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The Waterpocket Fold

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Studying the fold's geology and relationship to remote places in Glen Canyon NRA and Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument lends perspective to past adventures and ideas for new explorations.

The Waterpocket fold is an enormous and dramatic product of geology that constitutes the southern extension. of Capitol Reef National Park. It is a north-south trending line of cliffs—so long and abrupt that it is visible from space. The cliffs were a formidable barrier to early westward travel—like a reef would be to a mariner. .

The fold is just that—a fold in the earth's crust. Imagine pushing on a piece of paper that is lying on a table. One side of the paper is fixed, you push the flat paper from the other side. The paper buckles upwards, That's the fold.

But the "paper" of the earth's crust is comprised of many layers of rock arranged by age—the oldest on the bottom—so many of those layers buckle upwards together. As the folding is happening, the highest layers of rock are being eroded fastest and are eventually removed.

Photo of the southern portion of the Waterpocket Fold looking southwest and showing the eastern edge of the truncated fold. Rock layers can be seen tilting steeply upwards. The Red Slide can be seen in the left side of the photo and could lead to Stevens Canyon or even the Purple Hills—which lie a bit beyond the peak above the word "Moenkopi" in the photo). Curiously, the oldest layers of rock (Wingate/Chinle/Moenkopi) are much higher in elevation than the younger rock layers (Entrada/Carmer/Navajo). Why are the younger rock layers no longer above the old Moenkopi at the highest elevation? All those layers have been eroded.

The southern part of the fold (below the Burr Trail) is remote and accessible only by horse or on foot, although the road to Hall's Crossing comes close to its eastern edge.

I was first interested in this section of Waterpocket Fold because I enjoyed wilderness hiking and because I wanted to see and photograph Halls Creek Narrows. My first attempt to see the narrows was on a hot summer day.

A few miles into my long hike, I encountered a group of about 20 adolescent children—boys and girls—who were being shepherded by 2-3 adults. They were dressed in shorts, most wore bandanas, all were laden with backpacks. They had the spring of youth in their step and were moving much faster than I was.

I met up with one of the adult guides. Looking around at the stark emptiness of our shared wilderness, I asked where they were coming from. He surprised my by saying they started their trek at 25 Mile Canyon! That's a very long way from where we were and there were many obstacles between here and there. I could barely believe it.

He surprised me further by saying they were spending the entire summer out here and were here only for a re-supply of food, water and clothing. They would then continue their hike towards the town of Boulder—probably 50 miles away. He smiled at me and hustled after his hardy flock, which was by now a couple hundred yards ahead.

Google Earth image. The Waterpocket Fold is the white linear feature dropping diagonally from the upper center margin. The thin red line across the lower center (a bit hard to see) marks the route followed by the children. The yellow line marks areas mentioned in previous blogs. The Red Slide (a massive old land slump-seen in the next image) is the way up and down the Waterpocket Fold in this region. The town of Boulder is in the upper left.

When I was at the Purple Hills (see previous blog) I was trying to get close to the Waterpocket Fold and I imagined it would not be a long hike to the Red Slide from there. But like many places in this part of the country, it was farther and more difficult to get to than I imagined.

This study of the fold, Google Earth, and the photo of the geology helps orient me. Maybe the next time I am in the Purple Hills I will make another attempt at reaching the Red Slide—just to see what it is like. I mean. really, if a 12 year old can do it ...

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