Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Pioneer Register and The Tanks

The relatively recent human history of Capitol Reef includes the early anglo emigrants, notably Mormon settlers dispatched to the region by Brigham Young to establish a foothold in this wild and frequently inhospitable land. Their story in the area is told in various ways through National Park Service interpretive programs and displays, and I recommend taking time to learn more about the colorful and interesting people who populate the pioneer era of the Waterpocket Fold.

One place to start is in Capitol Gorge, which was the primary passage through the Reef for those traveling to and from the area. When dry, this sandy wash bottom was wide enough for a wagon or in later years an automobile, although it required frequent clearing after summer flash floods. The "road" was in service from around 1884 until the completion of Utah Highway 24 through the Fremont River Canyon in 1962, and today is used to access trails leading to Golden Throne and the Pioneer Register and Tanks.

This photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

To get here, follow the Scenic Drive south to the Capitol Gorge turnoff. The graded dirt road travels two miles through the upper end of the canyon, with several twists and turns through sheer walls of sandstone. Like the Grand Wash spur, this detour should be avoided when thunderstorms threaten heavy rain, as the wash bottom can flood without warning.

At the parking area, the trail heads east through the canyon. There is no grade, and the walking is very easy, although there is short climb at the end to reach the Tanks. Total distance for the round-trip hike is only 2.5 miles, making this a good choice for those with limited time.

Towering above the hiker, mostly smooth walls of the Wingate formation enclose the stream bed, at times blocking the sun. Small shrubby plants struggle to maintain a foothold in the channel, persisting in spite of the ever present threat of being swept away. Mineral stains paint the rock in vertical streaks, and the base of cliffs are worn smooth by abrasive sediments carried downstream in periodic muddy torrents.

One great pleasure to be found in canyon hiking is observing the many different forms that water and wind sculpt out of the base rock. The patina of desert varnish on planes and angles adds to the aesthetic appeal, and provides opportunities for the imagination to conjure familiar objects within the natural wrought stone.

There are also a couple of smaller side canyons that intersect the main branch, allowing for the possibility of off-trail exploration.

Another object of note are steel bars driven into the canyon walls at regular intervals. These were placed for the purpose of carrying telephone wire in the early days, allowing for contact with the outside world. Given how isolated the settlement of Fruita was until the highway was built, this hardwired link must have been a great improvement in communication, providing a way to get timely news and information about the wider world outside.

After a short walk, the first inscriptions of early visitors begin to appear on the walls. This "pioneer register" was a way for folks to mark their presence in the world, not entirely unlike what graffiti is today. Here however the names and dates are chiseled into the rock, leaving a lasting legacy. Unfortunately some modern day vandals have also added to the panels, in some cases obscuring and obliterating the genuine historical record.

After investigating the marks of those who came before, the hike continues downstream. The walking is still very pleasant, and the grand scenery provides lots of diversion for the eyes. In this section the canyon slopes away from the wash, with a gentler profile and rounded appearance. Even though the walls are not as sheer, there is still no good escape should a flash flood come roaring through the gorge.

After rounding a bend, a sign appears for the spur leading to the Tanks. Leaving the wash, the trail climbs up a rocky slope to the north on a fairly steep angle.

The ascent is short however, and quickly deposits the hiker on a terrace which provides a good panorama of the surrounding area. Here is the view downstream to the east. The passage through the Gorge continues on, eventually leading through the Fold and into the desert beyond.

These images show the view back up the canyon, and reveals a complex architecture of Navajo sandstone domes and pinnacles looming over the lower gorge.

Walking along the bench allows for glimpses into the narrow drainage where the Tanks are located. Here is a small natural bridge spanning the cleft.

On the north side, an eroding cap of the Carmel formation lends a rose brown tint to the white sandstone.

Hematite, a form of iron oxide, creates the appearance of flowing stone.

The trail reaches the narrow channel where the Tanks are located. The chain of shallow basins in the stone are natural reservoirs, and frequently hold water when all other sources are dry. The name of the Waterpocket Fold is derived from features like these found throughout the area, and their existence allowed people and animals to survive extended dry spells.

The hike into Capitol Gorge really is a trip back in time, allowing the visitor to compare how different life was for the early settlers of the region. I often wonder how well contemporary people would manage if suddenly all of our modern conveniences were taken away, and if we would be able to adapt to that kind of life. I'll probably never know, but it's an interesting question.

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