TORREY, UTAH — The orchards are still there, bearing fruit, long after the planters fled.
Late in the 19th century, Mormon families sought refuge in the shadow of southern Utah's Capitol Reef, so named because settlers thought one of its daunting reef-like cliffs, capped by eroded sandstone, resembled the U.S. Capitol.
For 50 years these successors to the mysterious Fremont Indians, Paiutes and Navajos tended livestock and planted groves of peaches, pears, apricots, cherries and apples in their small, aptly named community of Fruita, hard by the Fremont River.
But near total isolation eventually took its toll. The Mormons left, and all that remains of their settlement is a one-room schoolhouse, a few other wooden structures and the orchards.
Today, visitors to Capitol Reef National Park can pick the fruit from these same trees.
Of Utah's famed national parks, Zion may be the most beloved, Bryce Canyon the most striking, the sandstone formations of Arches more aesthetic, and the sight lines of Canyonlands more vast, but there is something about the imposing scale of Capitol Reef that arrests the imagination. Of course, a park-to-park sojourn along the region's scenic roads — Routes 12 and 24 are particularly impressive — may be the most rewarding jaunt of all.
Exploring the Reef
As with its sister parks, Capitol Reef has been carved by the forces of water and wind for millennia. The remote canyons and plateaus of southeastern Utah were among the last parts of the American West to be experienced by eastern travelers, and the high desert still casts its magic.
Capitol Reef National Park is a 70-mile, 250,000-acre swath of otherworldly terrain in Utah's slickrock country. It boasts a variety of habitats, including perennial streams, juniper-pinyon pine, rock cliffs and dry washes, that accommodate surprisingly diverse flora and fauna.
Navajos bestowed the evocative name “sleeping rainbows” on the polychromatic layers of the reef. Like much of southern Utah, the reef wears its most photogenic hues in early morning or late afternoon, especially such sights as Chimney Rock, Hickman Bridge, Cathedral Valley and Capitol Reef itself.
Hitting the trail
The Fruita section of the park is most accessible, while the Cathedral Valley portion to the north offers (unpaved) scenic routes and backpacking among towering monoliths. Apart from the customary paved scenic drive, there are demanding hikes involving steep climbs, but also some splendid easy-to-moderate hiking trails. Notable among the latter is the two-mile round trip to Hickman Bridge, an elegant 133-foot natural arch that soars over the Fremont River and provides a fine photo op with its framing of Capitol Dome.
Likewise, the 3.45-miles to Cohab Canyon, which intersects with trails to the plateau rim, and the haunting two-mile stroll through Capitol Gorge, where vivid pre-Colombian petroglyphs are etched into stone walls. Be warned, however, the road leading to the Capitol Gorge trailhead may not be one you'd wish on a family sedan.
There is solitude here, something usually found in Utah's national parks only by serious backpacking or by taking a tough off-road vehicle into the backcountry. Capitol Reef also is renowned for its astronomical panoramas, having some of the darkest night skies in North America.
It is also in this park that one may observe an imposing portion of the Waterpocket Fold. This dramatic geologic structure, which the park was established to protect, runs for about 100 miles in a southeasterly direction, revealing how the planet's surface was constructed, folded and eroded, creating numerous basins or waterpockets as vital to life in the high desert as its biological soil crusts, communities of living organisms on the soil surface of arid and semi-arid ecosystems.
Southeast Utah is part of the Colorado Plateau, a region experiencing wide temperature fluctuations. As with much of the high Southwest, it is also a landscape of unexpected transitions, cool pine-scented valleys morphing into stark sandstone formations in the space of a few miles. Following the Fremont River, Route 24 East toward Capitol Reef offers a classic case in point, angling south and east of an immense plateau topped by 9,000-foot Thousand Lake Mountain.
The high seasons for visitors are spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) with their moderate temperatures. By contrast, summer is a devil's anvil of enervating heat accompanied by monsoons and flash floods, and winter a long, icy blast of intimidating frigidity. Either way, hiking trails become prohibitively exhausting or treacherous.
Because summers and winters are so harsh, the usual advice on visiting national parks of the West — go in the autumn or spring for more moderate weather and smaller crowds — does not hold for those contemplating trips to Arches or Bryce Canyon, which, compared to Capitol Reef or Canyonlands, can be like Grand Central Station during those months.
If your park-to-park drive goes west to east, don't ignore some spellbinding scenery on Route 12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef. The aptly named Kodachrome Basin State Park, the slot canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a dazzling array of petrified wood at Escalante State Park, and the Anasazi Indian Village State Park Museum (and archaeological dig) are fascinating options.