My assignment to create a Capitol Reef anthology focused on this one little-known national park. I knew I would want to capture the spirit of the place and its surrounding landscape through personal narratives, philosophical riffs, and historic and scientific records. I’d want pieces that are a pleasure to read and authors who tell us better than anyone else about some aspect of Capitol Reef. But how should I define Capitol Reef?
I chose geography rather than the right-angled zigzags of survey lines that delineate the park on a map.
To build your mental map of Capitol Reef country, begin with the view eastward from Boulder Mountain, as did so many 19th century explorers perched at that same 11,000-foot-high rim — a vertical mile above Fruita. Below, the sandstone domes and reefs of the Waterpocket Fold run in the middle distance to left and right, and they keep running, clear out of sight.
Off to the right, the Fold runs behind the Circle Cliffs and the canyons of the Escalante River — both protected by the enormous Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument proclaimed in 1996. At the far left, barrier cliffs yield to open badlands and free-standing stone temples in the isolated north end of the park in Cathedral Valley (read: Serenity Found in Torrey and Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley District).
Breaking the horizon beyond the Waterpocket Fold rise the five island summits of the Henry Mountains, dominating the view from every high point in Capitol Reef.
Descend from Boulder Mountain along Highway 12. The big views continue northward to Torrey, gateway community for Capitol Reef National Park. You’ve arrived in Wayne County and its string of villages along the Fremont River. You’ve landed in the heart of the region’s history and culture, reaching all the way back to prehistory.
Humans have lived in Capitol Reef for at least 12,000 years. We don’t think much about the first 11,800 of those years when we talk about “pioneers.” But the park’s first residents left their mark through these more than a hundred centuries — most easily seen in the petroglyphs and pictographs sheltered by cliffs along the Fold.
In the 1870s, at the same time that John Wesley Powell and his company of geologists and topographers began to define and explore the Colorado Plateau, Mormon pioneers came to Wayne County. They noted the glowing domes of Navajo Sandstone that rose with the commanding presence of the U.S. Capitol, and Capitol Reef had its name.
As visitation even here in Utah’s “forgotten park” passes a million people a year, how do we make sure all these visitors know to avoid stepping on fragile biological soil crust? How do we make sure they understand enough about the legacy of Native peoples to caress chippings and arrowheads with reverence and then return these precious bits of stone to the sand? To observe the ancient stories carved on rock but never touch? How do we make sure every visitor knows that adding graffiti to the petroglyph panels constitutes an act of vandalism?
I pondered the ironies of 21st century Capitol Reef on a recent journey with my family to the rim of Hall Mesa in the park’s backcountry.
We drove our Subaru south from Highway 24 onto Notom Road. Pavement gave way to dirt. We wound our way through fields of late-summer sunflowers near Bitter Creek Divide, passed the Burr Trail and The Post, and took four more turns onto ever rougher roads.
We were sixty miles from the Capitol Reef Visitor Center. We had seen no other vehicles. We parked when the road got too rough and walked for a half-hour to the rim above Halls Creek Narrows, where a peregrine falcon took off from an aerie on a thousand-foot cliff and sailed off into space, screaming at us in cautionary warning.
What place could be wilder? What place could be more remote?
We settled on a rocky perch for lunch — and discovered that in this place where so few venture, we had cell phone service. On a whim, we called family in San Diego. “Guess where we are?”
Our next question could have been: in 21st century Capitol Reef, what defines “remote?” Where, truly, are we? What decisions shall we make to plan effectively for a future Capitol Reef linked to issues far beyond the park — the looming climate catastrophe, deteriorating regional air quality that degrades world-class dark-night skies, conflicts over how much land to protect from development and unmanaged tourism, and a sensible accommodation to Utah’s population growth, fastest in the nation?