Geological Morphing of Capitol Reef National Park

Near the Grand Wash of Capitol Reef National Park (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)

Author: Josh Hennings – November 21st, 2021

Capitol Reef National Park

Torrey, Utah
Highest Elevation: 7,042 ft.

Est.: 1971
378 Square Miles


Capitol Reef National Park is located between Bryce Canyon & Canyonlands National Parks in southern-central Utah near the town of Torrey, Utah. Capitol Reef National Park was founded in 1971 as the nation’s 35th National Park. Capitol Reef is one of 5 Utah National Parks & was the last of the 5 to be established (Bourque, 2004). Beginning in 1914, entrepreneur (and later Utah Legislature representative) Ephraim Portman Pectol and his brother-in-law Joseph S. Hickman, Utah State Legislative Senator, worked to protect the area known today as Capitol Reef. The brother-in-laws first preserved Capitol Reef as a state park, and later as a national monument (NPS.gov, Dec., 2020). The pair also hoped to replicate the boost in tourism to the manner in which the nearby Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks did, respectively. (NPS.gov, Dec., 2020) Many of the rock formations in Capitol Reef contain white Navajo Sandstone on top of red Wingate Sandstone bases, resembling the white dome of the capitol building, giving the national park its moniker (Haymond, 1994).

Fremont River of Capitol Reef (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)

Grand Wash (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)
Southwestern Tent Caterpillars (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)
Famous Fruit Pies from Gifford Homestead (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)

Waterpocket Fold

The Waterpocket Fold is a major catalyst in the shaping of Capitol Reef. A Waterpocket Fold as such is essentially a monocline, or “step-up,” in the rock layers. This Fold is a nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, which formed 50-70 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny (NPS.gov, Jan., 2021). Due to the Orogeny, overlying sedimentary layers formed the monocline, causing the western rocks to rise over 7,000 feet above the eastern side layers (NPS.gov, Jan., 2021). Waterpockets are depressions that form within sandstone layers while enduring water-induced erosion. These waterpockets are common throughout the fold found at Capitol Reef National Park (NPS.gov, Jan., 2021).

Hickman Natural Bridge within Capitol Reef (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)

The Wilderness of Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef is one of the most remote National Parks in the lower 48 states; the nearest metropolitan areas are Salt Lake City (218 mi. away), Las Vegas (328 mi. away), Denver (427 mi. away), Phoenix (495 mi. away) & Albuquerque (501 mi. away). Due to the low light pollution in the surrounding area, Capitol Reef is also considered one of the world’s prestigious “International Dark Sky Park” (NPS.gov, July, 2020)

Sandstone Monolith (Photo Credit: Josh Hennings, 2021)
Hike to Hickman Natural Bridge (Photo Credit: James Hennings, 2021)

Despite the fact that Capitol Reef is considered a “high-desert,” due to the altitude, the region gets surprisingly cold during the winter months, reaching temperatures as low as -9 °F in January, yet as high as 104 °F in June & July. Additionally, the region can receive up to 23 inches of snow in January (NPS.gov, Sep. 2021). There’s no doubt that Capitol Reef is one of the harshest environments in the country. This high altitude was a product of the Laramide Orogeny, as previously mentioned, showing exactly how geological events that took place tens-of-millions-of-years ago affect climates & environments to this day.

Works Cited

Bourque, D. (2004, June 12). National Park Birthdays. I Love National Parks. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://ilovenationalparks.org/national-park-birthdays/. 

Haymond, J. (1994). Capitol Reef National Park. Utah History Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/c/CAPITOL_REEF_NATIONAL_PARK.shtml. 

U.S. Department of the Interior. (2020, December 27). Park founders. National Parks Service. Retrieved November 21, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/historyculture/park-founders.htm. 

U.S. Department of the Interior. (2021, January 23). Geology of Capitol Reef. National Parks Service. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/nature/geology.htm. 

U.S. Department of the Interior. (2021, July 20). Night sky. National Parks Service. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/care/learn/nature/night-sky.htm. 

U.S. Department of the Interior. (2021, September 5). Weather. National Parks Service. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/weather.htm. 

Capitol Reef National Park Entrance Sign (Photo Credit: James Hennings, 2021)

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