Capitol Reef National Park, one of Utah’s natural gems

Aug 4, 2023, 11:00 AM | Updated: 11:36 am

two natural structures at capitol reef national park...

FILE - The Temple of the Sun (at middle of photo) and The Temple of the Moon (at back, left side of photo) are in the Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park, September 17, 2003. In the foreground of the photo is Glass Mountain, a mound of glass-looking material that is actually gypsum.

(at back, left side of photo)

WAYNE COUNTY, Utah — When Utah’s national parks come up in conversation, your mind probably jumps to Arches National Park. That’s understandable, Arches is so popular it’s featured on Utah license plates.

But while Arches might be synonymous with Utah, it’s far from the only place worth exploring.

Capitol Reef National Park sits in south-central Utah, hours away from Arches.

Located near the small town of Torrey, Capitol Reef National Park spans over 200,000 acres. And the age of the area is impressive, too. The park’s geology and meaning were shaped over millions of years.

History of Capitol Reef

The oldest layers of rock in Capitol Reef are estimated to be up to 280 million years old.

Other formations and layers range in age, with some being shaped as early as 1 million years ago.

According to the National Park Service, archeologists think early humans known as Paelo-Indians could have passed through the park up to 12,000 years ago. But there’s no proof of that yet.

What is known, however, is that humans have lived in the area of the park for thousands of years.

The Fremont people were hunter-gatherers who also farmed to have more food available. They lived in the area now included in Capitol Reef National Park for about 1,000 years.

Reminders of the Freemont people can still be seen throughout the park, in pictographs and petroglyphs.

FILE -Deseret News

As time went on, explorers and pioneers also made their way into the park. 

Pioneers founded towns and planted orchards that remain to this day.

Becoming a national park

According to the NPS, the “Capitol” portion of the area’s name was inspired by white sandstone domes reminiscent of domes often found on Capitol buildings. As for “reef,” that was chosen as a nod to the tough terrain that created a barrier to crossing.

In 1937, after ten years of advocating by the local population, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Capitol Reef as a national monument.

In the beginning, only 37,711 acres of land were a part of Capitol Reef National Monument.

In the years that followed, the park’s boundaries were expanded.

Then, 34 years later, President Richard Nixon signed a bill into law that officially designated Capitol Reef as a national park. The park’s boundary expanded to encompass over 240,000 acres.

The unique features of Capitol Reef National Park

The park’s defining feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth’s crust spanning almost 100 miles. It’s estimated to be between 50 and 70 million years old.

And near the Waterpocket Fold stands Cathedral Valley, where eroded sandstone created shapes reminiscent of Gothic churches.

The national park is also one of the state’s International Dark Sky Parks. Designated as such by the International Dark Sky Association in 2015, Capitol Reef National Park is described as having “near pristine” night skies.

And though the park said goodbye to its last human resident in the 90s, it remains home to wildlife. Big mammals like Desert Bighorn Sheep and tiny creatures like fairy shrimp both call Capitol Reef National Park their home.

The NPS said there are over 840 plant species in Capitol Reef. These include the Ponderosa Pine, which gives off a sweet and vanilla-like smell and the uniquely shaped and aptly named Desert Trumpet.

One million people visit the park each year to enjoy everything from camping and hiking to stargazing and harvesting fruit from the park’s orchards.

If you’re trying to plan some outdoor summer fun, Capitol Reef may be a good alternative to the usual destinations.

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Capitol Reef National Park, one of Utah’s natural gems