the horizontal, and the steep slopes accelerate erosion. Secondly the sheer size of the formation is impressive - nearly 100 miles long, stretching from Thousand Lake Mountain in the north to Lake Powell in the south.

While technically outside the defined borders of the GSENM, Waterpocket Fold and the associated formations constitute the eastern edge of the region, and should be included on any visitor's list of things to see in the area. Even as much of the heart of Capitol Reef is inaccessible by vehicle, there are several excellent roads that permit exploration of the area, with many hiking trails leading into more remote locations along the way.

Highway 24

The easiest access to the Waterpocket Fold is off Utah Highway 24 which runs roughly east and west from I-70 near Green River to Highway 89 in the southcentral part of the state. While not quite as spectacular as the better known Highway 12, there is much to see and appreciate on this route. Along its midsection the highway cuts across the northern part of Capitol Reef for 16 miles, surrounded entirely by inspiring and massive sandstone walls as it follows the path of the Fremont River. Stop at Fruita near Park headquarters to visit the orchards planted by LDS settlers, and see historic buildings these hardy souls lived and worked in. And if your timing is right, you can pick different kinds of fruit in season - for free.

Notom - Bullfrog Road

If driving Highway 24 has inspired you to see more of the Waterpocket Fold, the absolute best thing to do next is plan a trip on the Notom - Bullfrog Road. This north-south route parallels the reef for nearly 80 miles, and provides access to many of the Park's hiking trails. Located off highway 24 approximately 9 miles east of the Park Visitor Center or 30 miles west of Hanksville, this reasonably well maintained route is paved to the once community of Notom, and is then dirt for the next 40 miles or so. Like most roads in the area, caution is advised when wet weather is in the forecast - slick roads and washouts are common during sudden thunderstorms, and even 4wd vehicles will have difficulty until the road dries out.

As the road heads south from the highway junction the scenery begins to unfold with views to the east of the Henry Mountains. These laccolithic peaks are remote and isolated from much of the area, and are seldom visited by outsiders although locals know them well. The Henrys were named by explorer John Wesley Powell to honor Joseph Henry, the first curator of the Smithsonian. They are the last mountain range to be explored and added to topographic maps of the lower 48 states. The highest peak, Mt. Ellen rises over 11,500 feet above sea level and dominates the skyline from all directions.

Once the road passes what used to be the community of Notom, the pavement disappears. Looking south the profile of the Waterpocket Fold gradually rises above the western horizon, and the road begins the descent to Strike Valley. At mile 14, the first of many hikes that penetrate the reef can be reached at the Oak Creek access road.

At the 20 mile mark, the road enters the National Park. From this point on until reaching BLM land at the Burr Trail, there is no dispersed camping allowed. Those visitors prepared to "rough it" will enjoy the primitive campground 2 miles along at Cedar Mesa, which has no facilities other than tables and pit toilets, as well as a trailhead to Red Canyon. The country here is primarily a pinon-juniper woodland, with fine views of Strike Valley, the Waterpocket Fold, and Henry Mountains.

34 miles in, the Notom - Bullfrog road meets the beginning of the Burr Trail. This road turns west and quickly begins a steep ascent over the Fold: the only one to do so in the Park. The switchbacks are tight and not recommended for RVs or vehicles towing trailers. After reaching the top, the reward is a panorama to the east with breathtaking views of Strike Valley and the Henry Mountains.

The Notom - Bullfrog road does not end at the Burr Trail intersection - it continues south for another 35 miles to Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell. There are several worthwhile hikes along this leg that adventure seekers should consider, including Lower Muley Twist Canyon and the Halls Creek Narrows. Up next: The Burr Trail

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