Thursday, June 9, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Chimney Rock

Perhaps the first encounter many visitors will have with the natural features of Capitol Reef National Park is Chimney Rock. This is primarily because it is located immediately adjacent to Highway 24 near the western entrance to the Park, and also because of the distinctive eye catching shape and color. This iconic and much photographed landmark stands like a sentinel overlooking the approach to the Waterpocket Fold, and the pullout offers easy access to stop and get a better look.

While many are content to view the formation from the relatively level base located near the parking area, those with more time and ambition can hike the moderate 3.5 mile loop trail which takes you to a nice vantage point overlooking both Chimney Rock and much of the surrounding area. I highly recommend it as a good introduction to Capitol Reef.

The trail heads north towards a low range of hills comprised of Chinle badlands. This clay formation is easily eroded, and once formed the overlying strata in this area. Here the pastel purples, red, and brown shades form bands of subtle color amongst the deeper red rocks of the Wingate sandstone cliffs beyond.

Soon the path begins a short but quite steep ascent of the mesa to which Chimney Rock is anchored. About two thirds of the way up a trail junction is reached, which is the culmination of the loop. It is often recommended to hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction for the best views.

Continuing upwards at a more moderate pace, the trail is soon level with the top of Chimney Rock. Here it is easy to see that the reddish-brown Moenkopi sandstone is capped with a slightly harder, more erosion resistant layer called the Shinarump member of the Chinle formation. This protective cap is composed of sandstones and conglomerates, and its presence is what has kept softer rocks below from washing away.

Just before leveling out on the mesa top the last view of Chimney Rock appears, this time from above. There are also good views towards the west framing Thousand Lake Mountain on the north side.

Staying close to the edge of Mummy Cliff the path reveals even more expansive views to the south, with the bulge of Miner's Mountain below lofty Boulder Plateau. Looking west the Henry Mountains rise even higher over the monocline of the Waterpocket Fold.

After a short contour along the mesa top, the trail begins a loose, steep, but short descent to the east.

Directly ahead a massive buttress of Wingate sandstone rests on pillowed slopes of the Chinle formation, which in turn lie over horizontally stacked strata of the Moenkopi layer. The juxtaposition of fractured burnt orange rock faces with multi-hued scalloped skirts and columns of thin reddish-brown sandstone plates is worth studying. As the trail heads in that direction there will be ample opportunity to do just that.

Having more or less leveled off, the trail skirts the edge of low clay hills as it heads northeasterly.

Approaching the mouth of Chimney Rock Canyon, the Wingate sandstone walls begin to dominate the view to the north.

Dropping into a shallow drainage the trail makes its closest approach to the complex and colorful formation seen earlier. This is a great place to let the eye wander over the various shapes and textures, observing how water shapes layers with different compositions and erosional qualities.

At this point the path begins a short contour around the base of the Wingate, eventually revealing the mouth of Chimney Rock Canyon. This steep walled gorge of red sandstone leads hikers and explorers to one of Capitol Reefs' many backcountry routes - Spring Canyon.

Dropping into the wash the path begins its' return journey towards the parking area. The junction for Spring Canyon appears after a short walk, branching off in an easterly direction through the canyon.

From here on it is an easy hike with a gentle grade to regain some of the lost elevation. High on the right are fissured and fractured cliffs, their bases mantled in jumbled blocks of stone. Despite the appearance of solidity and stability, time and weather are slowly but assuredly widening and deepening the canyon.

All too quickly the trail returns to the starting point, and this hike is over. However there are a couple of interesting features near the base of Chimney Rock to see before heading out.

There is no established trail to follow, but walking in any of the braided drainage channels in the general direction of Chimney Rock will get you there. The first oddity of note is a thin layer of gypsum or selenite crystals that form an inorganic crust or mat in many places along the way.

Additionally, careful observation reveals fragments of petrified or fossilized wood found scattered throughout the area.

These curiosities are incidental to what drew my attention in the first place - a very large and apparently precariously balanced boulder atop a slender pillar of sandstone.

Looking for all the world as if it should have toppled already, this large capstone protects the remnants of its foundation for a while longer. As I circumnavigate very carefully around the base, I walk softly lest to minimize any chance of bringing the weighty mass down on my head.

Chimney Rock is interesting, and at the very least offers a good opportunity for scenic photography. But rather than being the main attraction, it is merely one of many worthwhile sights to take in while enjoying a good hike through amazing landscapes. I can say with confidence it's definitely worth the time and effort.

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