Tips From a Park Ranger

Thanks to the geology of the Waterpocket Fold, the park has a lot of variety in elevation, landscape, and terrain, according to Riley Mitchell, Capitol Reef's former chief of interpretation.

"This tilted layer cake of geologic strata formed a variety of different microhabitats as it eroded," he says. "There's an immense desert wilderness, but within that you've got perennial streams that have created a very rich riparian habitat, where prehistoric and historic people settled."

Capitol Reef is still relatively unknown, he says, and hasn't changed much since Outside magazine sang its praises as one of America's eight most undervisited national parks -- "parks as they were meant to be." Mitchell says, "When people stop here on their way to one of Utah's better-known national parks, they're usually pleasantly surprised."

The park is known for its wonderful colors, and Mitchell says you can see them practically everywhere. "At sunset along Utah 24 and along the Scenic Drive, you'll find a brilliant spectrum of colors -- you can see them right from your car."

"The Frying Pan Trail is one of my favorite hikes," he says. "It's well marked, easy to get to, and you get wonderful views from the top as you hike along the crest of the Waterpocket Fold." Mitchell adds that another benefit to the trail is that it provides access to the spectacular spur trail to Cassidy Arch.

The dirt roads in the park can be a bit rugged, but most are accessible by two-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles, he says. However, Mitchell advises that a four-wheel-drive vehicle makes exploring the remote areas of the park easier and less worrisome in bad weather.

Given a choice, Mitchell would visit in the spring or fall, because it's a bit cooler. But, he adds, "summer's beautiful, too, because wildflowers are in bloom and the orchards are open for fruit picking."

The name Capitol Reef conjures up images of a shoreline -- an odd choice for a park composed of cliffs and canyons in landlocked Utah. But many of the pioneers who settled the West were former seafaring men, and they extended the meaning of the word reef to include these rock barriers. They added Capitol to the name because the huge white, rounded domes of sandstone reminded them of the domes of capitol buildings.

The park should probably be called the Big Fold. When Earth's crust rose some 60 million years ago, creating the Rocky Mountains, most of the uplifting was relatively even. But here, through one of those fascinating quirks of nature, the crust wrinkled into a huge fold. Extending 100 miles, almost all within the national park, it's known as the Waterpocket Fold.

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