Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Introduction to Wayne Wonderland (aka Capitol Reef National Park)

Some of the West's best known National Parks are found in the Four Corners area. The "big" three, Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon get the lion's share of attention for good reason. They are truly amazing places and represent some of the most impressive scenery found on the Colorado Plateau. While I appreciate what each of these special places has to offer and enjoy them for their unique characteristics, they are not my favorite Parks.

I reserve my deepest affection for a place that sees far fewer crowds but contains an equally spectacular display of natural wonders: Capitol Reef National Park. Even the name is different - In nautical terminology, a reef is a rock, sandbar, or obstacle lying beneath the surface of the water. On land a reef is also an obstruction, at least as seen by the early pioneers attempting to navigate this broken, forbidding region.

The "reef" that presented such difficulty to those seeking passage through the area is actually a geological structure known as a monocline, or warp in the crust of the planet. In this case the feature is called the Waterpocket Fold, and it stretches north - south for over 100 miles. It has a dramatic tilt, with the west side rising some 7000 feet higher than the east. Water has been the chief architect of amazing landforms cut into this wrinkle of sedimentary rock, and the 378 square miles preserved within the Park offers excellent opportunities for observing and enjoying the result.

Wayne Wonderland

Capitol Reef and the Waterpocket Fold exist in a part of the country that was among the last to be explored and settled. Not until the mid-1850's did any anglo parties visit the region, and the rugged, remote, and uninviting character of the land ensured that the area would remain largely uninhabited. In the 1880's Mormon settlers established a small community called Junction where the Fremont River enters the Fold. Here the people grew crops, planted orchards, and struggled to survive while enduring periodic floods, extreme isolation, and the hardships of frontier life.

The settlement was renamed Fruita, and despite many difficulties the small group of families who lived at the mouth of the canyon thrived, thanks in part to a longer growing season and abundant water. In the 1920's enterprising boosters recognized the unique character of the area and began promoting Capitol Reef as "Wayne Wonderland" (Wayne because the Fold is located in the county of the same name). They were eventually successful in attaining recognition; in 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt set aside over 37,000 acres to create a National Monument.

Despite the designation, several decades would pass before any significant number of visitors would arrive to marvel at the splendor of Wayne Wonderland. The completion of Highway 24 through the Fremont River canyon in the 1960's made the area accessible for the first time to the casual traveler, and soon after Capitol Reef became known to a much larger population. One direct result of the new found attention was the expansion of the Monument in 1967, when Lyndon Johnson set aside an additional 215,000 acres for protection.

The new larger Monument was a challenge for the National Park Service to manage, and the action enlarging the protected area raised questions about what sort of activities were to be allowed. The Department of Interior and other supporters pressed Congress to change the designation to that of National Park, and in 1971 legislation was enacted for just that purpose.

Visiting Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef is an exceptionally accommodating place to see for just about any kind of traveler. A limited but representative section of the Park can be experienced from a passenger car by simply driving through the Fremont River canyon on Highway 24, or taking the relatively short Scenic Drive south along the west escarpment of the Fold. More intrepid visitors can spend the day taking in excellent interpretive displays and exhibits at the Visitor Center, strolling along the Fremont River, and viewing well preserved remnants of buildings, orchards, and petroglyphs in the historic Fruita area.

Folks wanting a closer look at natural features can hike to Hickman Bridge, or stretch lungs and legs climbing to Cohab Canyon, or the Rim Overlook. You might consider a drive through Capitol Gorge with a moderate hike to the Golden Throne or an easier path to the Pioneer Register and the Tanks. Those seeking even more solitude can drive the 60 mile loop along backroads to see majestic Cathedral Valley - these are only a sampling of what there is to see and do.

In a series of upcoming posts, I will be offering my experiences and recommendations for folks who want to surround themselves in natural splendor, in a place where you can get up close and personal with magnificent works of nature without rubbing elbows with all of humanity. My kind of place.

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