It is a sublime panorama . . . It is a maze of cliffs and terraces lined off with stratification, of crumbling buttes, red and white domes, rock platforms gashed with profound canyons, burning plains barren even of sage—all glowing with bright color and flooded with blazing sunlight . . . It is the extreme of desolation, the blankest solitude, a superlative desert. ~Clarence E. Dutton, geologist (1880)
A highway might run through it, but to really “do” Capitol Reef National Park, you need to head for the back country. The Visitor Center is convenient, and well worth your time. The small community of Fruita just south of the Center is also an easy destination, and equally worthwhile. BUT, if you want the full experience . . . the behind-the-scenes and hidden treasures experience. . . then buck up and grab your camera, lace up those hiking shoes, strap on a backpack with water and snacks (a good park map comes in handy too) and head out! (BTW, having an all-terrain vehicle would open even more doors to adventure). Then you’re ready. And if those things don’t suit you, then sit back and prepare to enjoy this park vicariously. Capitol Reef is a little-known jewel in our national park system.
Sandwiched between The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef often gets overlooked. The Reef is the least known and most remote of Utah’s five national parks. Most states would love to have a park like this and it would undoubtedly be a primary destination if it hadn’t been located in Utah, a state having four other spectacular national parks and a few national monuments to boot.
The park is over 100 miles long, from north to south, but only 12 miles wide. It’s crossed by Hwy.24 which is the only paved access road through Capitol Reef. A long, rough, unpaved road enters the park from I-70 on the northern boundary. Two more unpaved roads enter the park from the south—one of those being the Burr Trail. The most scenic route into the park, Hwy.12 from Bryce Canyon, crosses the eastern edge of the Aquarius Plateau, between the towns of Boulder and Torrey.
Perhaps the defining feature of Capitol Reef, its raison d’etre you might say, is the Waterpocket Fold. Extending for 100 miles, this wall-like rift of stone in the Earth’s surface kept out all but the most intrepid of pioneers and explorers. Those who did persevere, surmounting the bouldered barrier, found an idyllic oasis pocketed amid the Reef’s monumental Capitol-like domes, natural bridges, spires, and slot canyons. And so did we.
The land that comprises Capitol Reef National Park has been many things to different people. It was home to resourceful natives now known to archaeologists as the “Fremont culture” for hundreds of years, going back to 700 A.D. To Mormon pioneers who established their tiny community of Fruita here in the 1880s, it was a modest settlement that held no more than 10 families at any given time. To geologists, it encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, a unique geologic formation worthy of intense scrutiny. To the average traveler passing through here, it is generally overlooked—or so we were told.
Mapping and scientific exploration of this area began in the 1870s with the First Powell Expedition, where two men were to leave their signatures inscribed on rock within the present-day park boundaries. Geologists Grove Karl Gilbert and Clarence E. Dutton traveled through Capitol Reef on separate expeditions in the late 1870s, both setting their eyes on the Waterpocket Fold. Gilbert accurately portrayed the origins and weathering of this classic monoclinal uplift, giving it a proper sense of grandeur. But Clarence Dutton outshines any modern travel writer when it comes to describing the landscape of Capitol Reef National Park, as was evidenced in the quotation in my introduction.
Perhaps the life-blood of this area, the heart of the park, is the Fremont River. Providing the necessary water along with the plants and trees that flourish along its course, it is the oasis in this high desert environment. Lined with cottonwoods luminous in their autumn foliage, it presents a brilliant centerpiece in this rocky landscape.
Mormon settlers, pushing south from the Great Salt Lake area in the late 1840s might have been the first white people to actually see the Capitol Reef area. After surviving many skirmishes with native Indians, their communities began to be established, Fruita being one of them. With the river being the key to life here, irrigation allowed this settlement to survive. Originally known as Junction, orchards were planted in the fertile valley and became the main source of its prosperity. By the turn of the century, the community was known as “the Eden of Wayne County” and in 1902 the name of the settlement was changed to Fruita.
On account of the surrounding topography and the extreme difficulties getting into the valley, the families of Fruita lived in nearly total isolation from the outside world. Well into the modern era, farming techniques in Fruita remained as they had been in the nineteenth century. It was not until World War II that the first tractor was purchased.
