Thursday, June 27, 2013

Capitol Reef: Waterpocket Fold Tour and Hike

Distance Road Tour: 125 miles (just the loop), 6 miles out and back (overlook parking lot)
Distance Hike: 0.5 miles round trip

The Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park will make you want to become a Geology Major.  It is that cool!
Looking south along the Waterpocket Fold from the Strike Valley Overlook
There are three scenic drives in Capitol Reef National Park. One is a short meander in the main tourist area of the park and the other two are back country drives (Cathedral Valley and the Waterpocket Fold) over potentially rough terrain. Since the park itself exists because of the latter, we brought along the 4x4 truck, loaded it with the recommended emergency gear, and headed out on a geological journey par excellence.

This driving tour travels straight down the fold where towering sandstone cliffs dominate the western horizon, up a nail-biting series of switchbacks, down a true 4x4 side trip to the Strike Valley Overlook (an unofficial detour), and a serene drive through Juniper plateaus; stunning canyons; and Aspen covered mountains.  It is an all day adventure that will have you amazed at the diversity of terrain in Utah.

Route of the drive.  The Strike Valley Overlook is in the red box and the purple "Aspens Galore" mark the upper mountains.
First the obligatory geology lesson. Pretend you are a kid again making a layer cake with your grandma-ma. Not content with a few layers, you pile on layers of cake and icing and cake and icing making sure that each layer is a different color.  In some layers you add small nuts or M&Ms so they really stand out. That is essentially what happened in what is now western North America over millions of years. As the continents drifted across the globe, the environment changed and layers of "dirt" (sediment) were laid down one on top of each other. Some layers came from marshy mud-filled lagoons (grey) and others from giant Sahara-like deserts (white).  Still with me?  Believe me, if you visit this area you will want to quite your job and get a Phd in Geology.  It is that cool!

So now you have this monster-sized layer cake.  Imagine that after you bake it all those layers get stuck together and the whole thing becomes like a slinky able to bend and twist. When a slinky goes down stairs it forms a monocline, a fancy geological word for a slinky going down a stair.  Seriously, it means a bunch of layers that form a linear stair step, where one end is higher than the other (see technical diagram). This is what would happen if a rambunctious Labrador came crashing into your layer cake and crunched one side of it. In the case of Capitol Reef the Labrador was a really big tectonic plate that scrunching everything in its path.  Kaboom! Note that in geological time that is really more like KKKKKKKKKKK aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa bbbbbbbbbbbbbb oooooooooo ooooooooooo mmmmmmmmmm over millions of years but it is still pretty dramatic.

Diagram of a Monocline, and vertical drop in sedimentary layers.  In Capitol Reef, the left side of the diagram would the the 11,000 ft mountains, while the slope is the Waterpocket Fold.
Back to the kitchen.  At this point all you see is the upper most layer of the cake (the chocolate icing) in a stairstep on the floor were Rex scrunched it. Not terribly interesting. While Grandma-ma was not looking, however,  you decided to take a garden hose to the cake to see what would happen. You pour water on the upper part of the cake and watch it cascade downwards. Wonder of wonders, over time, the water starts to peel away the various layers underneath, so you can see those M&Ms and the other colored layers. That is what the Waterpocket Fold is all about. Rain in the 11,000ft mountains (where the Aspens are on the map) poured down the Fold and eventually eroded the top layers so that all the interesting stuff was exposed. The driving tour takes you parallel to the scrunch, up the far side (all the way to the mountains) and back down again. If you area scenery buff, there is definitely a wow factor in all of this.

A typical early segment with a nice, smooth dirt road and different layers on either side. That is the Chinle Formation on the left.
We took the drive counterclockwise (see map) and headed out on a pleasant dirt road that traverses ranch land before diving down into the Strike Valley (e.g. the scrunch where things go vertical). In this area the layers now lay left to right across the road so that on the left might be the M&M layer (actually the Chinle formation with its various shades of green and gray), while to the right is  is bright yellow layer, and finally the Navajo Sandstone layer, which forms THE WALL of the scrunch. All of this may sound terribly boring, but it is really mind-blowing. The colors, the immensity of THE WALL, and the shear other worldliness of it all will have you running around like a kid spouting scientific terms like "formation", "hoodoo", "hogback" etc.

On the right hand side of the road were these yellow layers
The next part of the route is up the infamous Burr Trail Switchbacks. While the dirt road that ascends THE WALL is wide, there is no guard rail and each turn is an exercise in Lamaze breathing. Going up is apparently less nerve wracking that going down. We talked to some folks in a jeep who did both and almost converted to Catholicism they were praying to the Virgin Mary so hard as their tires slide on the loose gravel. I had been nervous about this segment but going up was less scary than anticipated and over in a few minutes. At the top of the switchbacks is an overlook. Stop there to catch your breath if nothing else.

Looking north along THE WALL
Looking straight across to the wall, which is several thousand feet high.
Around two miles beyond the overlook is a turnoff to the Strike Valley Overlook. To get there, you can hike three miles up a desert wash or drive it in your 4x4. While no other part of this trip really required high clearance, this segment did. The wash was sandy, rocky, and narrow. Driving down it, I was glad we had packed our camping gear in case we had to stay there a few months until rescue. Alas at the end of the road was a large parking lot filled with other 4x4s, coolers with beer, and lots of folks who could have saved us. Most of the folks were heading up canyon. We were the only ones who took the short 0.25 mile jaunt to the Overlook. Never in my life have I worked so little for a view so grand. Looking down into the Waterpocket Fold may just be the most stunning view I have ever seen. Who knew the desert could be so awe-inspiring.

A shot of the switchbacks through the front window
After our trip to the overlook, we continued on the drive, which traversed a high,  Utah Juniper covered plateau before plunging into the Grand Staircase Escalante and another stunning red rock (e.g. Wingate Sandstone) canyon. In the town of Boulder we stopped for a bio break and coffee before turning north.

Looking north at the Waterpocket Fold from the Strike Valley Overlook
The segment of the drive between Boulder and Torrey was a complete surprise. On the map you don't realize how high you are climbing and we drove through the largest Aspen grove I have ever seen.  There were no leaves on the Aspens in May but I kept picturing it in the fall. It would be intoxicating.

A welcome surprise during the drive was this canyon traverse. 
So, you can probably tell by now that I was impressed by this experience.  A few logistical notes.  You can take the route in either direction but going up the switchbacks and not down them is better.  The entire route, with the exception of our side trip to the overlook, would have been passable with a passenger car but conditions change daily, so call the Visitor's Center first to find out. The Park makes it sound like you are heading into outer Mongolia (hence the emergency gear) but we saw plenty of folks on the route.  Still, better safe than sorry. 


KT said...

Oh, I loved your post! We only had about a day and a half at the park without 4-wheel drive and stayed on the trails near the visitor center area. We did then drive Route 12 through till 89 and thought it was one of the most beautiful highways we have ever been on! I would have loved to have done the loop that you did.

Anonymous said...

I thought counter-clockwise was the other way. Looks like clockwise to me.