Capitol Reef History

Capitol Reef National Park is largely defined by the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long classic monocline uplifted 7,000 feet on the west side.

The rugged Waterpocket Fold prevented a barrier to widespread exploration until the mid-1800s but was home to a Native American population dating back to around 700 A.D. As hunter/gatherers and farmers, the Fremont People occupied the flood plains and fertile land around the region’s perennial lakes and streams. This adaptive Puebloid group gradually disappeared from the Capitol Reef region around 1300 as their ties to the land loosened, likely due to environmental changes. Traces of the Fremont People’s presence can be seen in preserved petroglyphs and pictographs on rocks and canyon walls in Capitol Reef National Park and the surrounding area. There was little human activity in the area for the next few centuries, until the Ute and Paiute tribes occupied the region during the 1600s. They stayed until pioneers and explorers arrived in the untamed wilderness in the early 1800s.

A few expeditions passed through the general area but Capitol Reef remained an unchartered territory until the 1872 Powell expeditions. Shortly before that, the LDS Church sent militia in pursuit of renegade Native Americans. By the 1880s communities like Loa, Fremont, Lyman, Bicknell, and Torrey, followed by Fruit and Caineville, had been established along the fertile Fremont River. By 1920, few families remained, and although towns like Fruita thrived for the most part the area remained isolated.

Local Ephram Portman Pectol grew to love the natural beauty of the region and worked fervently to protect it. During the 1920s the “Wayne Wonderland Club” was formed by Joseph S. Hickman, Pectol’s brother-in-law, in an effort to protect the area and draw visitors to Capitol Reef. Shortly after Hickman was elected to the Utah state government, he worked tirelessly to have the region preserved as a state park and in 1926, 16 acres of Fruita were awarded state park status.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded Wayne Wonderland’s boundaries. Although it was reclassified as a national monument the Great Depression limited federal funding so there were no park rangers. Access to this extremely remote region opened up when Highway 24 through the Fremont River Canyon was constructed in 1962. Finally, a new federal program called Mission 66 allocated federal funds for new park facilities to accommodate growing tourism. Capitol Reef received a new campground and a visitor center, and the National Park Service purchased additional land for a total of 254,251 acres by 1970. Capitol Reef finally achieved national park status in 1971 through a Congressional bill, signed by President Nixon.

Capitol Reef National Park is named in part for the white domes which resemble the U.S. Capitol building, and for its nearly impassable “barrier reef” likeness faced by early explorers. Today the park encompasses 378 square miles of monoliths, cliffs, and canyons, and includes 75 miles of the Waterpocket Fold.

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