Established as a national monument in 1937, Capital Reef gained dramatically in visitation after Hwy-24 was built in 1962, cutting through the Fremont River Canyon and the heart of the park. As visitation to the monument increased in the post war years, the National Park Service (NPS) determined to purchase all Fruita property still in private hands. By the late 1960s most of this had been accomplished on a willing-seller/willing-buyer basis. Many residential structures and outbuildings were razed. Fortunately, a few structures still stand, preserved as they once appeared. The schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, the Gifford house and the barn help visitors of today to more easily envision what this community once was.
They surely did give a person pause for thought.
Although most of the structures of the Fruita settlement are gone, the orchards remain and dominate the valley landscape. More than any other building, these trees certainly convey a story. The current general management plan for Capitol Reef cites the value of the orchards as an “historic landscape” and affirms the resolve of the NPS to preserve them. Of the many orchards in the District (about 22), there are a multitude of varieties, including cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, almond and walnut. Beginning in mid-June and continuing through mid-October, there is always something fruiting. Park employees maintain the orchards year round with historic cultural irrigation practices, pruning, mowing, pest management, planting, mapping and grafting. Visitors are free to eat what they pick, or pay a minimal fee for what they pick and take with them.
Perhaps the best part of staying a few days here at Capitol Reef is camping in this wonderful setting. Nestled in the shadow of a towering rock formation, the campground is located ideally along the banks of the Fremont River. The campsites are shaded by mostly mature cottonwood trees and surrounded by the fruit orchards, where deer frequently are seen.
A primitive, no-hookups kind of camp, it operates on a first-come, first-serve basis—come early in the day to snag a site in September and October. With paved pads and nicely spaced sites, it can accommodate about any size RV. A popular place even during the weekdays, its the setting that really seals the deal.
And we lucked out by getting a prime spot. Just hanging out in camp was a highlight of our stay.
Given national park status in 1971, Capitol Reef is one of America’s greatest natural treasures. The park is so named because of the resemblance of the many whitish Navajo sandstone domes to the US Capitol building; the ‘Reef’ refers to the high uplifted ridge running north-to-south along the Waterpocket Fold. Except for the Cathedral Valley in the north, the park is a 100-mile-long, bare-rock spine of a buckling in the Earth. Thousands of feet of solid rock, ancient lava flows, and the sedimentary layers of ancient seas have been pushed up over the millennia by the tremendous forces of moving continents, the same forces that created the Colorado Plateau, at relatively the same time—a mere 65 million years ago.
The signature feature of the park, Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long monocline (or fold) in the Earth’s crust, towers as much as 2,000 feet above its eastern base. It has been lifted thousands of feet, tilted, warped, fractured, exposed on the surface to erosion, and sculpted by the elements into fantastic forms. (“Waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater). This is a sight that must be seen in person—it’s simply and utterly that complex and unbelievable. There’s simply nothing quite like it.
The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with a visual resemblance of the park’s many white Navajo sandstone domes to that of the nation’s Capitol Building. Capitol Reef is an incredible mixture of the finest elements of Bryce and Zion Canyons in a less crowded park that is more relaxing to visit than either of those more-famous attractions.
If your time is short, or your energy level low, taking the park’s Scenic Drive south from Fruita is where you’ll get your money’s worth. In a nutshell you will see incredible formations—huge, crumbling, multicolored cliffs presenting magnificent scenery in every direction. Roadside pull-outs provide opportunities to stop and gape and absorb what you’re seeing. It is a prime example of why this place in our country had to become one of our national parks.
At the end of this 10-mile road is another incredible excursion requiring slightly more daring-do. As this post is already pushing the limits of holding your interest, I’ll include the remainder of this drive as part of my coming blog. Until then, I’ll leave you with one picture that I think typifies this park. If you are very lucky and find yourself returning from the Scenic Drive near day’s end, just before the road’s conclusion you’ll find yourself on a high point of the drive. If you take time to park and walk to a vantage point you’ll find a view that encapsulates the essence of Capitol Reef. And you will be most fortunate if you’re there when the setting sun illuminates that famous red rock of Utah and the landscape glows as if from within.
Melinda & Chris