Capitol Reef National Park
Gifford Homestead in Fruita at Capitol Reef National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.
Spring and early summer are a great time to visit Capitol Reef. The temperatures are warm, but not too hot, and the landscape richly colored thanks to the leafy orchards and the red-rock backdrops in all directions. The Gifford Homestead lends a decided settlers' charm to Fruita.
A hogback running nearly 100 miles north and south through central Utah is the defining spine of Capitol Reef National Park, but this ruddy landscape offers many more geologic and cultural wonders.
Though the park draws its name from domes of white Navajo sandstone and the angular reefs of rock that reach for the sky, reds, tawny buffs, blacks and browns also paint Capitol Reef. And green, in the form of sweet-scented fruit and nut orchards planted by Mormon settlers late in the 19th century that continue to bear apples, pears, apricots, cherries, plums, mulberries, almonds and walnuts. Those alone are reason enough to visit this national park come harvest season.
But any time of year Capitol Reef is a welcome destination for park travelers. The seasons just require different layerings of clothes. It's really not much different than what the landscape goes through. In fall, the golden-leafed cottonwoods clinging to the Fremont River corridor tint the redrock surroundings with their reflections. Winter brings cold and occasional snowfall that also offers a brilliant contrast to the geology. Spring slowy encourages vestiges of life to erupt across the landscape -- Indian rice grass and needle-and-thread along washes, buds on the fruit and nut trees, pink, yellow and red blooms on pricklypear, fishhook, and claret cup cacti, and vibrant Indian paintbrush. And then summer arrives with its blushing fruit hanging heavy in the orchards.
While the Mormon settlers in the 1870s brought the fruit and nut trees, bringing life to the small valley fed by the Fremont River, this land was cultivated a long, long time before they arrived. The Fremont culture inhabited the region from roughly 600-1300 CE, supplementing what they could hunt down with corn, beans and squash. Though they're long gone, their pictographs and petroglyphs remain.
Just as Fruita attracted the Fremont centuries ago, today it lures the bulk of the park's visitors. The 71-site campground, set amid the orchards, is one of the most beautiful in the entire National Park System and a welcome spot to pitch a tent or park your camper. Spring is a great time to do just that, as the warming weather helps green the landscape, lures herds of deer into the orchards, and sends marmots scampering across the meadows. But early fall just might be the best time to camp, as the harvest is in full swing, with juicy apples, peaches and pears yours for the picking.
As rich and welcoming as the Fruita area is, the rest of Capitol Reef is raw and challenging...and beautiful. This is a long, narrow park, one with rather limited vehicle access. To truly explore it, you need a sound four-wheel-drive rig, a comfortable backpack, or both. There are slot canyons, spectacular stone arches, and rock sentinels that reach for the clouds. It's a park that invites close inspection.
Traveler's choice for: Geology, rock art, camping, hiking, photography, harvest time.
One of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef perhaps is the least known to the greater collection of national park travelers, 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 150 years ago.
"Fruita" well-defines the settlement established here along the Fremont River in the 1880s by Mormon settlers, for they quickly nurtured orchards that provided produce they earned a living from by selling it to neighboring communities. Those orchards remain today, among the most tangible, and certainly the most delicious, aspect of the small community's history.
Think of Capitol Reef National Park and, if you're familiar with this isolated outpost in Utah's canyon country, you'll likely envision soaring reefs of colorful rock. But few would even imagine battles between mountain lions and lynx.