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Capitol Reef encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the earth's crust that is 65 million years old. It is the largest exposed monocline in North America. In this fold, newer and older layers of earth folded over each other in an S-shape. This warp, probably caused by the same colliding continental plates that created the Rocky Mountains, has weathered and eroded over millennia to expose layers of rock and fossils. The park is filled with brilliantly colored sandstone cliffs, gleaming white domes, and contrasting layers of stone and earth.
The area was named for a line of white domes and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, each of which looks somewhat like the United States Capitol building, that run from the Fremont River to Pleasant Creek on the Waterpocket Fold.
The fold forms a north-to-south barrier that even today has barely been breached by roads. Early settlers referred to parallel, impassable ridges as "reefs", from which the park gets the second half of its name. The first paved road was constructed through the area in 1962. Today, State Route 24 cuts through the park traveling east and west between Canyonlands National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, but few other paved roads invade the rugged landscape.
The park is filled with canyons, cliffs, towers, domes, and arches. The Fremont River has cut canyons through parts of the Waterpocket Fold, but most of the park is arid desert country. A scenic drive shows park visitors some of the highlights, but it runs only a few miles from the main highway. Hundreds of miles of trails and unpaved roads lead the more adventurous into the equally scenic backcountry.
Native Americans and Mormons
Fremont culture Native Americans lived near the perennial Fremont River in the northern part of the Capitol Reef Waterpocket Fold around 1000 CE. They irrigated crops of lentils, maize, and squash and stored their grain in stone granaries (in part made from the numerous black basalt boulders that litter the area). In the 13th century, all of the Native American cultures in this area underwent sudden change, likely due to a long drought. The Fremont settlements and fields were abandoned.
Many years after the Fremont left, Paiutes moved into the area. These Numic speaking people named the Fremont granaries moki huts and thought they were the homes of a race of tiny people or moki.
In 1872 Alan H. Thompson, a surveyor attached to United States Army Major John Wesely Powell's expedition, crossed the Waterpocket Fold while exploring the area. Geologist Clarence Dutton later spent several summers studying the area's geology. None of these expeditions explored the Waterpocket Fold to any great extent, however. It was, as now, incredibly rugged and forbidding.
Following the American Civil War, officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City sought to establish "missions" in the remotest niches of the Intermountain West. In 1866, a quasi-military expedition of Mormons in pursuit of natives penetrated the high valleys to the west. In the 1870s, settlers moved into these valleys, eventually establishing Loa, Fremont, Lyman, Bicknell, and Torrey.
Mormons settled the Fremont River valley in the 1880s and established Junction (later renamed Fruita), Caineville and Aldridge. Fruita prospered, Caineville barely survived, and Aldridge died. In addition to farming, lime was extracted from local limestone and uranium was extracted early in the 20th century. In 1904 the first claim to a uranium mine in the area was staked. The resulting Oyler Mine in Grand Wash produced uranium ore.
By 1920 the work was hard but the life in Fruita was good. No more than ten families at one time were sustained by the fertile flood plain of the Fremont River and the land changed ownership over the years. The area remained isolated. The community was later abandoned and later still some buildings were restored by the National Park Service. Kilns once used to produce lime can still be seen in Sulphur Creek and near the campgrounds on Scenic Drive.
Early protection efforts
April 20th, 2012
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