Geological Wonderland: Capitol Reef and Highway 12

Mystic of Holyhead (successor to Lynn Rival)
Rachel and Paul Chandler
Thu 24 Oct 2019 21:25
The weather had been pleasantly sunny and warm during our week in Blanding but by the time we reached Salt Lake City it was wet and cooler.  We met Lynda at the airport on Sunday afternoon and drove south to Torrey, the gateway town for Capitol Reef National Park, a three hour drive (a long day for Lynda after a 14 hour flight!).  It was a cold night but after a good sleep we were all ready for a serious geology lesson.

Capitol Reef is the "waterpocket fold", a geological phenomenon that was formed about 60 million years ago.  The layers of sedimentary rock, which range from 80 to 270 million years old, were pushed up to make a step, running almost 100 miles north-south.  Over time erosion has exposed older layers.  The Visitor Centre, on the west side of the park, is set in the oldest rocks.  Driving east through the park on highway 24 you travel through almost 200 million years of geological history.

We arrived in time for an excellent talk about the geology by a Park Ranger.  Then we headed south along the "fold", through an area where Mormon settlers had established fruit-growing, as far as the Capitol Gorge.  Before Highway 24 was built in the 1960s, Capitol Gorge was the only way to get across the Waterpocket Fold and is very hazardous, being prone to flash floods.

Capitol Reef National Park

Sometimes it's easy to identify the geological layers - they are helpfully colour coded

To round off the day we drove east along Highway 24, trying to identify the different layers of rock from the leaflets provided.  For anyone interested there's a great explanation on

An autumnal drive along Highway 24

After another night at Torrey our next adventure was to drive along 'Scenic Byway' 12 to Bryce Canyon.  It was cold when we set out and we were warned at the Torrey Visitor Centre of possible holdups as herds of cattle were being brought down from the mountain for the winter.  In fact we saw few cattle as we drove up the winding mountain road, with wonderful, though hazy, views.  Once over the flank of Boulder Mountain the road makes it's way across the north of the Grand Staircase Escalante, a vast area of cliffs and canyons designated a National Monument in 1996.

A view eastward from Boulder Mountain

More autumnal colour, highlighting a tributary of the Escalante River

Three intrepid explorers on the hogback ridge

Between Boulder and the town of Escalante the scenery is spectacular as the road traverses a 'hogback' between two canyons.  Beyond Escalante the wonderful views continue with interesting features such as Powell Point, named in honour of the man who mapped this territory in 1872-76, and areas where dinosaur fossils have been found.

Cutting through the strata - Hwy 12 is also known as the Million Dollar Highway (in the 1930s a million was a lot!)

Overlooking Escalante canyons - might those be the Henry Mountains?

The top layer of the Grand Staircase Escalante, uncharted territory until 1872

More info to be absorbed