Red Canyon is the perfect place for geology enthusiasts and hikers alike. Its beautiful scenery, compacted into a short, 1.4-mile canyon, leaves all who enter its broad canyon walls both inspired and humbled by their natural surroundings. Not to mention, the canyon happens to have been cut perpendicular to the rock layers in this area, providing visitors with a first-hand experience with the vibrant sedimentary rocks that make Capitol Reef famous.
Starting where the Red Canyon Trail
ends at the wash, the thin red beds of the Carmel Formation rise steeply on the south side as the drainage cuts across them. Shortly, the tan sandstone of the Page is followed by the slightly whiter Navajo, as the wash turns north about a tenth of a mile from the start. To the right, a steep slope of Navajo is topped by the nearly indistinguishable Page and capped by the much more obvious yellow Carmel. After a pleasant and well vegetated stretch, the wash again cuts through the Navajo to the west. A series of finely grouped perpendicular cracks are displayed on a slope on the right side of the wash. Exfoliation of thin layers of sandstone is occurring here, exposing solid, uncracked rock. The wash meanders to the south, before bending to the west and entering the Kayenta Formation with its alternating light-colored sandstones and red shales. At about the 2-mile mark, the solid red Wingate Sandstone makes its appearance. Interesting rock layers at this location are evidence of its origin as dune sand.
Given the steep angle of the Wingate, it only takes another 3 or 4 minutes to hike right through its 350-foot thickness, emerging into the soft blue-gray and lavender Chinle Formation. The wash narrows and becomes wet, and reeds and tamarisk begin to appear. This is a good place to turn around, but the wash does continue. Before returning to the trailhead, note the Wingate to the west and how much higher it is than at the outcrop just to the north (right), indicating the true scale and form of the Waterpocket Fold. So is the power of erosion, since all the formations the route travels past were once in place here above the Chinle and have been removed, probably in only 10 to 20 million years. In hiking back from the Chinle and looking across the Notom-Bullfrog Road to the east, almost the entire span of dinosaur history is laid out in the space of just four miles.
This content was contributed by author Rick Stinchfield. For a comprehensive hiking guide to Capitol Reef National Park and to see more by Rick, click here