Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

The Heart of Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Hickman Bridge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hickman Natural Bridge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

The least visited and most isolated of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef hosts what is perhaps the quintessential Utah landscape. It is as if someone took small portions of the other four parks and mashed them into one; here you can find a plethora of arches and natural bridges, deep snake-like canyons, soaring Navajo and Wingate Sandstone cliffs, and even a few hoodoos thrown in for good measure.

Looking east across the Waterpocket Fold toward the Henry Mountains

Looking east across the Waterpocket Fold toward the Henry Mountains, the last mountain range in the lower 48 to be mapped and named, and their high point: 11,522′ Mt. Ellen.

The skinny sixty mile long park was originally established as a national monument in 1937, but became a national park in 1971. The odd shape stems from the inherent nature of the feature it protects: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100+ mile-long kink in the Earth’s crust known as a monocline. Creeks and rivers have dissected the fold over millions of years to reveal what is quite possibly the most colorful and diverse array of rock layers in Utah.

Capitol Reef is far from just about everywhere (which made the flat tire we experienced on the way that much more annoying). To the east and south lie the last major mountain range and river, respectively, to be mapped and added to the map of the lower 48 states. Not until the 1960s did a paved highway cross the Waterpocket Fold through Capitol Reef. In the northern part of the park, the Fremont River slices a narrow canyon through the Waterpocket Fold, its water creating one of the few habitable areas in the entire region. Petrogylphs attest to the importance of this year-round water source to ancient inhabitants. In 1880, Mormon settlers established the settlement of Fruita along the banks of the Fremont. The remains of this historic farming community and the abundant, lush green orchards and fields seem out of place in the otherwise stark central Utah canyonlands but add to the allure of the park.

Early morning in the Fruita orchards and pastures

Early morning in the Fruita orchards and pastures

Bighorn sheep petrogylphs along the Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Bighorn sheep petrogylphs along the Fremont River, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Here are some of the sights from our quick trip to Capitol Reef this past weekend:

Patterns in colorful sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

On a hike through Capitol Gorge, we encountered a bed within the Navajo Sandstone with some unbelievably complex and colorful patterns:

For the most part, the landscape at Capitol Reef is quite open, allowing vast views and superb light at sunset:

Chimney rock at sunset, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Chimney Rock, a tower of soft Moenkopi Formation mudstone capped by harder sandstone belonging to the Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation

Sunlight on cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Late afternoon scene along the Chimney Rock Trail, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Sunlit cliffs at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

More sunset scenes

Crumbling cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hiking among crumbling cliffs of Wingate Sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Moon rising above cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

A nearly full moon made it hard to do much stargazing at Capitol Reef, which is world-renowned for dark night skies.

Not far from the park campground and visitor center are the remnants of an old trail leading up a sandy wash, then up a short but steep talus slope before arriving at a hidden basin containing hoodoos and other strange rock formations. Unfortunately it was just about noon and the light was about as direct and harsh as possible, but it was cool to explore an area off-the-beaten path yet still in sight of the tour buses below:

Climbing up a talus slope, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Ascending the talus…

Balanced rock hoodoo, Capitol Reef National Park

Gravity-defying hoodoos were the reward!

Hoodoos at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Hoodoos in the Chinle Formation at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

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5 responses

  1. Another amazing place and stunning photos, thank you!

    May 14, 2017 at 7:10 am

  2. Hard to get to, yes. It is far from Las Vegas and far from Salt Lake City, so this park does not get as many visitors. But, these pics are very impressive. Thanks for posting.

    May 14, 2017 at 11:52 am

  3. Very nice photography and commentary!!

    Excellent, EXCELLENT posting on Capital Reef. Your pictures capture the full flavor and most well-known features of this very unique national park.

    I especially like your comments written about each picture showing the rich variety of geologic formations found in such a small region.

    Personally, as you allude to in your comments, the massive Waterpocket Fold Monocline itself is the most incredible geologic feature of the park. It forms the 60-mile long spine that defines the park.

    Waterpocket Fold, however, is so massive that the best way to see it is from the air.

    However, there is one place accessible by vehicle where you can get enough elevation to be able to catch glimpses of the fold in all it’s glory from the ground. That is on the Burr Trail that crosses from the west out of the Grand-Staircase Escalante from Boulder, UT. That road climbs a summit on the western side of the Waterpocket before it drops down into Capitol Reef in the southernmost part of the park.

    At the edge of the Waterpocket there is a rugged road going north off Burr Trail about three miles. It’s full of great elevated views and a bunch of neat arches for those souls adventurous enough to go there.

    May 18, 2017 at 11:31 am

    • Strike Valley Overlook was originally on our list for this trip, but the flat tire forced us to change our plans. Hopefully next time!

      May 18, 2017 at 9:07 pm

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