HC 70, Box 15
Torrey, UT 84775
A giant, sinuous wrinkle in the Earth's crust stretches for 100 miles across south central Utah. This impressive buckling of rock, created by the same tremendous forces that built the Colorado Plateau 65 million years ago, is called the Waterpocket Fold. Capitol Reef National Park preserves the Fold and its spectacular, eroded jumble of colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, and graceful arches. But the Waterpocket Fold country is more than this. It is also the free flowing Fremont River and the big desert sky. It is cactus, jay, lizard, jackrabbit, juniper, columbine, and deer. It is a place where Indians hunted and farmed for more than 1,000 years and, later, where Mormon pioneers settled to raise their families. It is the inspiration for poets, artists, photographers, and those who seek only to recreate themselves in the solitude and splendor of its vastness. The world of the Waterpocket Fold stretches for 100 miles ... and beyond.
Life Along the River
Life in the Waterpocket Fold country is most abundant along the Fremont River. Native Americans, early pioneers, moisture-loving plants, and many animals have all found refuge near its waters.
People of the little known but widespread "Fremont Culture" lived along the river as early as AD 700, sharing the rugged slickrock wilderness of the Colorado Plateau with the Anasazi who lived to the south. The Fremont people hunted and gathered their food, and grew corns, beans, and squash. When they mysteriously disappeared sometime after AD 1250, they left behind few traces of their life here. The rock art they painted (pictographs) and incised (petroglyphs) into canyon walls can still be seen today in several places. Later, nomadic Utes and Paiutes hunted throughout the Waterpocket Fold country.
Explorers, Mormon pioneers, and other began to make their way into the valley of the Fremont in the late 1800's. Settling beyond the valley required a trip across rough terrain of the Waterpocket Fold. A narrow, rocky travel route that cut through the Fold was called Capitol Gorge. One rock wall called the Pioneer Register is filled with the names of miners, settlers, and others who passed through this canyon beginning in 1871. By 1917, the tiny Mormon community of Fruita was bustling on the banks of the Fremont. With skillful irrigation of the good soil of the valley, Fruita became well known for its productive orchards and the quality of its fruit. Flooding sometimes occurred but the town was spared any serious destruction. After Capitol Reef National Monument (later to become Capitol Reef National Park) was set aside in 1937, the farmers and their families gradually moved away. The heritage of these pioneers is preserved in an old log schoolhouse, where socials, dances, and church meetings were once held, and in other structures scattered around the still-thriving historic orchards and fields of Fruita.
Today, the life along the Fremont River consists of the life of cottonwoods willows and ash, which create a fresh ribbon of green each spring, and of Indian paintbrush, goldenpea, and other seasonal wildflowers. It is the life of animals drawn by the magnet of water: birds galore, from mountain bluebirds to migratory ducks and mammals, from marmots to mule deer. But move away from the river—even just a few hundred yards—and the harsh, sparser environment of the desert dominates.
Miles of unpaved roads lead into remote areas of the Waterpocket Fold country, once of interest only to cowboys, geologists, miners, and sheepherders. Today, these areas offer natural beauty and solitude to park visitors. In vast expanses such as Cathedral Valley, golden eagles soar and solitary stone monoliths tower over sandy desert plains. In secluded canyons such as Halls Creek Canyon, hanging gardens of monkeyflower and maidenhair fern grace canyon walls. You may find panoramic views on many roads, including the Burr Trail, where the views become ever more breathtaking as the road climbs to the top of the Waterpocket Fold. On roads or trails deep in the backcountry, the rugged splendor of Capitol Reef National Park is yours to enjoy.
In the backcountry the desert dominates, and it stands in stark contrast to the Fremont River valley, a rare oasis. Less than eight inches of rain fall per year, most of it in late summer thunderstorms. These storms can turn dry, sandy washes into raging torrents threatening some forms of life while sustaining others. Twisted, stunted juniper and pinion trees, which dot the landscape along with other hardy plants, are testimony to the severity of the desert. But many plants and animals are well adapted for life here. In different ways, kangaroo rats, lizards, cactuses, and saltbush cope with the perennial water shortage of the desert. Some are experts at collecting and storing water, others at water conservation, and some at both. Many animals move about only at night to escape the heat of day, so the casual observer can easily underestimate the richness of animal life in the desert.
