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Utah's Capitol Reef National Park
A Land Cruiser in the 'Land of the Sleeping Rainbow'
By Tony Huegel

Note: Visit my blog, Backcountry Byways Journal.


The Beatles’ song kept playing in my head —“Here comes the sun, here comes the sun ...” — for it had indeed been a long winter.

The calendar had announced that it was spring, an event akin to recess for a chain gang. So with the kids on spring break, my family and I had left Idaho and aimed a Toyota Land Cruiser with four-wheel drive, locking differentials and leather-clad seats toward the unpaved backroads of Capitol Reef National Park, in southern Utah’s high, red deserts.

But the sky darkened as we left the Great Basin and climbed onto the Colorado Plateau. Then it snowed. In Torrey, a hamlet just west of the park, we learned that strong winds had whipped across the region in preceding days.

At a restaurant in Torrey I glared out at a cold night rain. Sagebrush danced madly in the wind. Other northerners were fleeing to places assuredly sunny and warm — places like Las Vegas and Cancun.

Taking a Chance

Capitol Reef is in a unique category among national parks. Since many of its finest features are accessed via unpaved roads of changeable quality — flash floods, mud, drifting sand, even snow are possible — it seems tailored to an SUV’s off-highway comfort and capabilities.

Yet I was taking a chance. The water content of the region's snowpack was 118 percent of normal. That could mean high spring runoff, and muck at higher elevations. The park’s telephone recording for road conditions warned that key backroads might be closed at important points by poor conditions.

Yet the report was almost two weeks old. There was hope.

I’d been looking forward to a rare desert river crossing at a place called River Ford, outside the park’s eastern boundary. There, one must ford the Fremont River to begin the Cathedral Valley Loop.

The route is a premier backcountry tour of sculpted canyons, painted hills of crumbly bentonite, pinyon-juniper woodlands, golden desert, and a valley of tall, artfully eroded sandstone cliffs and monoliths. It is typical of the park's dirt backroads, which require primarily two-wheel drive rather than four-wheel drive when conditions are good.

The river was at flood stage, I was warned. I’d received mixed signals about the advisability of attempting to cross. Yet I knew that if we couldn't, there were plenty of other places to explore in this geologic wonderland.

In the morning, I was awakened at our motel by sunlight beaming between the curtains. I looked out, and was almost startled by a blue and cloudless sky above the ruddy cliffs. My spirits soared.

Hues and History

The Navajo called this area “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow,” after the colored canyon walls. The hues in this country are countless, continuously altered by daylight's tints.

Among them are the reddish browns of the Moenkopi geologic formation and Wingate Sandstone, the yellow-orange of Entrada Sandstone, the grays of Mancos Shale and Curtis Sandstone, and the grayish white of Navajo Sandstone.

Haunting rock art speaks of habitation by Native Americans, particularly Fremont and ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) Indians, as far back as a 1,000 years, maybe longer. At the 19th-century site of the Fruita settlement, historic orchards still produce pickable apples, peaches, cherries, apricots and Potowatomee plums.

Restored buildings, like the tiny schoolhouse, and scattered horse-drawn implements recall the Mormon pioneers who settled here in the 1880s.

East of the park rise the granitic Henry Mountains, said to be the last range in the Lower 48 to be explored and named. To the south lies Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell. To the southwest, the hump of Boulder Mountain rounds the horizon. To the northwest looms piney Thousand Lake Mountain, which has no lakes.

Waterpocket Fold

Compared with, say, Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres, Capitol Reef National Park is relatively small, less than 242,000 acres. Roughly 70 miles long and 14 miles at its widest, it is divided into northern and southern sectors by the Fremont River and Utah Highway 24.

Its most prominent geologic feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth wrinkle in the Earth’s crust where layers of sedimentary rock rise skyward in a sinuous line that extends almost 100 miles, from Thousand Lake Mountain south to the Colorado River.

It includes massive cliffs, arches, slickrock wilderness, natural bridges and twisting canyons. It was formed some 65 million years ago when a subsurface fault shifted, bending numerous layers of rock.

Named for water-collecting depressions in the rock, the fold is composed of sediment deposited in ancient seas, rivers, tidal flats, deserts and other environments over hundreds of millions of years.

The park’s namesake, Capitol Reef, is a section of the fold that extends south from the vicinity of the visitor center.

“Capitol” comes from the domes of Navajo Sandstone that reminded early settlers of the rotundas of capitol buildings. “Reef” refers to the fact that, like the barriers mariners faced, the wall of rock was a daunting obstacle to travel.

Warning Sign

“Flood Area,” warned a yellow sign at River Ford. “Do not cross,” added another.

The Fremont River isn’t very wide. Nor is it deep, rarely more than a foot. Yet it was running fast. If we crossed, we could complete the 60-mile Cathedral Valley Loop, rejoining Highway 24 east of River Ford, at the site of Caineville Wash.

I was standing in mud, however. There was mud at the exit on the opposite bank, too. At the visitor center I was advised not to attempt a crossing. And the warning signs were unequivocal. So I retreated.

Instead, we drove Notom-Bullfrog Road through Strike Valley, a north-south trough that courses just east of the Waterpocket Fold’s dramatic rock slopes.

The pavement ended in less than five miles. There, I hiked a short distance west of the road with my 7-year-old son, Land, to a knoll where a grave lies surrounded by a white picket fence. It is the resting place of a 14-year-old boy who died in the 1880s from injuries suffered when his horse fell.

We detoured west on the little dirt road up Oak Creek Canyon, which took us two miles into the fold’s chaotic world of brutalized sandstone, where we had a tailgate lunch. Tomorrow would be Easter Sunday, noted Land and our wisened 14-year-old daughter, Hannah. Just how would the Easter Bunny find us?

