Sunday, May 7, 2017

Scenic Route 12 and Capitol Reef National Park (or: Canyons and Petroglyphs and Dirt Roads, Oh My)

Route 12 is a byway—often ranked as one of the most scenic in America—that connects Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. It’s given the evocative nickname of “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway,” because much of the geological history of the Earth is visible along the route’s many waypoints and overlooks.

At one stop along the route, a sign indicated a small mountain in front of us and stated that scientists had unearthed a treasure trove of fossils in that rock, including some previously unknown species.

Part of the fossiliferous Kaiparowitz Formation in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

I love geology... "These sedimentary rock layers lie at the top of what is perhaps the best and most continuous record of Late Cretaceous terrestrial life in the world. ... Fossilized bones, eggshells, and other paleontological gems, buried in these gray rock formations some 73-77 million years ago."

Beyond its interest to geologists, the byway offers many opportunities for hikes and recreational stops at slot canyons, ancient Native American sites, and hidden desert waterfalls. Some of the more significant stops along the way: Kodachrome Basin, Calf Creek, Petrified Forest State Park, and many different slot canyons. There are also plenty of backways, many of them unpaved, that branch off the main road and take you to even more remote areas. You could probably spend weeks exploring the 120ish miles of the route and still find plenty of cool things to do.

A verdant farm in an otherwise stark and arid landscape

Unfortunately… We were on a tight schedule, so we had to content ourselves with the view from the road.

After a few hours of driving, we arrived in Torrey, right outside of Capitol Reef.

Torrey, like many of the park towns in Southern Utah, is small and remote. It's also a town that prides itself on its "Dark Sky" designation, so the street and building lights are designed to minimize light pollution.

So, of course, we went out into the frighteningly quiet streets of Torrey late that night to try some star photography. The results of our efforts? This amazing picture:

No, wait... That's the wrong picture. Let's try that again.

Yes, that's right.

Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef is the least iconic and least visited of Utah’s parks—and it’s one that I’ve been kind of obsessed with for a few years. It's also the closest, by a narrow margin, to the Salt Lake area. (Ok, technically Great Basin in Nevada is closest - but who goes there?)

The park gets its name from the long, narrow ridges that run the 60-mile length of the park. The early settlers referred to these as “reefs”—as in ocean reefs—because like their marine counterparts, they were a barrier to travel.

The cliffs are all a part of the main feature of the park, Waterpocket Fold—a long, “monoclinal fold” that runs north-south for over 100 miles. And I would explain to you what exactly a monoclinal fold is, but I don’t really understand the Wikipedia article about it either. Suffice it to say, that there’s a long, narrow ridge with one steep side (and one gently sloping side) that runs mostly straight down the length of the park.

A hazy view of Waterpocket Fold from atop Boulder Mountain, near the end of Route 12.
Anyways… The park only has one main road, and that road is surprisingly short. However, there are several unpaved offshoots branching off the main road, and we ended up driving down two of these (even though I was a bit worried about the effects of the bumpy, rocky roads on my rental car.)

The first detour took us down an increasingly narrow canyon where they used to mine uranium.

Don't enter one of the uranium mines... You might die. 
The walls got steeper and narrower, until… Well, until we reached the end of the road. There was the start of a hiking trail, but after getting out and taking a few pictures—and feeling the hot sun—we decided to head back to the main road.

Some extremely dry ground still bearing the pockmarks of the latest rainfall

Next, we drove to the very end of the paved section and kept going down another bumpy, undeveloped road into another canyon. The golden walls towered above us, once again growing narrower and narrower as we proceeded.

This time, we decided to take the hike at the end of the road. The sun really is quite hot here (we’re at a significantly lower elevation than Bryce or Cedar Breaks), but the ground is mostly flat and even (it’s probably a riverbed during certain times of the year) and the canyon walls provide some shade.

The trail goes on for miles, but we decide to only hike the first mile or two. At one point, we pass the “Pioneer Registry”—an area on the canyon walls where dozens of early settlers in the area carved or painted their names.

After 50 years or so, graffiti becomes history.

It was cool to see the names (and handwriting) of the people who had been here 100+ years before—long before there were nice smooth roads and fast, air-conditioned cars to take you to the nearest city in only a few hours. Even today, the Capitol Reef area feels quite remote and isolated. I can’t imagine how much more pronounced that feeling must have been when civilization was several days away by horse.

After admiring the old-time graffiti, we tried to hike to some “potholes”—which required leaving the level floor of the canyon and scrambling up a rocky slope. Unfortunately, the path was poorly marked and after thirty minutes or so of exertion we gave up and headed back to the canyon floor.

Back in our car, we made a quick stop in Fruita. The 19th century settlement has long since been abandoned, but the orchards planted by the early settlers are still bearing fruit—which you can pick off the trees or eat baked into a pie. (We did neither, sadly.)

On our way out, we made one more stop—this time for some petroglyphs on a cliff right beside the road. Sadly, one of the panels had recently collapsed and become a pile of rubble at the base of the cliff—but even so, what was left was impressive. Some binoculars were helpfully mounted at the viewing point to allow a closer look at the art.

It's kind of hard to capture the art with my camera, but you can see some in all of these pictures, if you squint hard enough.

As you can see, it's not just a single panel. You can follow a trail along the road and see quite a bit of art along the cliff face (some of it hard to spot even with binoculars.)

We were also able to catch the tail-end of a lecture by a park ranger. In short, they don’t really know all that much about the people who lived here, nor do they know what the art means. It could have been a form of communication—or it could have simply been a bored artist making doodles.

Whatever the meaning, it’s kind of moving to see the traces of those who lived here so long ago. It was a harsh place to live, and apparently the inhabitants disappear from the historical record completely several hundred years before Europeans arrived in the area. (Probably from famine—though also possibly just because they decided to move on to more hospitable environs.)

We spent a few minutes taking in the images, and then headed back to our car and on to the last main stop on our journey.

1 comment:

  1. Love your sense of humor Tim. Of course, i had to say the line canyons, petroglyphs, and dirt roads to the Wizard of Oz tune. So glad you finally made it to Capitol Reef, etc. I look forward to visiting it some day. Amazing geologic formations there according to the pictures. Those were quite the petroglyphs from what i could see in the pictures. No stick figure art there. Another great blog post