My introduction to Capitol Reef came the day after an uncomfortable, restless night in a makeshift stealth bivy having been unable to secure a convenient, legal camp spot in the tourist-crowded Colorado Canyon outside of Moab, Utah.
Escaping from the Spring Break hordes of recreationists that had descended upon popular Moab, I found the uncrowded friendliness of Capitol Reef to be just what I needed. During my too-short stay here, I had the good fortune to discover some of the treasures that lie hidden in this overlooked desert gem.
The 241,000-plus acres that make up Capitol Reef National Park lie in a narrow corridor paralleling the Waterpocket Fold, an unusual raised swell of rock where earth’s crust literally folds back on itself for a hundred miles. Capitol Reef’s two-part name comes from the rounded sandstone features along the Fold which resemble the United States Capitol building, and the the Fold’s resemblance to barrier reefs found in the ocean. Its anatomy exposes a quarter-billion years of earth’s history with the usual suspects, wind and water playing roles as the main artists of erosion which continue to shape the colorful domes, knobs, and canyons seen here.
It would be impossible to talk about Capitol Reef’s natural history without also mentioning the rich cultural history with which it has become so closely intertwined. Human occupancy dates back thousands of years, the more distinct groups being Fremont, Paiutes, and Ute people, and in contemporary times, the late-nineteenth century Mormon settlers. All found survival here in the harsh desert climate thanks to the life-sustaining Fremont River and its tributaries.
In a flood plain near the Fremont’s junction with Sulpher Creek can be found the historical focal point of Capitol Reef, the Mormon pioneering community of Fruita. Most of the town has all but vanished, but some remnants of its past remain, including the Fruita schoolhouse and various farm implements abandonded on the prairie.
Fruita is a soothing refuge, an emerald oasis framed by orange cliffs towering above heirloom orchards that are still maintained by the Park Service. During the summer and fall, visitors are welcome to pick in-season fruit, including Bing cherries, Moorpark apricots, Elberta peaches, and hard-to-find varieties of Ben Davis, Grimes golden, and red Astrachan apples. For the sweet-tooth, daily fresh-baked fruit pastries and pies can be purchased at the historical Gifford House. During my visit, this made a convenient (and delicious!) breakfast stop before heading out for each day’s activities.
Most of my activities came on the recommendation of a very knowledgeable and friendly park ranger and centered around short outings close to the Fruita area. Day One included a hilly road bike climb along State Highway 24 to the nearby town of Torrey with a fast descent back to the Fruita campground. After lunching in the shade of the picnic area, I made the hot afternoon hike up to the natural sandstone Hickman Bridge, a must-see initiation for first-time visitors. I capped off the day with a beautiful hike along the canyon cliffs to catch the sunset from the Chimney Rock overlook.
On Day Two I opted for a longer outing to explore Cohab Canyon, named for Mormon polygamists who sought refuge here from anti-polygamy government officials. From here, there are dozens of fascinating, pockmarked slot canyons that just demand to be explored, with many of them containing subsurface runoff water capable of sustaining life in unexpected places.
As I continued to wander, I made my way across the Frying Pan Trail – it would be as hot as a frying pan here on a cloudless summer day – where I saw a changing view of the bizarre landscape around every twisting turn. With no place to be and plenty of time to get there, I stopped frequently to photograph discoveries big and small. Eventually I reached Cassidy Arch, named for the famous western outlaw Butch Cassidy who allegedly used this area as a hideout.
From Cassidy Arch one can retrace their steps back to Fruita across the Frying Pan, but I opted for a longer loop via the Grand Wash, an easily accessible cut through the reef with steep sandstone walls reaching as high as 500 feet. The 15-foot wide canyon is an obvious streamway, and not a place I’d want to be during a flash flood. I followed the wash along its leisurely 2.2-mile stroll to its opposite access point along State Highway 24 just five miles from Fruita. From here I pounded pavement for an hour to regain the east end of Cohab Canyon to complete the loop.
Returning halfway through Cohab Canyon to my starting point, I climbed a a steep but short trail to the Fruita Overlook. I found a quiet spot to sit and take in the broad views of the Fruita orchards and listen to the Fremont River echoing off the canyon walls hundreds of feet below. Nearing the end of my hike, my timing almost perfectly coincided with the sunset reflecting off the surrounding red cliffs – a fitting end to a day filled with solace.
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Next time: All good things must come to an end. I begin the long trip back to my Montana home with a stop in magnificent Colorado National Monument. More to come!
Credits: I referenced most of the historical facts for this post from the national award winning publication, “Capitol Reef – Canyon Country Eden” written by Rose Houk. The book contains several poignant essays and evocative photos that capture the unique character of Capitol Reef National Park. This book and other excellent books are available for purchase at the park headquarters in Fruita, or by contacting the Capitol Reef Natural History Association.
- 4-6 Apr: Capitol Reef National Park (lockettphoto.wordpress.com)