Natural and Cultural History Overflow in Capitol Reef
If you seek the route less traveled, yet rates as one of the top scenic highways in America, you need to drive Scenic Byway, highway 24 in Utah’s red rock country and visit Capitol Reef National Park. Its beauty of crimson Navajo Sandstone cliffs, soaring spires and massive domes is outstanding, yet this is the least known and visited of Utah’s five national parks.
An isolated area, halfway between what are now Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the highway wasn’t paved until 1940. Because this area is incredibly rugged and forbidding, it is also famed for once being a haven traveled by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch whose hideaway Robber’s Roost, was east of the park. Today it is a haven for explorers of mountain peaks and red rock desert.
Cliff walls range from more than 8,000 feet in the upper reaches to little more than 3,000 feet in the heart of the canyon and offer up a true cowboy enchanted western wilderness. Hollywood has filmed more than 100 western movies in Utah, so perhaps you have seen glimpses of the area caught on film.
Capitol Reef National Park and Fruita ghost town are located along the National Scenic Byway in south central Utah, and offers beautiful views of the canyon and the Fremont River gorge floor. Like the better known Grand Canyon and Death Valley, the cliffs and peaks here are always changing hues with the movement of clouds and sun.
The Fruita historic district within Capitol Reef bids an impression of a 1880’s western pioneer settlement and offers a significantly productive orchard of more than 3,000 trees in the midst of desert, canyon and cliff area. The orchards of apples, apricots, cherries, peaches and pears were planted by early Mormon settlers and stand as a reminder that this was once an important fruit growing center and providing the primary source of income to the community.
These orchards, now owned and well managed by the National Park Service, have become widely known for their U pick in season (early June through fall) fruit on the honor system for weighting and paying. Ladders and picking equipment are provided by the park service. To the delight of tourist, the orchards also attract wildlife such as mule deer until the last of the apples disappear
Fruita’s schoolhouse opened in 1900 and continued to keep classes of varying sizes until 1941, when there were no longer enough students to remain open. Once the small community’s hub for elections, town meetings and church activities, the one room log structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
I couldn’t help but wonder how did Capitol Reef get its name? At the park’s visitor information center alongside Hwy. 24, I learned it was christened “capital” for the white domes, molded by erosion, atop the sandstone cliffs and look much like capital building rotundas. And “reef?” I asked. “Well, that for the rocky cliffs, which are a barrier to the surrounding area, much like a coral reef.” I was told.
Waterpocket folds, a massive warp in the earth’s crust, describes Capitol Reef’s walls, these are sandstone layers that are eroded by moisture and over time erode the rock layers. The many layers have millions of years of history that reveal several different ancient climates as varied as ocean and swamps to Sahara like desert.
This area was called the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow” by Navajo Indians because of its bright multicolored walls and twisting canyons. The earliest traces of human activity here have been dated to 700 AD when the Fremont and Anasazi people occupied the area. The Fremont culture was named for the Fremont River and its valley where many of their sites have been discovered.
A visit to Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is worth the journey for both its natural and cultural history, but before coming remember this is considered a remote area. Plan your trip carefully by gassing up before you leave the main highway, carry drinking water and bring food to snack on. The town of Torrey on the West Side of the park is about 3 AÃ¯Â¿Â½ hours south of Salt Lake City.
To learn more about Butch Cassidy’s years spent here, check out “Outlaw Trail, the story of Butch Cassidy” by Charles Kelly.