Walking out of the visitor center at Capitol Reef National Park will be one of the most surreal experiences of your life, as you pass through a portal not only into a red-rock cathedral but also back into the past. The park is a pure slice of heaven in the desert, seemingly waiting for Irma to open up a pie stand.
One of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef is the least known, practically a step-sibling to the other four. Yet that lack of notoriety actually contributes to its wonders for it's easier to find some solitude and imagine the West of 200 or more years ago.
Within its 378 square miles the park protects part of the “Waterpocket Fold” – a 100-mile-long, narrow reef of uplifted rock in the desert that has its roots in the same continental collision that formed the Rockies. The ridge has eroded over time, revealing brilliantly colored Navajo Sandstone. While this ridge dominates the heart of the park, it has a tremendous supporting cast in the towers and sandstone blocks of rock that rise above the landscape. It was this “reef” of rock and the appearance of shimmering white rock domes that reminded early settlers of the U.S. Capitol’s dome that were the seeds that led to the park’s name.
Just when you think you’ve paid your $5 entrance fee simply to wander around in a maze of red rock, a slice of the past hits you – and boy, does it taste good. The Mormon pioneers who settled this area in the 1880s saw that the Fremont River and its canyon would provide a welcome place for them to live with a perfect climate for orchards.
They named the hamlet “Junction” and soon built a small but happy community, gaining renown as “The Eden of the Wayne County.”
Soon after the first orchards were planted the town changed its name to Fruita. Trees laden with cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, apples, pecans, mulberries, and even plums all thrived in the canyon. Over time the orchards blossomed to include some 2,600 fruit and nut trees on the acres surrounding the pioneer community.
Fruita long thrived in relative isolation – paved roads didn’t reach the area until the early 1960s, almost three decades after the landscape had gained national monument status -- as its residents sold their fruit and nuts in neighboring communities. Though designated a national monument in 1937, it took much political wrangling before the area was designated a national park on this date in 1971.
The designation certainly was deserving. Not only does the park protect the Waterpocket Fold, but within its borders you can find prehistoric rock art, stone arches, canyons that reportedly lured Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, and the remnants of a late-19th Century-early 20th Century community.
Though perhaps not as popular as Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Capitol Reef continues to lure more and more visitors. Those who find Capitol Reef come for a variety of reasons, from backpacking and climbing to sampling the fruits of the orchards when they’re ready for harvest. Yep, that’s right, you can pick the fruit.
Where else can you go canyoneering in the morning and pick your own peaches later that afternoon?
Of course, there also are endless backcountry miles to roam with a pack on your back.
But whether you're backpacking or touring the park by auto, you need to take care to pay attention to the weather. Thunderstorms that wash the landscape between July and September can spawn deadly flash floods that course through the park's normally dry washes.