Let’s Go Wildlife Watching CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK A Desert Landscape Preserve in Torrey, Utah

Photo by Cynthia Hacker

By Cynthia Hacker

America’s national parks are our greatest treasure, and one oft-overlooked but unusually beautiful gem lies in the Red Rock country of Southern Utah.  It is Capitol Reef National Park and it is not to be missed.

The Navajo called this beautiful parcel of colors “The Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.” I like to call it “Southwestern eye candy.” This 100-mile rainbow of towering rock is replete with canyons, cliffs, domes, and arches, plus waterfalls, streams, a river, and fruit orchards.  It is great for wildlife watching since it is home to over 100 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish; 239 species of birds; 900 species of plants (including some very rare, protected species) and 33 ecological systems.


Designated a national park in 1971, the park’s sculpted sandstone monoliths attract more than 784,000 visitors per year—maybe small compared to Bryce’s 1.5 million, but perhaps because it is not as well known. Must see attractions include the “Castle,”  “Hickman Bridge,” “Cassidy Arch,” and “The Temple of the Sun” and the “Temple of the Moon” in Cathedral Valley.  Just taking a scenic drive around Capitol Reef will dazzle the senses.

Dubbed “Capitol Reef” because its domes resembled the Capitol Building in Washington and its miles-long colorful ridge reminded prospectors of an ocean reef, the park is a time capsule of geologic history. Formed by a “waterpocket fold,” or “wrinkle” on the earth, the multiple layers of rock remain in time order, unlike other parts of the same Colorado Plateau, where time periods intermingle as mixed rock.  The strata were formed by deposition, burying layers upon layers of the changing climates dating back to hunter-gatherer days—including desert, swamps, rivers, and even ocean! Later, plate tectonic uplift caused great monuments of colorful rock to rise from the earth’s surface, exposing nearly 200 million years of history.

Each period of time is another hue, colored by the minerals inside. There are the brilliant reds of sandstone, colored by iron oxidation (sometimes called “nature’s paintbrush) ; the limonite yellows of Dakota and Navajo sandstone; the seafoam green of the chinle layer (representing a time of swamps and lakes); the bright white layer of the Moenkopi and Carmel Formation;  and finally the sprinkling of the grey basalt boulders, formed by a volcanic eruption in nearby Thousand Lakes Mountains.

Water is the major force that created this artist’s landscape: water erosion made the Swiss cheese-like holes that dot the landscape; water freezing and thawing pulled loose rocks down; water built the beautiful arches, domes and bridges that we enjoy today. And the landscape is forever moving and changing…centuries from now, it will not look the same.

Hiking here is a treat because of this diversity. The Freemont River and its waterfalls provide an oasis in the hot summer months. The orchards, originally began by Mormon pioneers in the 1880s, are well maintained and give visitors such delicacies as peaches, apricots, pears, and plums.  The trails are well established and very different from each other. The landscape will change dramatically from the popular Hickman Bridge hike to the areas known as the “Goosenecks.”

During my August visit, I was graced with the presence of the gorgeous Monarch butterfly. They seemed to be everywhere I looked, their distinct orange and black pattern complementing perfectly with the hues of the rock they perched on. I was also treated to a visit from a friendly little chipmunk. Tired from the summer heat himself, he stretched his little body out on the rock and had a little nap right next to my crew and I as we rested our tired legs on the hike to Hickman Bridge. Mule deer are aplenty here, along with big horn sheep and mountain lions who also reside here, though sightings are not as frequent due to their furtive nature. Desert lizards scamper about and marmots sometimes pop up among the rocks. In the summer months, wildflowers abound in this amazing wilderness.  No matter what month you visit, your camera will be busy snapping. And much like a river, you will never see the same view twice. It is always changing. It is always in motion.

Photo by Cynthia Hacker

Who knows what “The Sleeping Rainbow” will look like in 100 years, as the environment continues to shape and reshape itself?

Go see it now; it is not a place you will forget.


Cynthia Hacker lives in New Paltz, NY. She spends her free time exploring the many wild places that grace the area. She is a writer and lover of nature, and an environmentalist.


Editor’s Note:

The good news is that hunting is not allowed in the Capitol Reef National Park with its 241,904 acres, thus allowing the animals to live their lives in peace. Unfortunately, cattle-grazing is allowed. You will see cattle grazing along trailing routes. Wildlife Watch has found that some of these peaceful animals have starved to death for lack of the food they require.  Using public lands for cattle grazing has been extremely controversial. With climate change being the number one concern of Americans, hopefully this practice will change. For everyone’s sake, it had better.


For more about the controversy surrounding cattle grazing at the Capitol Reef National Park, please visit the following links: