(NEXSTAR) — It’s nowhere near a capitol, and it certainly doesn’t look like the color reefs you’ll find in Hawaii or off the coast of Australia, so why is this Utah national park called Capitol Reef?
It’s not as complicated as you may think, but the answer is a two-part explanation.
If you’ve ever been to Capitol Reef, its name will start to make sense in a moment. If you haven’t been to the park, you need to understand its geology first.
Located in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef is part of the Waterpocket Fold, a warp in the Earth’s crust that stretches on for nearly 100 miles. Hundreds of millions of years ago, Capitol Reef was more like the Saharan Desert, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Then it became wet, sporting tropical forests, ferns, and swamps.
But then, about 180 million years ago, the area became dry again. Then, 40 million years later, it turned into a coastal area, depositing layers of sandstone and shale still seen in the park.
After those layers were formed, tectonic forces raised rock layers thousands of feet, USGS explains. The layers remained mostly horizontal and formed mountains, except for one part: the Waterpocket Fold.
Here, layers folded instead of breaking like the rest of the region. Erosion has since led to some of the most notable features, like Capitol Dome.
This brings us to the first part of Capitol Reef’s name: Capitol.
Some early settlers to the area likened the white domes in the area to the white dome of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the National Park Service (NPS) explains. Nowhere is that more apparent than the aforementioned Capitol Dome, seen below.
Early visitors to the park are also responsible for the second half of its name, Reef.
It was prospectors, many of nautical background, that thought the Waterpocket Fold resembled a reef, according to NPS. Though not exactly the Great Barrier Reef, the Waterpocket Fold did serve to deter some from venturing through the now-park.
While ‘Capitol Reef’ fits the park now, it nearly had a different name.
Brothers-in-law Ephraim Portman Pectol and Joseph S. Hickman, who later became state lawmakers, were calling for the south-central region of Utah to be protected as early as 1914, NPS records show. They hoped to make it Utah’s first state park, offering the name ‘Wayne Wonderland’ after the county it was located in.
But, after state and national officials discussed the boundaries of the park for multiple years in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ultimately declared the 37,711 acres as Capitol Reef National Monument in 1937. It didn’t become a national park until 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed a law establishing it as such.
Last year, Capitol Reef National Park saw more than 1.2 million recreational visits, one of its busiest years on record. It stands as the fourth most-visited of Utah’s Big 5 National Parks, coming in ahead of Canyonlands but behind Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches.