Biophysical Description of Capitol Reef National Park

The following information is summarized from the Northern Colorado Plateau Network monitoring plan, published in 2004. Some details may have changed.

Park History and Purpose

Capitol Reef was first established as a national monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1937, by Presidential Proclamation 2246 (50 Stat. 1856). The Proclamation stated that the Monument’s purpose was to reserve in the public interest "narrow canyons displaying evidence of ancient sand dune deposits of unusual scientific value, and ...various other objects of geological and scientific interest." The monument originally comprised 14,998 hectares (37,060 acres).

Dwight D. Eisenhower enlarged the monument through Presidential Proclamation 3249 of July 2, 1958, 3 CFR 160, which added "certain adjoining lands needed for the protection of the features of geological and scientific interest," bringing the total acreage to 40,100.

On January 20, 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson signed Presidential Proclamation 3888, 3 CFR 387, which enlarged monument boundaries six-fold to encompass 103,259 hectares (255,156 acres). This expansion added “certain adjoining lands which encompass the outstanding geological feature known as Waterpocket Fold and other complementing geological features, which constitute objects of scientific interest, such as Cathedral Valley."

On December 18, 1971, Congress established Capitol Reef National Park, with its final boundaries encompassing 97,895 hectares (241,904 acres) (85 Stat. 639, 16 USC § 273 et seq.). This Act made provisions for land acquisition, management of grazing privileges, and trailing and watering regulations.


Capitol Reef National Park is located in south-central Utah, within portions of Emery, Garfield, Sevier, and Wayne Counties. It is a high-elevation, cold-desert park lying in the northern portion of the Colorado Plateau. It is 112 kilometers (70 miles) long and varies from 2 to 23 kilometers (1 to 14 miles) wide. It is 119 kilometers (74 miles) by road east of Richfield, Utah, and 290 kilometers (180 miles) southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado.


Elevation varies from 2,731 meters (8,960 feet) on Thousand Lake Mountain, in the northwest section, to 1,183 meters (3,880 feet) in Halls Creek, at the southern tip.


97,895 hectares (241,904 acres)

General Description

Capitol Reef National Park encompasses most of the 161 kilometer-long (100-mile) Waterpocket Fold, the largest exposed monocline in North America. The Waterpocket Fold formed 65–80 million years ago and consists of a geological uplift that stretches from Thousand Lake Mountain, in the north, to Lake Powell, in the south. The park is named for this formation and some of its features. “Capitol” comes from the white sandstone domes that tower over the Fremont River and resemble the U.S. Capitol rotunda. “Reef” comes from the seafaring term for obstacles to navigation. A second noted feature is Cathedral Valley, a flat valley punctuated with sheer sandstone spires and fins.

The park is situated on a slope that drops rapidly in elevation from west to east. Over a distance of 24 kilometers (15 miles), 11,000 foot-high mountains just west of the park drop to 1,219-meter (4,000 feet) valleys to the east. The Waterpocket Fold is deeply cut along its length with west-to-east flowing canyons, the largest of which contains the Fremont River. Between the canyons are undulating sandstone domes or tilted slickrock plates. Two north–south oriented valleys—in geologic terms, strike valleys—are present on the eastern side. They are less than one mile wide and are bounded by the Waterpocket Fold on the west and steep cliffs on the east. The dramatic scenery of Capitol Reef is the result of erosion of various rock layers during more recent geologic time.

Nearly 10,000 vertical feet of sedimentary rocks are exposed in and around Capitol Reef. Seventeen identified geologic formations were originally deposited about 270–65 million years ago, under conditions varying from dry sand dunes to marine swamps. More recent volcanic activity formed lava dikes and sills in the northern end. Debris flows from Boulder and Thousand Lake mountains deposited volcanic boulders on top of the sedimentary formations through the northern and middle sections.

The complex terrain and natural processes that predominate at Capitol Reef combine to provide diverse habitats for plants and animals. The parklands support a patchwork of terrain, life zones, and habitats, where even slightly different combinations of slope, aspect, exposure, elevation, moisture, mineral content, and other variables blend to create distinctive microclimates and narrow niches. As a result, many sensitive desert species that require specific conditions—and which cannot survive outside of those parameters— occupy niches at Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold is home to numerous threatened, endangered, and rare species, as well as endemic plant species. This is one of the greatest concentrations in the region of plant taxa of special concern. The high plant diversity reflects the great range of habitats present and the geographic location at the intersection of several biogeographic regions.


The park supports a diverse floristic assemblage, with over 900 vascular plant taxa documented. Dominant vegetation communities are typical of the Colorado Plateau Physiographic Province, with pinyon-juniper woodland, grassland, and upland shrub communities present. Thirty-four plant communities have been identified, with 11 being unique or first described here. Distribution of communities is controlled primarily by gradients in elevation and geologic substrate. Dry, hot areas at the lowest elevations support various upland shrub, grassland, and badlands communities. Sandstones at low elevations and a variety of substrates at middle elevations support several kinds of pinyon-juniper communities. Cool, moist sites at high elevations are covered by woodland communities dominated by conifers or aspen. Riparian areas at all elevations support woodlands and wetlands.

Past livestock grazing has altered the composition and structure of many grassland and riparian communities in Capitol Reef National Park. It may require many decades of grazing protection and possibly active intervention to restore these communities to their pre-settlement condition. Recovery of community structure probably will be more rapid in riparian areas than in grasslands, but restoration of original species composition may be slow in both areas. Twentieth-century establishment of exotic plants—for example, tamarix (Tamarix chinensis) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum)—has permanently changed the composition of many plant communities.


