Straying from my normal writing habitat for the Landmarks series, I wish to take you to an amazing stretch of road outside of the Tooele Valley but still inside amazing Utah. Scenic Drive inside Capitol Reef National Park. At one end of this road are enormous, living trees that are truly unforgettable once seen. On the opposite end, just 12 miles or so away (and 60 million years) is a petrified log five feet in diameter jutting out of a bank of a wash. Equally unforgettable!
Capitol Reef exists because of a geological event that took place about 60 million years ago. As one edge of the tectonic plate rises, the anomaly named the Waterpocket Fold emerged. Literally sandstone formations that should be buried deep beneath the earth are forced up into view in all their glory. Much to our delight, I might add, but a barrier or ‘reef’ to early travelers – hence the name.
The two living trees come first, both in this blog and on your drive. Entering Capitol Reef National Park, these huge Cottonwood trees at first defy your knowledge of Cottonwood trees with their enormous size. Firmly anchoring their space on this planet at the western edge of an enclosed park within a park, these trees greet all visitors as they enter the Waterpocket Fold.
The Cottonwoods are nowhere near 60 million years old, more like 140 years. That is old for Cottonwoods, very old. They were present when the settlers first began to tame the land. The close proximity to huge amounts of groundwater is their ticket to exceptional growth and their survival. They are within yards of the conflux of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. They have become synonymous with the Fruita area as they continue to greet and amaze visitors.
Sixty million years down the road (and about 60,000 feet), the trunk of a petrified tree is visible in the side of a wash near the parking area for the Capitol Gorge road. This petrified trunk is a large remnant of the lush forests that covered this region millions of years ago. The formation that many of the petrified trees originally inhabited is the Chinlee Formation, identified by its grey appearance.
With only the end of the trunk visible, this petrified tree is easily mistaken for just another boulder exposed by the eroding waters. I found it quite by accident while inspecting flood control work in this part of the Park. Its size (over 5 feet in diameter) gives one pause to wonder how much more is buried beneath the hillside that the stump disappears into.
Petrified wood is very common within the Park but it is not legal to remove it. Plenty of areas outside the Park present limitless opportunities for gathering specimens but be sure to get a permit.
This large tree will continue to be eroded and washed away by floods, adding thousands of smaller pieces of petrified wood to the downstream banks and streambed. Our great-grandchildren may one day see a newly-exposed part of this same tree and also marvel at its size also.
Capitol Reef National Park is an amazing area to explore. There are many more wonders to see in addition to these trees separated by millions of years. Be sure to take the time to view the petro glyphs, trek to Cathedral Valley, hike to Hickman Natural Bridge and Chimney Rock for views that will last a lifetime. It is worth the trip. Branch out and enjoy.