Capitol Reef: Utah’s Forgotten Park

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Have you visited Capitol Reef National Park in Utah? It’s been on our boomer travel list for a long time.

After reading this guest article by Kate Convissor of WanderingNotLost, Alan and I are wondering what took us so long to visit one of the best parks in Utah.

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.

Capitol Reef National Park: Geology combined with Morman history

Waterpocket Fold
Waterpocket Fold. Photo by Kate Convissor.

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. Photo by Kate Convissor.

A paved and narrow ten-mile scenic drive (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.

Hiking at Capitol Reef

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.

Finding a campground in the Fruita Valley

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.

Factory Butte Badlands
Factory Butte Badlands. Photo by Kate Convisoor.

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 (don’t miss the pies), preserves, and handicrafts, some of which are made by park employees during slow winter months.

Take a day trip to Torrey, Utah

If camping isn’t your style, or for a sweet day trip, take the 15-mile drive west into Torrey. Treat yourself to lunch or dinner at the popular Hunt & Gather Restaurant.

You can restock (or spend the night) at Austin’s Chuckwagon Lodge 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.

Another option is to head west on Highway 12 Scenic Byway for more uncrowded boomer travel adventures.

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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