The Reef, Part One of Two


Waterpocket Fold

I face a semi-circle of cliffs again.

They drop from several hundred feet above me and end in a soupy pool of sweet water and clinging moss. This is not the way out of Cottonwood Wash.

So I follow my boot prints back to the main canyon and try another lead. Smaller canyons lead off to the north and south, but the main passage slinks on west. At a turn in the canyon the walls suddenly narrow until I can touch each side with my arms outstretched. With another turn, I can touch the sides with my elbows. Ahead there is a diamond-shaped chokestone lodged in the rock above. I have to climb up one boulder, then on my side squeeze beneath the chokestone. I emerge covered with ancient dust.

In 50 yards, and after three right-angle turns in the canyon, the walls tilt sideways so I have walk with one arm on the ground, balancing me. Then the canyon narrows so only one foot at a time will fit in the cut rock beneath me, and then the bottom drops out and there is a pool of water covering the trail for 15 yards.

I backtrack and find a rock, then go back to the pool and huck the rock in. It disappears in the water - too deep to walk in. Instead, I force my back against one wall and jam one arm along the rock and get one foot up on the other wall. Five feet up the canyon is wider - maybe three feet wide - and I 'walk' across the pool suspended over it, keeping above the water by forcing my body into the crack canyon. The dark pool - here it is so dry you can smell the water - ends in a mud pit and a wall. The canyon continues, but I have to climb ten feet of overhanging rock to get there.

This maneuver is called 'chimneying' - using your body and small foot and hand holds to climb, much the same way Santa Claus might get up your chimney Christmas Eve, but without the soot. Atop the cliff, the slot canyon continues, indefinitely.

This is the way you get across Capitol Reef.

Talk About Far From Home

Cottonwood WashThis is, by many estimates, the most remote, rugged spot in the Lower 48. It was not homesteaded until the 1880s, and even then it was only by a handful of families. Early tourists, even those who came after World War II, frequently were mired in mud. Paved roads did not come until the middle of the 1900s, end even then they were often washed out or covered with shifting sand. The Henry Mountains, which tower over the region, were not even discovered until John Wesley Powell, the one-armed government explorer, floated down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1873.

But long before they came there were the Fremont Indians, who lived in the canyon bottoms and diverted the river to water their fields. They lived here from about A.D. 700 to A.D. 1300, but left behind little other than their rock art, which lines the canyons, and the occasional pit home or protective granary. Why they moved on, no one knows.

Powell and the other explorers who took to Capitol Reef were perhaps the first whites to set names to the area, but the history of this area stretches over hundreds of millions of years. The main thrust of Capitol Reef National Park is the Waterpocket Fold, a 70-mile long expanse of sheer multicolored walls and deeply eroded canyons. Its formation took 250 million years and spanned ice ages, inland oceans, wet periods, and desert environments.

Sheets Gulch Layers of sand were gradually laid down when large, shallow seas first covered this area during the Permian time - about 270 million years ago. As the land tilted downwards the area became a broad, flat plain, then reverted to a sea again. As the waters rushed back and forth they left different-colored layers of sand that were compacted into stone - sandstone. Interceding periods included times of lush vegetation then desert-like wastes. About 190 million years ago, during the late Triassic, the area became a desert and was covered with shifting sand dunes. Streams flowing from the mountains laid down more layers of sandstone, and when the area tilted again more deposits came on top. An ocean came again, retreated, and slowly came again during the Cretaceous period, about 80 million years ago. During this time, the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau began to lift - and they did so in a remarkably uniform way. Thus the Waterpocket Fold was formed.

About 20 million years ago lava flows from the nearby Bounder and Thousand Lake mountains showered the area with black volcanic rocks, then glaciers formed in the mountains and sent snowmelt down into the newly-formed drainages. During this time the full-scale erosion of the Waterpocket Fold began. Wind and sand and water cracked rocks apart and found soft cores of sandstone to erode.

Today, rock alternates with sand. Junipers, sage and low desert grasses dot the landscape in places where plants can take hold. To the casual observer, then, it appears today that Capitol Reef is a finished product. But not so. Erosion continues with every storm, each rain, and every spring freeze and thaw cycle.

Like, You Can't See Much From the Car

Canyon WallCapitol Reef is another one of Utah's wonderful parks, I think. A paved road winds through a portion of the park, and all along are paved turnouts with interpretive displays. A 20-mile scenic road makes a cursory plunge into the middle of the park. But the real gems of Capitol Reef, the heart of the park, are far beyond the roads - the paved ones, at least.

There is quite a lot of communing with the desert going on these days. Check out the Utah section of your local bookstore. There are all sorts of people, some of them of questionable intelligence, who find themselves one with the red sand heights of the Colorado Plateau.

C216ottonwood Wash I will admit at least a bit to sharing some of their wistfullness. I have been coming to places like this for years - in fact I came before I even really liked it. It's fun to hike around in these canyons, canyons so narrow often only the thin can make it through. And it's good to get out and wear shorts and a T-shirt in the desert on a day when back in Salt Lake you would still need a windbreaker. But I also have an emotional connection to places like this, a connection I can't describe. I will admit to trailing my fingers along the groove of rocks, of yelling at cliffs for no particular reason, for seeing what the sand tastes like (good for the gizzard, or so I've heard) and of lying on smooth rocks just because I liked the way they felt. But the mountains and canyons here - they make my English collapse in a heap.

Part 2

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