Friday, October 16, 2015

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park contains 241,904 acres in Utah's slickrock country, a hidden treasure filled with colorful cliffs, twisting canyons, soaring spires, massive domes and bridges, stark monoliths, and graceful arches extending almost 100 miles within a wrinkle or fold of the earth called a geologic monocline. "Waterpockets" are basins that form in sandstone layers as they are eroded by water and they are common throughout this folded monocline, thus giving it the name "Waterpocket Fold." Erosion of the tilted rock layers continues still today.  In 1937, Capitol Reef was established as a National Monument was elevated to national park status in 1971.

Early settlers noted that the white domes of Navajo Sandstone resemble the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Prospectors visiting the area (many with nautical backgrounds) referred to this 100-mile long ridge in the earth's crust as a reef, since it was a formidable barrier to transportation, and thus its name, Capitol Reef.

The earliest records of Paleo-Indians in Utah date back to 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe these people arrived during the Pleistoscene (last Ice Age) by the Berring Land Bridge and were the very first North Americans.

The area of Capitol Reef has been a homeland to people for thousands of years. From 7,000 to 500 B.C., Archaic hunters and gatherers migrated through the canyons hunting game that is still common now, namely bighorn sheep, deer, elk, and pronghorn. From 300 - 1300 A. D., the Fremont were hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet by growing corn, beans, and squash. They lived in pit houses dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof.  Petroglyphs etched in rock walls and painted pictographs remain as sacred remnants of the ancient Indians' saga that can still be found along Highway 24 and on the Capitol Gorge Trail, 700 to 1,000 years later. Below is a representation by the park service, and the photo below it is one I took of some of the artwork.

Mormons and other settlers arrived in the 1800s, settling in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District. They planted and nurtured orchards of apples, pears, and peaches. The orchards remain and are managed to preserve their historic character. In fact, they are still watered with an irrigation system essentially in its original condition. Visitors can pick and eat fruit in the orchards in season and purchase fruit and nuts to take home.

Iron causes the colors in Capitol Reef's rock layers. Oxidized iron results in red coloring and indicates a dry paleo-environment. Reduced iron, produced in swampy or boggy conditions, gives the rock a green tint. Both oxidized and reduced iron produce different chemical reactions that result in the different colors.

Capitol Reef is an excellent place to see many of the geologic strata that make up the Colorado Plateau. White Rim sandstone 275 million years old is at the base of the Fremont River Gorge. Dark red Moenkopi siltstone and mudstone have formed the beautiful Mummy Cliffs. Sheer Wingate sandstone cliffs soar over Utah Highway 24 and are capped by domes of Navajo sandstone. Entrada sandstone has formed spectacular fins in the Cathedral Valley.

Click to enlarge this national park informational sign.

A desert receives less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. Capitol Reef averages about 7 inches per year in combined rain and snow, but the park is classified as a step-shrub plant and animal community. With its wide variety of microhabitats, its cold desert ecosystem supports an extraordinarily diverse combination of plant and animal species because of its variety of habitats such as pinyon-juniper, perennial streams, dry washes, and rock cliffs.

Biological soil crusts are found throughout the world. In arid regions, these living soil crusts are dominated by cyanobacteria, and also include soil lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and bacteria. These crusts play an important role in the ecosystems in which they occur. In the high deserts of the Colorado Plateau (which includes parts of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico), these knobby black crusts are extraordinarily well-developed, and may represent 70 to 80 percent of the living ground cover.

Cyanobacteria, previously called blue-green algae, are one of the oldest known life forms. It is thought that these organisms were among the first land colonizers of the Earth's early land masses and played an integral role in the formation and stabilization of early soils. The earliest cyanobacteria fossils found are called stromatolites which date back more than 3.5 billion years. Extremely thick mats of these organisms converted the earth's original carbon dioxide rich atmosphere into one rich in oxygen and capable of sustaining life.

Unfortunately, many human activities are incompatible with the presence and well-being of biological soil crusts which are no match for footprints or machinery, especially when the crusts are dry and brittle. Air pollutants, both from urban areas and coal-fired power plants, also harm these crusts. Tracks produced by vehicles or bicycles are especially damaging, creating areas that are highly vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

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