Occasionally, pools of rainwater collect in eroded bowl-like depressions in the rock called waterpockets. Oddly, the tiny water-pocket is the namesake of the massive Fold that dominates this landscape. Bighorn sheep and bobcats—even people—have quenched their thirst at these holes. At least one animal, the spadefoot toad, uses the waterpockets as places to live and reproduce. Eggs laid in the water hatch into tadpoles within days of a rain. Tadpoles that reach adulthood before the pools dry up repeat the cycle when the pools fill again. And life in the Waterpocket Fold country goes on.
Exploring by Road and Trail
There are many natural geological, and historical features that can be seen along the roads and trails of the park. An illustrated guidebook for the Scenic Drive is available at the visitor center: Guides are also available for road tours of Cathedral Valley, Strike Valley, Circle Cliffs, and Boulder Mountain. Unpaved roads designated for travel by all passenger vehicles—including the Scenic Drive and roads to remote areas south of the Fremont River—are usually passable without difficulty. Because they are rough, other unpaved backcountry roads are suitable only for 4-wheel-drive or high clearance 2-wheel-drive vehicles. Rain or snow may make some roads impassable from time to time, check with a ranger for up-to-date conditions before starting a trip.
Trails offer a slower, more intimate way to discover the park. Along a trail you may find a cool shady place to rest near the Fremont River, twist and turn through a desolate, steep-walled canyon, stand atop a high cliff and survey the enormity of the Waterpocket Fold country, or happen upon hidden geological rarities such as Hickman Bridge, a 133-foot-long sandstone span. Visitors interested in observing wildlife or photographing wildflowers may be rewarded generously. Trails range from short strolls to strenuous hikes over rough terrain requiring a day or more. For information, including topographic maps, guidebooks, and up-to-date trail conditions, stop by the visitor center. Horseback riding is permitted on some trails but prohibited on others: See a ranger for details.
The park visitor center offers a variety of brochures, books, maps, exhibits and a short orientation slide program. Rangers are available to assist in planning your visit and to answer questions. Schedules of park activities are posted. The center is open daily, except on some federal holidays, year-round.
The park is open all year. In the summer, temperatures often reach the high 90's (degrees F), although at night it can cool down to the 50's and 60's. The July through September thunderstorm season brings frequent cloud bursts, the dangers of flash floods and lightning, and the beauty of magnificent cloud formations. Spring and fall, ideal months for long distance hiking and other strenuous pursuits, are milder, with highs generally in the 50's and 60's. Winter daytime highs average below 50. Snowfalls, especially in the low elevations, are light. Humidity is low all year.
Special Park Activities
From May to September the park offers many special programs, including guided walks, evening campfire programs at the outdoor amphitheater near Fruita Campground, and automobile caravan tours. Schedules are posted at the visitor center. Another activity you may enjoy on your own is picking fruit in the historic Fruita orchards. Apples, cherries, and various other fruits ripen from June to October. Anyone may pick a handful for a snack. The park superintendent sets specific fruit-picking seasons when larger amounts can be picked for a fee. For information, stop by the visitor center.
Camping and Picnicking
Fruita Campground, which is designed for both tents and recreational vehicles, is open all year on a first-come, first-served basis. There are 71 sites. Picnic tables, fire grills, restrooms, and drinking water are available. A camping fee is charged. School groups and other organized groups can contact the park to reserve a large group campsite. Two primitive campgrounds, Cathedral Valley and Cedar Mesa, are open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Each has five sites, tables, fire grills, and pit toilets: Neither has water.
Backcountry camping is allowed throughout much of the park; a free permit is required.
Other Internet Resources
AWE! American Wilderness Experience - Since 1971, North American Backcountry Adventure Travel experts! Your One Stop Selection and Reservation Service for Horseback, Rafting, Cowboy Cattle Drives, Hiking, Canoe, Sailing & More! Alaska, Hawaii, Rocky Mountain West, Desert Southwest, Canada, Mexico & Costa Rica.
Legacy Apartments - Looking for an economical basecamp for exploring Utah outdoors? Try Legacy Apartments. Centrally located by the Manti Lasal, Uinta, and Fishlake National Forests and a couple of hours from all the parks!
Utah's National Parks - Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Zion
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication