On the Plateau, Part VII: Empty, Beautiful Capitol Reef

Emptier but no less impressive than its Utah park brethren, we spent an all-to-brief visit to this remote, beautiful mix of rock, water, and farmland.

On the Plateau, Part VII: Empty, Beautiful Capitol Reef

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on November 27, 2007

I’m a sucker for the underrated, the overlooked. It’s hard to put a national park in that category—they all had to catch someone’s eye some time—but Capitol Reef may be as close to that status as any. With four prominent neighbors drawing more traffic, Capitol Reef is the least known of Utah’s five parks (although relatively ‘nearby’ Canyonlands draws a few less visitors).

Geography is certainly one reason. Tucked amidst some of Utah’s most forbidding country, Capitol Reef is not reached by accident. Northeast of Bryce and north of Monument Valley, this long, comma-shaped park sits atop the Waterpocket Fold, a geological crease that presented a serious barrier, or reef, to early settlers. We found few people here during our short visit—even in the 21st century, it remains pretty remote country. (But not for Germans, evidently: a large banner at a Torrey hotel announced ‘Fruhstuck!’)

Trekking here was too much to resist. By visiting Monument Valley, we added both Capitol Reef and the spectacular Utah 12 to our itinerary (which we took south to Bryce Canyon).

But the park’s virtues go well beyond the sights you see as you come and go. Capitol Reef’s sandstone reminded me of both Zion and Bryce, but with a different flavor—provided in part by the relics from the pioneer community that struggled to find a living along the Fremont River, beneath the spectacular rocks of the Fold. The orchards they planted amidst this awesome natural setting are still tended by the Park Service, although the community that started them gave up decades ago.

Other earlier settlers left their mark here, too. The Fremont culture occupied this area a thousand years ago, farming and hunting along the river of the same name (and where evidence of this vanished culture was first found).

Just miles away from this pastoral area is some pretty rugged, remote country. To the north, above Highway 24 and beyond the reef’s end, are the South Desert and Cathedral Valley, a beautiful landscape that requires 4WD, accessed only by a pair of rough roads that begin outside the park. To the south, the park follows the Waterpocket Fold, accessed off the Notom-Bullfrog Road that ends at Bullfrog Marina on the northernmost reaches of Lake Powell. The middle third of this unpaved but accessible road is in the park, including a junction with the Burr Trail, a remote but beautiful (and recently—and controversially—improved) road west to Boulder.

${QuickSuggestions} The park gets its name from the domes along western Highway 24. One of these well-weathered sandstone prominences does look a lot like its namesake in DC. Just west of this area is the most accessible evidence of the Fremont people, petroglyphs on the rock faces along the river’s north bank, a mile and a half east of the visitor center. They’re across the road from the area’s last settlement, the Mormon village of Fruita, founded in the late 19th century. Coping with this small village perplexed Park management, who eventually acquired most of the orchards and properties, removing the motels and lodging, but keeping the fruit trees, schoolhouse, and a few homesteads. Be sure to try both the cherry and apple pies baked here. In season, you may even come away with free fruit.

The park’s natural heritage centers around the rugged Waterpocket Fold, which is difficult to explore. Perhaps the best place to see it is from Panorama Point, just to the south off Highway 24 near the park entrance. A short trail then takes you to the Goosenecks, the snakelike switchbacks of Sulphur Creek carved into the rock as the Waterpocket Fold slowly lifted.

The scenic drive runs 10 miles into the heart of the park, ending at a trail along an old highway into Capitol Gorge. On our visit, this hike, and everything else along the drive, was cut off by one of the torrential rains that are among the largest dangers in southern Utah. Water cascaded off the stone bluffs in a long sequence of impromptu waterfalls along Highway 24. Hiking the Grand Wash the next day, it was easy to imagine the truly mortal danger of hiking a slot canyon in such a rainstorm. Thankfully, the sky was clear, and the fresh mud didn’t keep us from a great three-mile roundtrip exploration of this canyon.

Our time in Capitol Reef was too short. We knew it would be; we’d chosen more stops and beautiful drives over extended stays in a smaller number of places. I was intrigued by the Reef’s combination of isolation, wilderness, and just enough civilization to make it possible to stay. Who knows how long it will last: in the time before and after our visit, I’ve seen more than a few articles touting Capitol Reef as an ‘overlooked gem’, and the chain motels are finding a footing along Torrey’s eastern edge.

${BestWay} Before you get around Capitol Reef, you need to get there. You’re likely to be coming from one of four other places: Salt Lake City, Zion/Bryce, Monument Valley, or Canyonlands/Arches and Moab, all about three and a half hours away. (Bryce is a little closer, but coming over Highway 12 will reduce your speed and increase your pullout time).

A full exploration of the park requires a vehicle suited for unpaved, if not barely existent, roads. Even the Scenic Drive was rendered impassable by the rain in which we arrived; I could only imagine what happened to the roads into Cathedral Valley or along the southern reaches of the Waterpocket Fold. It’s self-preservation, not just common sense, to check with a Ranger either here or in adjoining Dixie National Forest before heading off on these or other backcountry trails.

Without 4WD, you can still see a lot of good stuff: many of the shorter trailheads are off either Highway 24 or the Scenic Drive. Some backcountry roads are passable with lower clearance vehicles, too: I’m itching to go back and spend a longer time here, looping down the Notom Road, out the Burr Trial to Boulder, and then back to Torrey. For a great phototale of a wintertime motorcycle trip on this loop, see this story from a year-round resident.

You’ll need a base for exploring the park, and the choices are somewhat limited. There is no in-park lodging, although a nice campground near the north end of Scenic Drive was created as part of the infrastructure expansion in the 1960’s. I’d highly recommend Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel in Torrey, which we chose over the nearby Capitol Reef Inn and Wonderland Inn because of the 2BR cabins. The old schoolhouse in Torrey is now a comfortable looking bed and breakfast (but not suited to housing our family of five).

Dining options are even more limited. The owner of the Capitol Reef Inn also operates a moderately priced café where we probably would have dined on a second night. Café Diablo has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the state, but it was too high-end for this trip.

This was the northeastern limit of our ‘Grand Circle’ across the southwest, which included:

Austin's Chuckwagon Motel

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on November 27, 2007

This small complex is the best place to stay in Torrey. There’s not much to this small town of 120 residents, and the complex that owner Randy Austin and family have built here occupies a fair amount of space near the center of town. There’s a building of standard motel rooms, although it’s rustic wooden construction and three-story height make it more appealing than the great majority of such units. There’s a pool, which we weren’t able to use, but which would be great on summer evenings after a full day of hiking in the dry, high-altitude air.

We stayed in one of the ‘cabins’, which I arranged over the phone in mid-winter. For $109 a night, what we found when we arrived was more like a small, simple but pleasant condo: 8 or 10 similar units lined the west side of the parking lot below the motel, each a free-standing building with a parking area out front. Inside, we found a living room to the left of the front door, with a fold-out sofa, a 21" TV (and satellite, probably a necessity for television here) and a lounge chair. To the right was a small but complete kitchen, with refrigerator, dishes, and double sink. Two modest but comfortable bedrooms were in the back, each with a TV. (The TV felt odd to me, but my kids couldn’t leave it alone.) There was a smallish full bath behind the kitchen. Overall, there was plenty of room, and slept five of us comfortably for the one night we spent there, and a terrific bargain.

Across the parking area was a small but well-stocked store and deli, a great place to stock up on supplies and food, including a well-above-average selection of meats and cheeses. After returning from a terrific meal of burgers and shakes down the street at Brink’s Drive-In, we put together the next day’s breakfast and lunch, supplemented by a healthy selection of postcards.

My only regret about Austin’s was that we weren’t here longer. Capitol Reef had a lot more to explore than we were able to see (because of both time and the weather), and this would be a comfortable base from which to do it. It’s a few miles into the park from here, and you’ll pass a few other lodging choices, but I’d stay here on a return trip.
Austin’s Chuck Wagon Motel
12 West Main Street
Torrey, Utah, 84775
(800) 863-3288

Brink's Burgers Drive-In

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on November 27, 2007

If you like burgers, eat here. A classic drive-in, Brink’s offers about 15 different versions of their great-tasting certified Angus burger. I went with the basic cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate milk shake. My oldest opted for the jalapeno burger, and after surviving the experience, pronounced it ‘great’. All of us agreed that the milk shakes were top notch. There’s a small seating area that appears to have been added on to the restaurant’s west side. But regardless of whether you sit there, or take the food back to your car, you order through the window in classic drive-up style.

The featured burgers include bacon cheeseburgers, pizza burgers (burger and sausage patty with Swiss cheese, pizza sauce & onions), and the Super burger with ham, bacon and two cheeses. You can also get a few different grilled chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, a variety of deep fried appetizers, and (shudder) salads. The onion rings and fries were both first rate, and the milk shakes were thick and cold. My kids explored the less traditional flavors (Butterfinger’s/Reese and Snickers), while my wife and I stayed with traditional chocolate and vanilla. Nobody went for the pineapple or cookie dough shakes.

There’s another restaurant in town (Café Diablo) that’s supposed to offer ‘creative and innovative Southwestern cuisine’. That sounded OK but pricey, and lost out on the family ballot to burgers, fries and shakes. It was easier on the wallet, for sure, but I’m not sure anything would have tasted better at the end of a long day. We brought our meal back to Austin’s and ate in our comfortable living room (although the fries didn’t make it all the way back). I was tempted to return for a second shake, but having had a nearly hiking-free day, ended up thinking better of the extra calorie bomb. But I wish I had one now.
Brink's Burgers Drive-In
165 E. Main St.
Torrey, Utah, 84775
(435) 425-3710

Fruita Historic District

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on November 27, 2007

No place in Utah gave me as strong a sense of what Mormon settlers endured while carving out homes across this not-always-hospitable state. Hard to reach and only somewhat easier to stay in, it seemed particularly lonely to call this isolated valley home with only two or three dozen fellow residents.

But for several decades, up to 10 families at a time did just that. Here on the sheltered floodplains of the Fremont River, the soil was rich enough to raise fruit, and the elevation was just a touch lower, enough to make the winters a bit warmer than in the surrounding region. Fruita’s residents planted apples, apricots, peaches, cherries and other fruits, and made a living off the harvest, livestock they grazed on the hillsides, and employment with the road commission (and eventually the Park Service). They built homesteads, a small schoolhouse for educating their children, and eventually the original infrastructure that enabled the first tourists to stay here.

The Historic District lies along the Fremont River’s east-west path, and then south on what is now the Scenic Drive. A small creek runs in from the southwest, and irrigation ditches from here and from the river watered the orchards. Establishment of the National Monument in 1937 put this small village in the midst of a modestly sized new reserve, but didn’t change much else. Residents continued to use the land as they always had, diverting water and grazing livestock.

As the Monument gradually drew more visitors, Fruita’s private lands became an increasingly difficult issue. Eventually, the Park Service acquired all of them in sales or trades, and began removing the newer tourist-era buildings. In another decade, debate about Fruita’s status as a "typical Mormon village" morphed into the decision to save and restore the oldest and most illustrative remaining buildings.

The 1896 one-room schoolhouse sits north of the road, a mile east of the Visitor Center. There aren’t many schools in a prettier setting, nearly flush against the steep rock walls, with the orchards and pastures across and up the road. We could only peer in the windows at the front of the school, and listen to a recording by one of the teachers describing life in the 1930’s classroom.

About 10 families lived in Fruita at a time, but the only remaining open residence is the Gifford Farmhouse (other structures are used by the NPS, or remain closed). Dewey Gifford and family lived there for 40 years after purchasing it from his father-in-law. The Natural History Association maintains the house as an exhibit of early 20th-century homesteading life. Nearby are the original barn and smokehouse, all set along a very pretty pasture. The home includes a small store selling period-related items, including the not-to-be-missed small cherry and apple pies, baked fresh each morning.

We took one of each out to the picnic tables in the large grassy front yard, and playfully fought over each bite. It was a good way to say goodbye to Fruita and to Capitol Reef.

Grand Wash

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on November 27, 2007

We’d planned to spend half a day in Capitol Reef before driving Highway 12 through Boulder, across the Hogsback, and down to Bryce Canyon. A conversation with a Ranger the previous afternoon confirmed our interest in hiking the Grand Wash, which cuts southwest off Highway 24 and meets the Scenic Drive after a few miles.

With the Drive still closed by the rain, we pulled off of the Highway, donned our hiking boots, and headed into the Wash. The torrential rains of the previous day were over, and bright blue sky was set off brilliantly by the white rock stretching up above us on either side. This hike runs along the bottom of a fairly broad slot canyon, whose mouth is several dozen yards across at the northern entrance where we headed in. It was perfectly obvious that it was formed by water, as the previous day’s run off had left perfectly molded waves and runs of mud along the bottom, looking like a frozen river of its own.

We bounced back and forth between the canyon walls, walking along shoals, up against the rock face, and avoiding as much mud as we could. After a half-hour, our boots looked like they’d doubled in size, but that wasn’t dampening any one’s spirits.

The canyon narrowed as we moved along, shrinking down to eight or 10 yards across in places. The walls were beautiful against the sky. After an hour of hiking, the canyon took a sharp turn to the right, beneath a deep notch in the walls that framed a big blue chunk of sky. Shortly after, with a mile or more under our belt, we turned and retraced our steps back to the trailhead.

The hike reminded me a lot of our adventure in the narrows of Zion’s Virgin River, but without the water underfoot. We had minimal company in the Wash, and I only remember encountering people heading in from the trailhead as we struggled to get the mud off our boots. (That didn’t really happen until we got them home, and mine still carry a light patina that reminds of that morning). This was our principal expedition in the Park, and one that left me hungry for more time here. After a good 15 minutes of de-mudding our shoes, we headed back into the Park one last time, to visit the historic district of Fruita.

A Short Visit to Capitol Reef

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on November 27, 2007

We drove into Capitol Reef from the west, having left Monument Valley, crossed the Colorado at Hite, and turned west on Highway 24 toward the park at Hanksville. The rain that threatened during our stop at Natural Bridges was now pouring down, washing out any thoughts of seeing what this tiny junction town in the wilderness had to offer. As we headed west into the canyons, the rain began to let up, and by the time we reached the park’s western boundary it had stopped.

But its after-effects hadn’t. Sheets of water now poured off the white domes of rock all along the road, and we lost count of the impromptu waterfalls as the road wove upstream through the canyon carved by the Fremont River. We thought we’d picked out the capitol-shaped dome that gave the area its name, but it was easier to see as we headed east later that evening.

The skies were still gray as we arrived at the Visitor Center in late afternoon, but looked like they might clear soon. The center was both larger than it looked and larger than I expected, with a good-sized bookstore. The slide show in the small theater on the north side is shown on request, and we headed there after picking up maps and trail guides. I remember thinking that it was a decent presentation, but any specific memories of were wiped out by the way it ended—as the last image faded, the portion of the wall containing the screen rose up, leaving the large red rock formation called ‘The Castle’ perfectly framed in the exposed window.

We’d planned to take a trip down the Scenic Drive, but the rangers at the desk were just announcing that the rain had washed out the road, closing it after a mile, just south of Fruita. We switched our plans, headed to Torrey to check in at Austin’s and eat at Brinks, and then headed back into the park about 7pm. The skies were now perfectly clear, just in time for the terrific light ahead of sunset.

The fading sun really brought out the colors in the rocks along the north side of the highway. As the sun continued to set, they looked increasingly golden in the late-day light. This made it a particularly nice time to see the Twin Rocks and then Chimney Rock, both of which are visible from Highway 24 just inside the park boundary. The turnoff to Goosenecks and Panorama Point is just a bit past Chimney Rock, and is well worth visiting for a good view east along the Waterpocket Fold before the highway descends into Fruita.

Panorama Point is not far off the highway. The road continues past here to a short hike to the Goosenecks, the deep bends in Sulphur Creek. The trail isn’t well marked, but it’s not too hard to sense the general direction you should take. There were just enough markers along the one-third of a mile to get us to the overlook, which is nearly directly above the big turns in the river. A small fenced platform is directly on the edge of the bluff.

The Goosenecks are far enough down that they were deep in shadow by the time we arrived. I was up for returning the next morning for a better view (and better photos), but the urge to head on to Bryce Canyon won out with the rest of our crew.

We retraced our steps to the parking lot, and then sprinted the short distance out to Sunset Point. There was another good view of the Waterpocket Fold and the Henry Mountains beyond, but any thought of staying for the actual sunset was squashed by my oldest kid’s desire to get to the Petroglyphs before we lost the sunlight.

Our experience of Capitol Reef was directly tied to Highway 24. Our minivan wasn’t appropriate for Cathedral Valley, the Scenic Drive was closed, and we’d chosen not to risk the drive north along Notom-Bullfrog road for both time and safety reasons. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this park nearly as much as any of the others. The combination of wilderness and pioneer community was intriguing, and the large stretches of the park that remained off-limits to us meant that we’d only scratched the surface here. The Grand Canyon aside, I’d probably return here first before revisiting any of the stops on this trip. In part, the additional time we spent at both places gave me a better sense of each location. In addition, I know I’d be more likely to experience this place without the crowds that fill those two parks.


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