Capitol Reef National Park is a United States National Park, in south-central Utah. It is 100 miles (160 km) long but fairly narrow. The park, established in 1971, preserves 241,904 acres (377.98 sq mi; 97,895.08 ha; 978.95 km2) and is open all year, although May through September are the most popular months. Called “Wayne Wonderland” in the 1920s by local boosters Ephraim P. Pectol and Joseph S. Hickman, Capitol Reef National Park protects colorful canyons, ridges, buttes, and monoliths. About 75 mi (121 km) of the long up-thrust called the Waterpocket Fold, a rugged spine extending from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell, is preserved within the park. “Capitol Reef” is the name of an especially rugged and spectacular segment of the Waterpocket Fold near the Fremont River. The area was named for a line of white domes and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, each of which looks somewhat like the United States Capitol building, that run from the Fremont River to Pleasant Creek on the Waterpocket Fold. The local word reef refers to any rocky barrier to travel. Easy road access only came in 1962, with the construction of State Route 24 through the Fremont River Canyon.
Capitol Reef encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust that is 65 million years old. It is the largest exposed monocline in North America. In this fold, newer and older layers of earth folded over each other in an S-shape. This warp, probably caused by the same colliding continental plates that created the Rocky Mountains, has weathered and eroded over millennia to expose layers of rock and fossils. The park is filled with brilliantly colored sandstone cliffs, gleaming white domes, and contrasting layers of stone and earth. The area was named for a line of white domes and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, each of which looks somewhat like the United States Capitol building, that run from the Fremont River to Pleasant Creek on the Waterpocket Fold. The fold forms a north-to-south barrier that even today has barely been breached by roads. Early settlers referred to parallel, impassable ridges as “reefs”, from which the park gets the second half of its name. The first paved road was constructed through the area in 1962. Today, State Route 24 cuts through the park traveling east and west between Canyonlands National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, but few other paved roads invade the rugged landscape.
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The park is filled with canyons, cliffs, towers, domes, and arches. The Fremont River has cut canyons through parts of the Waterpocket Fold, but most of the park is arid desert country. A scenic drive shows park visitors some of the highlights, but it runs only a few miles from the main highway. Hundreds of miles of trails and unpaved roads lead the more adventurous into the equally scenic backcountry.
Native Americans And Mormons
Fremont culture Native Americans lived near the perennial Fremont River in the northern part of the Capitol Reef Waterpocket Fold around 1000 CE. They irrigated crops of lentils, maize, and squash and stored their grain in stone granaries (in part made from the numerous black basalt boulders that litter the area). In the 13th century, all of the Native American cultures in this area underwent sudden change, likely due to a long drought. The Fremont settlements and fields were abandoned.
In 1872 Alan H. Thompson, a surveyor attached to United States Army Major John Wesley Powell‘s expedition, crossed the Waterpocket Fold while exploring the area. Geologist Clarence Dutton later spent several summers studying the area’s geology. None of these expeditions explored the Waterpocket Fold to any great extent, however. It was, as now, incredibly rugged and forbidding.
Following the American Civil War, officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City sought to establish missions in the remotest niches of the Intermountain West. In 1866, a quasi-military expedition of Mormons in pursuit of natives penetrated the high valleys to the west. In the 1870s, settlers moved into these valleys, eventually establishing Loa, Fremont, Lyman, Bicknell, and Torrey.
Mormons settled the Fremont River valley in the 1880s and established Junction (later renamed Fruita), Caineville and Aldridge. Fruita prospered, Caineville barely survived, and Aldridge died. In addition to farming, lime was extracted from local limestone and uranium was extracted early in the 20th century. In 1904 the first claim to a uranium mine in the area was staked. The resulting Oyler Mine in Grand Wash produced uranium ore.
By 1920 the work was hard but the life in Fruita was good. No more than ten families at one time were sustained by the fertile flood plain of the Fremont River and the land changed ownership over the years. The area remained isolated. The community was later abandoned and later still some buildings were restored by the National Park Service. Kilns once used to produce lime can still be seen in Sulphur Creek and near the campgrounds on Scenic Drive.
National Park Status
The vast enlargement of the monument and diversification of the scenic resources soon raised another issue: whether Capitol Reef should be a national park, rather than a monument. Two bills were introduced into the United States Congress.
A House bill (H.R. 17152) introduced by Utah Congressman Laurence J. Burton called for a 180,000-acre (72,800 ha) national park and an adjunct 48,000-acre (19,400 ha) national recreation area where multiple use (including grazing) could continue indefinitely. In the United States Senate, meanwhile, Senate bill S. 531 had already passed on July 1, 1970, and provided for a 230,000-acre (93,100 ha) national park alone. The bill called for a 25-year phase-out of grazing.
In September 1970, United States Department of Interior officials told a house subcommittee session that they preferred about 254,000 acres (103,000 ha) be set aside as a national park. They also recommended that the grazing phase-out period be 10 years, rather than 25. They did not favor the adjunct recreation area.
It was not until late 1971 that Congressional action was completed. By then, the 92nd United States Congress was in session and S. 531 had languished. A new bill, S. 29, was introduced in the Senate by Senator Frank E. Moss of Utah and was essentially the same as the defunct S. 531 except that it called for an additional 10,834 acres (4,384 ha) of public lands for a Capitol Reef National Park. In the House, Utah Representative K. Gunn McKay (with Representative Lloyd) had introduced H.R. 9053 to replace the dead H.R. 17152. This time around, the House bill dropped the concept of an adjunct Capitol Reef National Recreation Area and adopted the Senate concept of a 25-year limit on continued grazing. The Department of Interior was still recommending a national park of 254,368 acres (102,939 ha) and a 10-year limit for grazing phase-out.
S. 29 passed the Senate in June and was sent to the House. The House subsequently dropped its own bill and passed the Senate version with an amendment. Because the Senate was not in agreement with the House amendment, differences were worked out in Conference Committee. The Conference Committee issued their agreeing report on November 30, 1971. The legislation—’An Act to Establish The Capitol Reef National Park in the State of Utah’—became Public Law 92-207 when it was signed by President Richard Nixon on December 18, 1971.