Of Utah’s Five National Parks, Capitol Reef is the one most overlooked. The park was named for whitish sandstone dome formations—similar to the white domes often placed on capitol buildings. The word reef is a geological term referring to any rocky barrier to land travel (just as ocean reefs are barriers to sea travel). Nestled in the natural sandstone landscape is a rich cultural past spanning more than a thousand years beginning with the early indigenous “Fremont People” followed by Mormon settlers who pioneered the park during the turn of the 19th century.
We base camped in Hanksville, UT (as it was a halfway point between Goblin Valley State Park and Capitol Reef National Park) so it took us about an hour to reach the National Park in the morning. Unlike the rather warm in Moab, when we entered Capitol Reef the high for the day was 45 degrees and windy, making for some uncomfortable hiking conditions in the shade.
Our first stop was “The Grand Wash”, in an attempt to shield ourselves from the wind. Well, it worked. But, unfortunately, the cold was even colder in the shade. We hiked about 1/4 of a mile into the shade, exploring some interesting sandstone rock formations and the quicksand-like mud remaining from the storm a few days prior. Eventually, the cold got the better of us, and we retreated back to the warmth of our car.
Next, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center for information about what orchards were open for apple picking. The Fruita Historic District part of Capitol Reef is a former Mormon settlement. The National Park Service now maintains the orchards year round with historic cultural irrigation practices, pruning, mowing, pest management, planting, mapping, and grafting. Capitol Reef is known for its 22 orchards where the public can pick fruits. (If you eat it there, it’s at no cost. Anything you take with you is self-pay on the honor system.) Cherries are often the first fruit to ripen, becoming ready by the second week of June. Apricots can usually be picked in June and July, peaches and pears in August and September, and apples in September and October. We were so very lucky, as it was the very last day of apple picking (The second week of October)! Of the three orchards that were open for picking, we opted to go to the Chesnut Orchard which is by the Historic Gifford House and the park campground.
We noticed upon entering the orchard, a group of at least a dozen mule deer just relaxing under the orchard trees. They didn’t seem afraid of us, though they were aware of our presence. We tried to pick fruits as far away as possible from the deer, using the step ladder and hand picker provided. It was our first time ever picking apples, and it was a very special experience to have in a National Park. While the fruit itself wasn’t especially large or red, they were hands down the sweetest tasting apples any of us had ever had! As we walked through the orchard, enjoying our delicious historic apples, we noticed a male mule deer walking towards us. He appeared to be attempted to cross to where the other deer were, and his intent was not to approach us. However, we were in between where he was and where he wanted to do, and he was not going to let us stop him. I scurried Calvin away, while Chris crouched behind some nearby trees and snapped photos. It was quite an experience to be in that gorgeous orchard, that close to wildlife.
The next item on our itinerary was to take the Scenic Drive to the Pioneer Register. Mormon pioneers took eight days in 1884 to clear the first road through the Gorge, and settlers had to remove heavy debris after every flash flood. Early travelers recorded their passage on the canyon walls at the Pioneer Register. From the Capitol Gorge Trail, it is a 1/2 mile hike to see the wall where Pioneers etched their names. While the drive itself had interesting geological features, I was very excited to see this pioneer ‘graffiti’. Unfortunately, when we got there, the road was closed. Due to a storm three days prior, they had shut down the dirt road to vehicles. You could still hike it, but it was several miles to the end, and with a cold 4-year-old, the Pioneer Register just wasn’t worth it. So, we just ate lunch under the pavilion with the Golden Throne looking down on us.
We headed back up the Scenic Drive on our way out of the park, but couldn’t resist stopping at the Historic Gifford house. There, we got some delicious homemade sourdough bread (CALVIN LOVED IT!), fresh strawberry rhubarb pie, and some ice cream. Boy, did it hit the spot!
After getting Calvin sworn in as a Junior Ranger at the Visitor’s Center, we made one last stop on the way out of the park: The Fremont Culture Petroglyphs Trail. Believed to be from the “Fremont People”(early indigenous tribe named for the Fremont River in the U.S. state of Utah), the carvings can be seen along a sheer cliff by walking a boardwalk. It obviously used to be a long panel of carvings, but due to natural rock fall, many have disappeared forever.
Though we didn’t end up doing a lot of hiking in Capitol Reef National Park, it definitely wasn’t a wasted day. Full of history and fresh fruit (in addition to its cool geology), Capitol Reef is not to be overlooked!