Though there is no snorkeling in Utah’s Capitol Reef, it is one of the best places for an introduction to the geology lesson that the Great American West provides from the Western edge of Colorado to the chasm of the Grand Canyon. Along with impressive insights into the natural forces that made the 100-mile long monocline known as the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park also provides a glimpse into the people who have left more temporary traces on the area’s landscape, including the First Nations, pioneer settlers, the likes of Butch Cassidy, and the modern ranchers whose cattle are the most dominant life-form in the area.
One of the best and most “western” hotels in the Best Western chain, The Capitol Reef Resort, can be found right at the gate of Capitol Reef National Park. A great base camp for park exploration, the hotel even has a hot tub where you can contemplate how the changing light alters canyon hues while soaking hike-weary bones.
To wash down the trail dust and fuel up for back country exploration, a bar/restaurant across the street from the hotel, The Rim Rock Patio/Spaghetti Western Cafe offers some of Utah’s finest beers and a very satisfying pizza. The outdoor dining area has some of the nicest dart set-ups I’ve seen in any bar, and, if you’re able to extend your arms after a full day’s hike, it’s a fun way to spend the evening. The night we visited, the very kind-hearted woman proprietor showed us where we were on her groovy, vintage topographical wall map on which decades of rubbing fingers from all over the world had lovingly erased our location.
Before and/or after getting beered, hot-tubbed, and generally satiated, you will, of course, want to visit the main attraction, Capitol Reef National Park. You could spend one or several days hiking, biking, and off-roading in this geologic marvel.
One of the best ways to get oriented to the park is the self-guided drive. A map of the self-guided drive stops (along with fabulous fun facts) are available at the park’s visitor center for a nominal fee. At the end of the self-guided drive’s car-based route, a 4-mile round-trip hike takes you through Capitol Reef Gorge, where you can see some of the park’s odd sandstone formations up close, along with the signposts of people who came before.
The most visible of the earliest human traces in the park are amazing
petroglyphs, left by the Fremont people, some of the area’s earliest inhabitants. On the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can get right up close to a few of these rock carvings, and ponder whether they were made for religious and/or informational purposes. It’s hard not to ge excited when standing inches away from something carved by human hands thousands of years before. Elsewhere in the park, on a large canyon wall, giant Fremont petroglyphs are visible from hundreds of feet away. Gigantic shaman, bighorn sheep, and other animals carved into the red rocks leap off the rocks.
After the First Nations, pioneers traversed the area to head Westward, and on the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can also see their names lining the walls, some dating back from the 1840s and 1850s. Butch Cassidy didn’t sign any rock walls, but he allegedly hid out in the area. (Butch Cassidy connections are touted a lot in this particular neck of the woods.)
Later in the 1800s, Mormon settlers recognized that the valley’s ample water supply would be good for farming, particularly fruit trees. Orchards of apples and other fruit trees planted by these intrepid settlers still line Capitol Reef’s valley.
The National Park Service still maintains these fruit trees, and, when the trees are bearing fruit, you can eat an apple, pear, or other fruit for free when you’re in the orchard. If you’d like to take any fruit with you, bags and picking equipment are available, along with a box to leave payment.
If DIY fruit picking’s not up your alley, or if you visit out of fruit-bearing season, you can always enjoy the valley’s fruits at the Gifford Homestead. Located in the old Mormon settlement in the valley, the historic home sells pies made from fruit grown in the area, along with other baked items and preserved goods– great for a pre or post-hike picnic. (The pie made from apples grown in one of the orchards was particularly tasty after hiking the Capitol Reef Gorge trail.)
Though the apple trees and the settlement and the pioneer grafitti and the Fremont petroglyphs all seem to point to the permanence of man’s hand in the landscape, Capitol Reef leaves you with the feeling that we humans are newcomers and short-timers on the planet. The greater permanence of nature, as evidenced by Capitol Reef’s 100-mile long sandstone monocline, endless canyons of every color, harshly dry landscapes that suddenly swell with water– all formed over eons– dwarves our feeble human efforts to leave a mark. In short, we should enjoy the apples, and the apple pie, while we can.