There are over 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish found in Capitol Reef National Park. Common mammals include mule deer, yellow-bellied marmots, bighorn sheep, and coyotes. Birds are most numerous in cottonwood and willow vegetation along streams and perennial water sources. Reptiles occur throughout the park. The most common lizards are the side-blotched and sagebrush lizards. The most common snakes are gopher snake and striped whipsnake. Amphibians are not common, being found only near streams, springs, and rock pools. Native and introduced fish species are found in Fremont River and Pleasant, Halls, Oak, and Sulphur creeks.

Aquatic Features

Capitol Reef National Park has six perennial streams and many tinajas, which give the Waterpocket Fold its name. Macroinvertebrates have been examined in a couple localities and several new species have been described. Water rights have not been adjudicated for this basin, but the park has numerous primary rights used to irrigate historic orchards and fields.

Unique Features and Species of Special Concern

Vegetation Communities

Four plant communities are of special concern because they are unique to the park, are vulnerable to disturbance, and/or are rare throughout their range. These include the (1) bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva)-cushion plant community, which is restricted in distribution, has old trees, and contains several rare, endemic plant species, (2) waterpocket community (Acer negundo, Populus fremontii, and Salix exigua), which is restricted in distribution and provides value to wildlife far greater than its limited occurrence, (3) hanging garden community, which is rare and fragmented in its distribution and contains several endemic plant species, and (4) hornbeam (Ostrya knowltonii)-boxelder (Acer negundo)-oak (Quercus gambelii) woodland, restricted to a few localities in the southern end.


Capitol Reef National Park contains populations of eight of the 20 federally listed plant species that occur in Utah. For several of the 24 plant species designated as sensitive by the National Park Service, there are fewer than 5,000 individual plants known, and these are found primarily in Capitol Reef. This large number is primarily due to the park’s diverse geology and topography and extensive endemism in its flora. Numerous geologic formations (each with its own range of soil moisture, soil chemistry, texture, and mineral composition) occur in narrow bands and at various elevation. This great variety of small habitats and unique growing conditions provides niches for a large number of plant species with limited ranges.


The park supports populations of four federally listed animal species and nine species considered sensitive by the National Park Service. The listed species are bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) , a winter resident; Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida), with up to 14 known nesting sites; southwest willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), status unknown; and Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens), extirpated from the park. Sensitive animal species include three birds, two mammals, one reptile, one amphibian, and two fish.

Resource Management Concerns

Livestock grazing

Editor's note: The following paragraph was updated in 2018 to reflect the current status of grazing at Capitol Reef National Park. A total of 410 Animal Unit Months (AUMs) of winter cattle grazing (i.e., November 1–April 1) are permitted on approximately 15,000 acres on the Sandy 3 grazing allotment in the southern portion of Capitol Reef National Park. Park resources (including flora, fauna and physical resources) are impacted by the direct and indirect effects of livestock grazing, including displacement of native plant species by invasive species; loss of soil stability; and loss of biological soil crust. Since the park was established in 1971, grazing has been reduced from 19 active allotments to one active allotment through reallocation of AUMs to areas outside the park and from purchases of grazing permits by willing sellers. Acquisition of AUMs on a willing-seller basis will continue as opportunities arise. In addition to cattle grazing, the park currently has eight cattle trails traditionally used by local ranchers to move cattle between their summer and winter allotments on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands, respectively. The park is legally obligated, under park legislation, to allow grazing and trailing of cattle on and across park lands.

Recreation Use

Visitor use increased rapidly during the 1980s and early 1990s, causing soil and vegetation damage in heavily used areas. (Editor's note: Since time of writing, park visitation further increased, from 549,708 in 2004 to 1,150,165 in 2017.) Off-trail hiking destroys cryptobiotic soils and tramples vegetation, which accelerates erosion. Unfortunately, many of these areas contained rare plant species, some of which could become listed if plants in those localities disappear because of these impacts. Inventories have been done in the heavily used areas around headquarters but additional work has not been done to evaluate other localities.

Land Use Impacts

Agricultural practices, both upstream and within the historic district, continue to modify stream flows and increase nutrient loads in the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek. Water-rights adjudication has not been completed for these streams; therefore, instream flows are not guaranteed.

Endemic Plant Species

The previously mentioned impacts are identified in recovery plans as threats to rare species. In recent years, collection of rare plant species has increased dramatically. Several populations of listed species on park and adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands have been decimated by commercial collecting operations, and unscrupulous collectors are offering park plants for sale on the Internet. Because the park has only three patrol rangers for such a large area, commercially valuable cultural and natural resources, including rare plants, are systematically looted each year, with little chance of perpetrators being caught. Using information from previous limited surveys, we are monitoring visitor and cattle impacts to several species.

Invasive Exotic Plant Species

One hundred-eight exotic plant species occur within the park. The majority are present in the Fruita orchards, but five main problem species occur throughout the park. Tamarisk (Tamarix chinensis) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) are the primary invasives in riparian habitats along streams and washes. The Fremont River is the most heavily infested area. Tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is very dense locally in the Fruita and Sleeping Rainbow ranch areas, and is being treated with moderate success. As a result of overgrazing, halogeton (Halogeton glomeratus) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) are the primary invaders in upland areas. Halogeton appears to be concentrated in the northern part of the park, while cheatgrass is densest in the southern.

Last updated: June 6, 2018