“The Easter Bunny knows where we are,” I said.

“Maybe it doesn’t, Tony,” countered my wife, Lynn, reminding me that we’d neglected to bring baskets of green grass and chocolate bunnies. “Maybe the Easter Bunny can't find
children in, in ...”

“... in the middle of nowhere!” Land said, providing tomorrow’s excuse.

Oysters and Overlooks

Notom-Bullfrog Road, one of Utah’s designated “scenic backways,” passes hills brushed with pastels and plates of sharply tilted rock. We stopped to inspect fossilized oyster shells in Oyster Shell Reef, a long, narrow strip of primordial seabed.

After ascending the Burr Trail Road switchbacks, we turned into Upper Muley Twist Canyon. The easy but rocky wash that snaked below pocked cliffs and an array of arches ended in less than three miles. Hikers can continue deeper into the narrow canyon.

Less ambitious walkers can follow cairns across slabs of barren sandstone called slickrock, rising to the crest of the Waterpocket Fold to take in one of the West’s great vistas, Strike Valley Overlook.

From its heights we gazed along the spine of the fold, across Strike Valley to the Henry Mountains and beyond.

On Easter morning I stood again at River Ford. I parked behind an old International Scout SUV from California that was stopped at the river's edge. Two men stood beside it.

“We’d be glad to let you go first!” one joked. I turned back.

Almost 19 miles east of the visitor center, a road goes northwest from the highway up Caineville Wash to Cathedral Valley. It is the eastern leg of the Cathedral Valley Loop.

Deterred by the warnings at River Ford, I decided to follow this route to Cathedral Valley. The park’s telephone recording, however, had been issuing another advisory: The exhilarating switchbacks that climbed out of Upper Cathedral Valley to connect with Hartnet Road, which goes south to the highway at River Ford, were closed by mud. So we’d go as far as we could, then backtrack to the highway near day’s end.

The badlands along the wash include varicolored hills of bentonite, a soft, popcorn-like stone that becomes clay-like when wet, and layers of fractured, cream-colored sandstone.

The colors were pale under the high sun. Queen of the Wash, a 400-foot-high mound of color-banded bentonite, loomed above the road like a haughty toll-taker.

The snowy Henry Mountains etched the horizon behind us. Thousand Lake Mountain swelled skyward beyond Cathedral Valley, where the fluted cliffs and monuments reminded earlier visitors of Europe’s palaces of worship.

We traversed broad and pale Middle Desert. Then Lower Cathedral Valley’s intricately eroded walls began to close in.

About 15 miles from the highway we turned off toward a pair of tall, angular buttes of red sandstone, Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, that rise incongruously from the valley floor. Nearby stands a peculiar knoll, Glass Mountain.

Mountain of Glass, Valley of Cathedrals

Made of the mineral gypsum, Glass Mountain sparkles in bright sun like uncountable blocks of glass glued together into a haphazard crystalline blob. Near Cathedral Valley Junction we drove to a small amphitheater to gaze into yawning Gypsum Sinkhole.

I met two park rangers there. I saw mud on their pickup truck. Did they cross at River Ford? I asked. They did, and it was a cinch.

As we drove on, shadows gave texture to the ornate cliffs and colossal sentinels of soft Entrada Sandstone capped by harder Curtis Sandstone.

In Upper Cathedral Valley, a pinyon-juniper woodland signaled that we were gradually gaining elevation. The climb became abrupt when we reached the switchbacks that ascend to the loop's northern end at Hartnet Junction, on a divide that separates the Gothic world of Cathedral Valley from Mars-like South Desert and the Waterpocket Fold.

Here, at the base of Thousand Lake Mountain, our eyes swept an austere and vast panorama that stretched east to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Hartnet Road angles southeast from this point, reaching River Ford in about 29 miles. I considered taking it. But the amber desert was growing redder with the dyes of a falling sun. We returned the way we'd come.

A Firm Bed

Day three. River Ford again. I shifted into low range. That locked the center differential. I turned the dash knob that locked the Land Cruiser's front and rear differentials. I waited for the lights on the instrument panel to stop blinking. When they did, the lockers were engaged.

We entered the river — and I felt like a fool. The bed was firm. The water didn't even reach the hubs. It really was a cinch, and we pulled onto the north bank jeering at ourselves. Even so, I didn’t regret heeding those signs. They were there for our protection.

We climbed a bench, passed along the edge of a deep gorge and crossed the arid expanse of Blue Flats. Nine miles from the river we meandered over the moonscape of the Bentonite Hills, where the soft, grayish stone can turn into treacherously slick clay when wet.

Scattered about were black volcanic rocks washed down from lava fields during a long-gone ice age.

The road coiled through the low cliffs, ledges and canyons of an area called The Hartnet. Almost 28 intriguing miles from the river we reached Hartnet Junction.

From there we entered Fishlake National Forest, hoping to cross Thousand Lake Mountain to connect with Utah Highway 72 north of Loa. Mud and snow blocked the road.

With a locker-equipped Land Cruiser we might have forced our way through, but the resulting roadbed damage would have been unforgivable.

We descended instead down the switchbacks into Upper Cathedral Valley, where sand had been drifting across the road. We turned north at Cathedral Valley Junction, onto a dirt road that traverses the long repose of the Last Chance Desert to reach Interstate 70 near Fremont Junction in 27 lonely miles.

Suddenly ferocious winds buffeted the Cruiser. Thick dust enveloped us. Visibility dropped to a few feet. Mile after mile, for at least an hour, I strained to see the right edge of the road.

Then, as abruptly as we'd entered the storm, we were out of it. George Harrison sang again — ... it seems like years since it's been clear ... — not because of winter weariness, but because we were safe. About seven miles farther we reached the interstate, and I don’t think that pavement or the company of traffic ever looked so good.


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