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Capitol Reef National Park
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
Compared to its more famous neighbors such as Bryce and Arches national parks, few people make Capitol Reef a destination. They should.
Geologically, there was a violent uplifting of the landscape some 65 million years ago, causing the buckling and folding of the reef-like sandstone rock layers. It is part of the Waterpocket Fold, which extends from Lake Powell northward 100 miles into the mountains. This folding is what gives the reef its name.
Historically, Anasazi (“Ancient ones”) lived in the area a thousand years ago, followed by later American native peoples. Scattered petroglyph rock art tells of their being in the region. Whether it was art or graffiti might be questioned, but the rock etchings definitely indicate certain aspects of the ways these earliest people lived.
Much later there were white settlements in what is now the national park. A few buildings are left from the tiny town of Fruita, which was one of the dozens of early Mormon settlements scattered over much of what later became the state of Utah. And, yes, they had fruit orchards here. Some of the trees are still attended, and still bear fruit.
Approaching Capitol Reef National Park from the west on State Highway 24 takes you through wonderful rock walls and natural monuments. They are so red you 'll stop and take notice of them, no matter what other wonders of red rock country you 've seen earlier. After making a couple of picture stops, take the turn into the Visitor Center. The national park is long and narrow and is aligned north and south – but the highway goes through it east and west. If you 're not careful, you 'll be in and out of the park before you know it.
Stop and do the normal Visitor Center stuff (restrooms, drinking water, maps, information; you know the drill). Near the center are the orchards. Check with park rangers; you may be able to pick small quantities of fruit in season.
A bit further down the park road and you arrive at the campground, with big shade trees and luscious green lawn. There are 70 campsites suitable for RVs. No hookups, but each has the ubiquitous picnic table and grill. There 's a central restroom with flushing toilets. No showers though, and you 'll have to haul water from the spigot. There 's a dump station in the campground. The best thing about Fruita Campground is its location and setting, with soothing green grass and huge shade trees. And it 's right in the middle of the good stuff. The sites are on a first-come, first-serve basis, so arrive early rather than late, especially if it 's a weekend. There are motels and RV parks in nearby Torrey. Use your Woodall 's to get specific and current information.
As with most sightseeing destinations, RVers going to Capitol Reef are well-advised to have a runaround vehicle...either your pickup or a car that is towed behind your motorhome. But you know that. Wherever you choose to camp in the area, disconnect, and make it your base for a couple of days. There are explorations to be made.
From the Fruita Campground, continue south down the park road, which is paved for the first eight miles. It offers a good look at the reef to the east. Make a couple of round trips along this road, at least one of which should be in late afternoon because the lowering sun brings out the colors of the reef to perfection. Among the specific highlights you 'll find the Egyptian Temple and the Golden Throne. Plus there 's an unusual looking boulder that has tumbled from the cliff. It 's near the eastern edge of the road and, to me, has the expression of a very surprised woman. As you leave the blacktop, drive into Capitol Gorge for additional perspectives of the reef 's towering cliffs.
In one of nature 's quirks, the Fremont River cuts completely across Waterpocket Fold, going from west to east, eventually flowing south into upper Lake Powell. The river drains some pretty high snow country and has a small but fairly constant flow of water.
There are hiking trails in the area. If you leave the marked trails, please stay on the hard slickrock. In sandy areas of many southwest deserts, the only thing that keeps the frequent winds from blowing away all the soil is the thin surface of micro-biotic crust. It 's a slow-growing amalgamation of primitive plants. Trouble is, when you step on it, you break the crust and make a place where winds can rapidly expand the rupture. I know, it sounds as though I 'm exaggerating, but the truth is that, although the desert is a harsh and often unforgiving place for the unwary, it is also very delicate. Whatever holds dirt and sand in place permits the eventual development of soil. The making of soil is always a lengthy process, but nowhere is it lengthier than in a desert. It is soil that permits the growth of plants.
Let me add a gentle safety reminder here. Whenever you 're on a sightseeing drive in the desert, always bring emergency food and plenty of water with you. And if you go hiking, make sure you drink it while you 're walking. Your body loses a great deal of water by sweating, but the dry air evaporates it so quickly you may not realize the fact. Take water. Drink it.
One of the best day-trips is to take State Highway 24 west to the turnoff just before the village of Torrey (State Highway 12). Turn south to Boulder. This section of paved road takes you over Boulder Mountain and down the other side. Near the 9200 foot summit are numerous stands of aspen trees, with round, green leaves quaking in summer sunlight. The leaves turn golden when autumn reaches these high altitudes. Even when surrounded by three feet of snow during winter, the bleakness of the bare branches lends a monochromatic beauty to the scene – a very cold beauty.
At Boulder, you may want to visit the Anasazi Museum and learn about the regions first people. The small town is reputed to be one of the very last in the lower states to get electricity, telephone service, and a paved road leading in. Make a left turn, driving east on the Burr Trail. The surface is paved through the canyon and then becomes dirt. It brings you to the Waterpocket Fold.
This is remote, wild and wonderful country!
Somewhere along the Burr Trail you will again enter the long and narrow national park. At the bottom of the zig-zaggy hill, make a left at the next main dirt/gravel road (#1670), which leads north to Notom and State Highway 24. A short run west on 24 brings you back to your base.
Make sure you have a whole day to do this trip properly because the sightseeing and photo opportunities are many.
A quick few words about dirt roads throughout much of the desert southwest: whenever you 're going exploring even a little off the beaten path, check with the locals about road conditions. Also, state maps can mislead you because they often mark roads as “main” or “secondary,” but sometimes make it impossible to figure out if it 's paved or not. Capitol Reef is smack dab in the middle of Utah 's spectacular desert sandstone country, and there are dozens of dirt roads that beckon to be explored. Although 4-wheel drive is always a nice security blanket, almost all the dirt roads are easily manageable without having a 4X4. Generally, having good ground clearance is more important than having 4-wheel drive. Besides, if you come to a dirt road washout, you can always turn around.
The main thing is to realize that exploring some of these dirt roads adds greatly to the overall quality of your travel experience.
Give Capitol Reef National Park at least a couple of days to share its wonders with you. You'll thank me. You're welcome.
How to get to Capitol Reef National Park:
1. Your state road maps will provide the highway information you need.
2. You 're in south-central Utah 's high desert plateau country. Fruita is at 5500 feet, and it 's at the bottom of a valley. Be prepared for some long hills if you come in from the west or southwest.
3. RVs in good operating condition will have no trouble getting to the national park. All highways are paved and maintained. Just remember to gear down on long grades.
4. State Highway 24 provides access from the west or the east.
5. Although the area is remote, there are towns sprinkled about that offer all the usual necessities, including towing and repairs if needed. With locals and other travelers on the highways, it rarely is more than a few minutes before somebody will drive by. If you need assistance, flag them down; it 's amazing how many people are willing to help.
6. My favorite way to get to Capitol Reef is from Bryce Canyon National Park. I head east on State Highway 12 down to Tropic and along the north edge of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Leaving Henrieville the road winds its way through the empty magnificence that is the monument. Pulling into Boulder, the long ascent begins, all the way to its 9200 foot summit. Then down to Torrey and east to the national park.