Which is the most-anticipated month for visiting national parks? At Capitol Reef National Park, it has to be September, the month when apples ripen and are ready for picking.
From Pennsylvania to Utah and on west to California, the desire to bite into a nice crisp Golden Delicious, or pick a bag or bushel for pies and sauce, is luring visitors to parks. Some are tasting a figurative slice of history, as the apples that grow at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, and even Yosemite National Park in California in many cases are the same varieties that homesteaders and settlers planted for their own tables and to sell to others.
"Smallish Fruita may not have been well suited for the grain economy of the high valleys, but it was ideal for one product in great demand on the frontier - fresh fruit," wrote George Davidson, who arrived at Capitol Reef in 1980 and went on to become its chief of interpretation, wrote in Red Rock Eden, Story of Fruita, one of Mormon Country's Most Isolated Settlements. "Pioneers planted varieties of apples that have almost disappeared or are completely gone from today's Fruita apple orchards -- apples like Jonathan, Rome Beauty, Ben Davis, Red Astrachan, Twenty-ounce Pippin, and Yellow Transparent."
Ahh, but not all varieties vanished, at least not from Capitol Reef. More than two dozen varieties grow today in this red-rock landscape that's watered by the Fremont River and its tributaries. Some, such as the Jonathans, McIntoshes, Winesaps, Red Delicious, and Granny Smiths, still can be found in a well-stocked grocery. But where else might you find a display of Ben Davis, aka "Mortgage Lifter," a variety that can be traced to Virginia in 1799; or Grimes Golden, which dates back to 1804 in West Virginia; or the Red Astrachan, which is thought to have roots extending back "several centuries" to the banks of the Volga River in Russia?
So fertile are Fruita's soils that Capitol Reef -- where the orchards have been designated a Rural Historic Landmark -- even has its very own variety -- the Capitol Reef Red, a crisp, fleshy apple perfect for eating right off the tree ... or in a deep-dish apple pie.
"We're not sure what happened there," Wayne Hanks, the park's orchard manager, said when asked how the variety appeared. "We’re not sure if some of our varieties cross-pollinated there or what.”
However it came to be, it was discovered growing in the park in 1994 when researchers from Northern Arizona University arrived to inventory the orchards to determine which, if any, of the heirloom apples were the same as those grown in historic Fruita by the Mormon settlers who would cart their fruit by wagon 63 miles to Richfield and even 160 miles to Price. When the researchers tried to match the apple to USDA records, they came up empty, said Mr. Hanks.
“It’s got a tartness to it some people don’t like. And the color, it’s got a red blush to it, it’s not completely red. A lot of yellow and a reddish blush on one side," he said.
While Capitol Reef has the largest collection of historic orchards in the National Park System, with roughly 54 acres shaded in season by roughly 2,600 apple, peach, apricot, almond, pear, grape, plum, quince, and walnut trees, it's not the only fruit basket in the system.
Only about 50 miles west of Philadelphia grow the apple orchards of Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, which preserves the history of one of the country's first iron producers, one that cast cannons for the Colonials in the Revolutionary War. Historians believe the first apple trees on the site appeared in the late 1780s. Unfortunately, the lineage of those trees didn't descend directly to the four acres of orchards found today at the historic site.
"We don’t have any original or descendant trees at all," said Ranger Norman Feil. "The orchard actually disappeared by the 1930s. When the federal government acquired the land here, (the orchards) had to be reestablished."
While the Park Service never found any records to cite exactly which varieties were grown at Hopewell Furnace in the 18th century, "We do have some historic varieties that could have been in the orchard. They were known to have existed in America in the 18th century," the ranger said. "Those were included in some of the varieties that presently are in the orchard.”
Among the fruit you'll find at Hopewell Furnace are Spitzenburg's, said to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite; Kerry Irish Pippen; Summer Rambo; Gravenstein, thought to be descended "from the garden of the Duke of Augustenberg, Schleswig-Holstein;" and Smokehouse, a variety traced to 1837 when it was grown next to a smokehouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Elsewhere in the national parks, backcountry wanders might find some heirloom apples in the hollers of Shenandoah National Park dating to homesteaders. While the park doesn't maintain any orchards, some of those old trees still bear fruit. Great Smoky Mountains National Park also has a few apple trees on display at its Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee, though not enough to let visitors pick their own.
In Yosemite, two small orchards trace their heritage to the 1860s when settler James Lamon planted them. Today these orchards are plucked clean of fruit by park staff and volunteers in mid-August when it ripens so as not to entice black bears.
Now, if you find yourself close to Capitol Reef or Hopewell Furnace in the coming weeks, stop in to pick some apples. Both parks allow you to apples for a $1 a pound, and they even provide you with extension poles and buckets to make it easy. At Capitol Reef, when there's a good harvest you can pick a bushel for $16.
Both parks also have maps that will lead you to a specific apple variety, too. But don't dally, as the harvests likely won't last beyond mid-October.