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Capitol Reef: Utah’s Forgotten Park

Updated 10.01.2016
Have you visited Capitol Reef National Park in Utah? It’s been on our boomer travel list for a long time. After reading today’s guest post by Kate Convissor of WanderingNotLost, Alan and I are wondering what took us so long.

Waterpocket Fold

Waterpocket Fold

For sheer natural beauty, southern Utah is an embarrassment of riches. From Arches to Zion, five national parks are strung along this southern corridor like pearls on a necklace, each containing an utterly distinct geology and character. With such a smorgasbord of options, it’s no surprise that Capitol Reef, the park in the middle, gets short shrift.

While Capitol Reef encompasses a unique geological formation — the vast Waterpocket Fold — it also contains the fields and orchards of an early Mormon settlement cradled in the lush Fruita Valley. Add to this the little town of Torrey at the park’s western gate, plus the eerie and spectacular badlands on its eastern flank, and you have the makings for some interesting baby boomer explorations. While the park may be busy, you’ll avoid the crush of visitors and tour buses that choke the more popular parks on either side.

The Waterpocket Fold is the geological formation the park encompasses. This massive wrinkle in the earth’s crust formed eons ago when the North American mountains were rising. Centuries of erosion have worn the huge cliffs to solid sandstone, revealing the layers and ribbons of color characteristic of the geology throughout the region. Early native people called this place “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”

Gifford Homestead

Gifford Homestead

A paved and narrow ten-mile scenic drive (boomer travel tip: don’t take your big motor home) takes you past part of the formation. Gravel roads, most requiring 4-wheel-drive, allow exploration into the backcountry. You also have a good choice of hiking trails of various lengths and levels of difficulty. Don’t miss the short hike to Hickman Bridge, a natural formation and a pleasant walk. Grand Wash Trail is also a must see. This is an easy hike through a large wash where canyon walls come together at the Narrows, rising a thousand feet overhead. Don’t, however, try this hike, as I did, with thunderstorms approaching. As I neared the Narrows, dark clouds billowed overhead and a clap of thunder sent me scuttling back to my car, visions of flash floods dancing in my brain. An hour later, safely in my trailer, rain and hail poured down. I was glad Id beaten a coward’s retreat.

The campground is set along the Fremont River, in the middle of the Fruita Valley. This pastoral scene is juxtaposed against the massive cliffs that literally begin at the fence line. The historic Gifford Homestead, where the Gifford family lived and worked their small farm until 1969, is next to the campground. Horses are still pastured in the field, and the orchards (apples, peaches, apricots, cherries) are still maintained. Visitors are invited to harvest whatever they can eat when the fruit is in season. The store in the restored Gifford House sells homemade pastries (boomer travel tip: don’t miss the pies), preserves, and handicrafts, some of which are made by park employees during slow winter months.

Factory Butte Badlands

Factory Butte Badlands

If camping isn’t your style, or for a sweet day trip, take the 15-mile drive west into Torrey. There will often be more diners in the Cafè Diablo (voted the best rattlesnake cakes in Utah) than there are residents in this tiny, picturesque town. You can restock (or spend the night) at Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel and General Store, which has a surprising selection of groceries as well as a good deli and bakery.

The drive east from Capitol Reef to Arches National Park is an otherworldly experience, whether you head north toward Interstate 70 or make the large loop south on 95, which I didn’t do and wish I had. Either way, for sheer, jaw-dropping scenery, Utah never disappoints.

Photos courtesy Kate Convissor

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