The Scenic Drive starts at the park Visitor Center and provides access to Grand Wash, Capitol Gorge, Pleasant Creek, and the South Draw Road. You must return on the same road.Vehicle traffic can be heavy from April through October. The road is narrow and without shoulders.. Consider doing this as a morning or evening ride when traffic is reduced or during the off season. The road has some moderately steep grades. The park entrance station is located just south of the campground on the Scenic Drive. The entrance fee is $4.00 per vehicle and is good for 7 days in Capitol Reef. Be sure to pick up a free copy of A Guide to the Scenic Drive at the entrance station. It describes the geology and features of each of 11 stops along the way. Here is a summary.
In the hill to the left, thin beds of reddish-brown rock known as shale were formed from silt and clay that came to rest in the quiet waters of lagoons, mud flats, and coastal flood plains. This 225 million-year-old rock is the Moenkopi Formation. Geologist believe that the Moenkopi, more than 950 feet thick in places, was laid down in a moist, tropical climate. The gray band of rock just above the Moenkopi is a greenish-gray shale that was once volcanic ash. Its one part of the Chinle, a complex, 700-foot thick formation that is rich in petrified wood. The Chinle ascends to the base of the reddish wall.
Western Face of Capitol Reef
From here you can see the rugged western face of Capitol Reef. The rocks of Capitol Reef were once sediments -- silt, sand, clay, volcanic ash and gravel -- laid down in many different environments during the Jurassic Age, and long before. The younger rocks lie on top of the older rocks. When the Colorado Plateau was born, enormous pressures deep within the earth buckled the already ancient rock beds here into a 100-mile-long (but relatively narrow) "fold". Geologists called this the Waterpocket Fold because of numerous small potholes or "pockets" found in the area that can hold rainwater. Notice here the maze of shapes carved out of the tilted rock layers. The Waterpocket Fold has been under heavy attack by erosion since its creation. Capitol Reef is one of its remnants.
Grand Wash Spur Road
The twisting Grand Wash spur road takes you into a world dramatically different from the dark red hills along the base of Capitol Reef. Avoid this road when a storm is threatening. Grand Wash is a narrow, steep-walled canyon subject to dangerous flash floods that often arrive with little warning. Beyond a one-mile drive, foot trails lead into the narrowest, most spectacular part of the canyon and up to a graceful curve of stone arch on the canyon's north wall -- Cassidy Arch. The arch was named for turn-of-the-century outlaw Butch Cassidy, who is thought to have hidden occasionally in Grand Wash.
Shinob Canyon View
Look closely at the massive, sheer cliffs. Do you see sweeping lines that intercept one another at varying angles in the rock? This is crossbedding. Where crossbedding occurs on a large scale like this, it means that here once drifted the windswept dunes of an ancient desert Sediment becomes rock when it is buried and compacted by huge overlying loads of other sediment. Individual sand or clay particles are cemented together by minerals in seeping ground water. A few small, weather sculpted arches can be seen in Shinob Canyon, which cuts in the south wall of Grand Wash to your right. Cassidy Arch is nestled high in the cliffs to your left.
There are more plants in Grand Wash than on the red hills at the start of the Scenic Drive. Although relatively naked stone -- slickrock -- dominates the landscape here, plants also are plainly visible. Although the channel beyond the bank to your right carries no water most of the time, it does occassionally. Many plants thrive nearby. In effect, plant life survival means a compromise between a demand for water and a need for protection from floods.
Here, fairly uniform layers of sandstone can be seen among the red shale beds, often forming small ledges. As you saw in Grand Wash, the towering walls of Wingate Sandstone were deposited originally as dunes in a vast desert. If you take a close look at the thinner beds of sandstone here in the Moenkopi, you will see signs that this sand was deposited by water.The sweeping lines of crossbedding that form in dune sands are missing here. This sandstone was laid down not be desert winds, but by the gently moving, shallow waters of coastal tidal flats.
This divide separates two large drainages. Between stop number two and this hill, streambeds channel rain runoff and debris to the flash floods that thunder down Grand Wash. Gravity draws lossened debris to washes where it can be picked up by moving water. In desert thunderstorms, this slow process of gravitational "creep" is accelerated by deluges that wash down every slope and flush loose debris into channels that soon fill with a tumbling, red torrent.
This formation is found only here and there at Capitol Reef, which hints at the way it was deposited. Apparently, the Shinarump sediments were laid down in the channels of rivers that meandered across a coastal plain 200 million years ago. Shinarump is composed of sands and gravels like those in many shallow river beds today. This sandstone is often rich in uranium. The old mine tunnels you saw at stop number three were dug into Shinarump.
The final two stops lie along the Capitol Gorge spur road, longer and more winding than Grand Wash. Although a through road from 1884 to 1962, the drive now ends about two miles from here. The awesome narrows you will now enter is worn through Wingate Sandstone, the same formation that forms the sheer cliffs along the west face of Captiol Reef and the towering walls of Grand Wash. For some, Capitol Gorge is erosion's most dramatic handiwork at Capitol Reef National Park.
Soaring to your front left is an eroded layer of sandstone that, like the Wingate, was once desert sand. This sandstone is the Navajo Formation, over 1,400 feet thick in places. Its white, rounded domes inspired a name for Capitol Reef. The Wingate lies on the soft beds of the Chinle Formation. Because this softer rock erodes more rapidly and undercuts the Wingate, the massive sandstone often breaks away to form sheer cliffs. By contast, the Navajo rests on the reddish rock layer that forms the base of the canyon walls on both side of you. This water-deposited sandstone -- the Kayenta Formation -- provides a firm foundation. The Navajo is undercut less often than the Wingate and erodes away in smoother contours.
Capitol Gorge Petroglyphs
Dune lines in Navajo Sandstone walls whisper of the ancient landscapes and sediments that became rock. Rounded domes and deep canyons proclaim eloquently the power of erosion. And the rapid changing of rock layers along the fairly level Capitol Gorge spur road testifies to the tilting and bending of the Waterpocket Fold. A short stroll down the canyon takes you by the vandalized remains of some ancient rock art or petroglyphs. American Indian farmers of the Fremont Culture cultivated their crops along the streams of Capitol Reef until about 1300 A.D. Their most puzzling legacy may be rock art. Early travelers recorded their passage on the canyon walls at the Pioneer Register.