After more than 35 years since hiking the entire length of the Waterpocket Fold, Ralph Becker reflects on his experiences in the backcountry and the intervening changes to the landscape. His is an eloquent plea to protect those sublime natural places that captivate, inspire, and rejuvenate.
By Ralph Becker
Time passes and reflections alter perspectives. Some memories have faded, while others seem to have sharpened during the thirty-five years since my trek through the Waterpocket Fold.
I was inspired by the landscapes of the West beginning in my years at the Grand Canyon as an employee of the National Park Service in the early 1970s. It captivated me and led me to move permanently to the region. When I settled in Salt Lake City to attend graduate school in environmental law and planning, I continued to immerse myself, by foot and by boat, in the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau.
The Waterpocket Fold—the 110-mile monocline that defines Capitol Reef National Park—grabbed my attention and furthered my interest in geology. These monoclines often are referred to as reefs because, like reefs at the edges of oceans, they are long barriers with few breaks. The scenery is jaw-dropping. I was fascinated that the youngest formations at the Grand Canyon, Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Limestone, were the oldest at Capitol Reef National Park.
As the least-visited national park in Utah, Capitol Reef had ample opportunities for exploration and solitude. Within its boundaries I continued to contemplate—and appreciate—the mission of the National Park Service: to provide for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. This geologic and scenic wonder became my new ‘stomping grounds’ and the inspiration for my master’s thesis topic: a case study on the impacts of a proposed coal-fired power plant adjacent to the northern part of Capitol Reef National Park, and ways to protect the Park.
When I recently uncovered the long-buried journals and maps from my Waterpocket Fold trek, after an inquiry from Jedediah Rogers, I reflected on that period in my life; how both I and the place have changed, my subsequent experiences in the region, and the future of this remarkable spot on earth. A note from my journal that especially strikes me today was that I had only scratched the surface of the Waterpocket Fold, and it would take many return visits to see all that Capitol Reef National Park truly has to offer. I’ve been back many times, but still have only continued to scratch the Waterpocket Fold’s vast and intriguing environs.
While it would be wonderful and, happily, still physically possible for me to repeat my 1980 trek, family life, work, and competing interests have stopped me from retracing those steps. I have, however, returned to hike some of the more accessible places that I visited on my 1980 hike, including Burro Wash and Coleman Canyons. I’ve enjoyed introducing family and friends to some of the areas I hiked those many years ago, always looking for new routes and experiences, while reveling in the memory of those first forays. And I have now explored by vehicle, bike, boat and foot more of the immediate region around Capitol Reef National Park—including the limitless treasures of Boulder Mountain, the Henry Mountains, Thousand Lakes Mountain, the territories of the Dirty Devil River, and host of stunning canyons of the Escalante.
Never have I grown tired of the environs of the Waterpocket Fold. I am awed by its brilliant days and starry nights; the ever-shifting perspectives of deep canyons and mountain tops; inspiring vistas, life forms, and subtle colors; it’s surprising diversity. And, over time, I’ve also increased my appreciation for the cultural world in and around Capitol Reef National Park: native peoples, early settlers, steadfast inhabitants, and many friends who have made the communities around Capitol Reef National Park their home.
The natural world works wonders on my psyche. It breathes life into a tired or muddled mind. It provides perspective and solace. It astonishes and comforts. Whether I am out enjoying Salt Lake’s backyard playground—the Wasatch Mountains and Great Basin, the chasm of the Grand Canyon, the wonderful ranges of the Rocky Mountains, or the canyons and mountains of the Colorado Plateau, I feel fortunate to live in a time and place that allows me the luxury of absorption in these landscapes.
As Ken Burns so eloquently reminds us in his recent PBS series on national parks, we are fortunate to even have national parks. I know I am not alone in the joy, the serenity, the education and sometimes even the melancholy that I experience whenever I visit a national park. For me, Capitol Reef National Park and the Waterpocket Fold embody that experience. Thankfully, the national park system’s 400 units have protected large swaths of our country’s natural and cultural diversity.
Still, places set aside for protection and enjoyment have not always been adequately protected. For example, I was distressed during a recent visit to the western edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to discover a four-wheel drive trail leading to Point Sublime is now a grated road open to regular vehicular traffic. As an employee there 40 years ago, we had painstakingly protected and identified that area for wilderness in Grand Canyon National Park. That designation never happened, and the wilderness qualities of the area are significantly diminished. Though no less magnificent, the area is lesser for the motorized intrusion.
Fortunately, in the 35 years since my trek through the Waterpocket Fold, little has changed in the backcountry of Capitol Reef National Park. The proposed coal-fired power plant adjacent to the park was never developed. No new roads have been constructed, and improvements have been focused around the heavily visited Fruita area, creating new opportunities for visitors without sacrificing opportunities for solitude and enjoyment in wilder areas.
Vehicular access in the areas surrounding Capitol Reef National Park has improved. While new roads and four-wheeling access (which did not exist in 1980) have decreased wild acreage in areas like Thousand Lake Mountain and Boulder Mountain, the management protections within the boundaries of the Park have preserved and protected landscapes and solitude, underscoring the enduring value and potential of the National Park mission.
My reluctance to publish my Waterpocket Fold experience 35 years ago stemmed from a fear that publicizing it would increase visitation and diminish opportunities for future intrepid walkers to enjoy the same solitude and untouched landscapes that I experienced. While scores of hiking guides, maps, and books have since been written about Capitol Reef National Park, I’m heartened that today someone could repeat a version of my trek and still experience the same solitude and serenity.
My hope is that in the years and decades to come, the magnificent Capitol Reef National Park will continue to be protected. Our growing population is continually searching for outdoor recreation opportunities. We need places for both mechanized access and for solitude. We need places where the natural world can exist with limited human impact. We need to provide and expand opportunities for children to discover and enjoy the outdoors so they can both realize personal enrichment and continue to find ways to protect this important heritage.
Everyone in our increasingly urban world should have an opportunity to experience the natural world and the national parks that were created for their enjoyment. Fortunately, the Waterpocket Fold continues to offer that opportunity today, as it did 35 years ago.