Capitol Reef and the surrounding areas are geologically stunning, without a doubt. But part of the beauty of this place is also due to the flora and fauna of the desert. And while there may be fewer plants and animals here in general, the ones that do thrive in the arid rocks of Capitol Reef are all the more impressive.
Here are some of the most common plants and animals you’ll encounter while hiking in Capitol Reef National Park:
Cottonwoods (populus fremontii)– these are the giant deciduous trees that grow along the Fremont River, notable for the cotton-like seeds that are released by the male trees. While the cottonwoods that line the streets of Torrey where all planted by the settlers, the species is native to much of the west. They survive the tough winters by storing water in their massive trunks.
Sagebrush (artemisia tridentata) – these bushes have soft, green foliage and give off a distinct, bright smell – especially when crushed. The sagebrush is basically a symbol of the American Southwest and can be seen in almost any western movie. It is also an important source of food for many animals, including the mule deer.
Plains prickly pair (opuntia polyacantha) – this cactus species has the distinction of being the most common variety in the United States. If you ever get a cactus stuck to your boots while hiking in Capitol Reef, it’s probably the plains prickly pair. It is small with a flat, oval body and grows in clumps throughout the area. It is also edible, once you remove the spines.
Mule deer (odocoileus hemionus) – the mule deer is common in most of the western United States, and is characterized by its large mule-like ears, hence the name. Since there are strict no hunting laws enforced in Capitol Reef, the deer herds living in the park are particularly docile. They see humans more as a source of food then as a threat. So don’t be surprised if they come by to check out your picnic lunch.
Black-tailed jackrabbit (lepus californicus) – also known as the American desert hare, this animal is another common sight in the west. However, once you make it into the backcountry of Capitol Reef, in the Waterpocket Fold for example, it will likely be the only mammal in sight. It is extremely hardy, allowing it to live where others cannot. The jackrabbit’s ubiquitousness makes it an important food source for raptors.
Red-tailed hawk (buteo jamaicensis) – this hawk is a common sight in Southern Utah. You will often see it soaring on updrafts looking for its dinner. Even if you don’t see it while you visit Capitol Reef, you will probably hear its piercing cry. In fact, if you’ve ever watched a movie and heard an “eagle” scream in the background – it was actually the red-tailed hawk you were hearing.
Capitol Reef and, by extension, all of Southern Utah have a huge amount of natural beauty to offer us. The next time your here, try looking for the plants and animals of the desert.