Next to Zion, Utah’s most-visited national park, and Arches or Canyonlands, located near popular Moab, Utah, Capitol Reef National Park sometimes gets overlooked. But ask any of the 1.2 million annual visitors to this unique park, and you’ll quickly learn that it’s well worth a visit.
Located in the heart of red rock country, the park is full of towering rock formations that expose the different colored rock formations formed over millions of years. Capitol Reef is home to slot canyons, sandstone domes, and natural bridges. But the park’s most iconic feature is the famous Waterpocket Fold.
This natural geologic phenomenon is what creates the unique landscape of the park. Keep reading as we take a look at what caused this geologic phenomenon, and how it has impacted the landscape.
What is the Waterpocket Fold?
The Waterpocket Fold is a geologic feature that stretches nearly 100 miles, straight through the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. As millions of years’ worth of layers formed on the surface of the Earth, the layers at the lowest levels were put under compressive stress. Over time, those layers crumpled, which caused the layers on the top to fold over the compression. The term for this formation is a monocline; a simple bend in the rock layers that are no longer arranged horizontally.
At the Waterpocket Fold, almost 100 miles of rock formed a monocline, as a base layer of rock crumbled and the layers above it folded over the depression. In this case, the monocline was formed along an underlying fault line, called the Laramide Orogeny. This depression, in conjunction with layers pushing upward along the Colorado Plateau, formed “waterpockets.” This means that the sandstone layers were eroded by water and wind, creating cliffs, domes, and other rock formations.
On one side of the fold, you can view steep layers of rocks that allow you to look back over millions of years of deposits. The fold is 7,000 feet higher on the west side than it is on the east.
Exploring the Waterpocket Fold
Today, you can see the Waterpocket Fold and its impact on the landscape of what is now Capitol Reef, from just about anywhere in the park. To see the Fold up close, start with a drive on Scenic Highway 24. Running through the heart of Capitol Reef, this road is the only paved option for crossing the rough and rugged terrain of the Waterpocket Fold.
The Nortom-Bullfrog Road runs parallel to the Waterpocket Fold. This road is paved for the first 15 miles, but dirt after that, so it’s best explored in an all-terrain vehicle. But if you have the right vehicle for it and off-road experience, this road is one of the most scenic in the country and is a great opportunity to experience the rugged beauty of the park.
There are a number of hikes to choose from on and around the Fold. If you’re up for a challenge, the scenic Burr Trail is great for exploring the park’s rugged backcountry. Other great trails to explore in Capitol Reef include:
- Red Canyon Trail: A 5.6-mile roundtrip hike rated easy to moderate, this trail explores a sandy wash and sandstone canyons.
- Headquarters Canyon Route: This easy trail is just 3.2 miles roundtrip, and takes you into a deep gorge that’s part of the Waterpocket Fold.
- Strike Valley Overlook: While you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead, a moderate .9 mile round trip hike leads to an overlook that offers great views of a stunning valley far below. You can see the sedimentary rock layers formed over 150 million years up close here.
Planning a Visit to Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park covers more than 378 square miles. Much of the park is rugged backcountry, which means you’ll need to be ready for some challenging hiking or have an off-road vehicle to navigate it. But even if you have just a few hours to take a scenic drive or a shorter hike, this beautiful park is well worth a visit.
Thinking about planning a visit to Capitol Reef National Park in 2022? Cougar Ridge makes for the perfect basecamp for your national park adventure. Get a good night’s rest in our luxurious Casitas, soak your tired muscles in a hot tub in the evenings, and swap stories about your day around a campfire.
Looking to save some money on your next vacation? There’s still time to take advantage of our winter sale. Book a visit between December 1, 2021, and March 15, 2022, to enjoy a 50% discount on your stay.