This post represents another installment in the series detailing the second of our three cross-country National Parks camping trips with travel trailer in tow. At the time of this trip in 2010, our son, Ryan, was 16 and our daughter, Kyra, was 11.
When travelers are trying to come up with the five National Parks that make up Utah’s “Mighty 5,” I’ll bet Capitol Reef is usually the last one that comes to mind. Zion with the towering walls of its canyon and unique hiking experience up the Virgin River; Bryce Canyon with its fantastical hoodoos; Arches with its countless and unusual arch formations; and Canyonlands, Arches’ neighbor, with mile after mile of remote and rugged landscapes – these four are generally known for one particular feature. Capitol Reef, well, Capitol Reef is a National Park comprised of many different features, each one as intriguing as the next.
After our little family of intrepid travelers left Bryce Canyon National Park, we made two fairly quick stops along the way to our next destination. We briefly explored both Kodachrome Basin State Park and Escalante Petrified Forest State Park on our way to Capitol Reef. I’m glad we made both stops, but neither was a particular highlight of the trip and the Petrified Forest did not make it onto our “return to” list. Since I’ve seen absolutely fabulous reviews of Kodachrome Basin, I’d give it another shot, just not in the midst of the summer heat. In fact, at the time I was drafting this post, Kodachrome was enjoying a 9.7 (out of 10) rating on CampgroundReviews.com – more than enough reason for a do-over.
|Kodachrome Basin State Park|
Indeed, it was the summer heat that led me to decide against staying at the Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef National Park. Because the campground is on the valley floor, it can get quite hot there in the summer. With our travel schedule dictated by the kids’ school calendar, we didn’t have the option of visiting in the spring or fall. When we return to Capitol Reef (notice that I said “when,” not “if”) I’d like that visit to be outside of the summer season so that we can enjoy this lovely campground in the valley among the orchards.
|Fruita Campground ~ Capitol Reef National Park|
Less than 25 miles away from Capitol Reef (but at a much higher elevation), I found the Singletree Campground, a National Forest campground located off Route 12 in the Fishlake National Forest. A higher elevation usually equals cooler summer temperatures and those comfortable temps more than made up for the half hour drive to get to the National Park. I had booked a site online, but there were no photos of the sites on Recreation.gov, and we arrived to find ourselves at a very sunny campsite.
|Singletree Campground ~ We moved to this site with a lovely shaded picnic area.|
When we asked about the possibility of moving to another site with a bit of shade, the super-friendly, super-helpful campground host quickly directed us to a site at the back, northeast corner of the camping loop. While part of the site was sunny, the back portion of our new campsite had plenty of shade trees PLUS a gorgeous view of the mountains behind us. I often say, “Thank heaven for small favors,” because I’ve found that tiny details in our travels can have a huge impact on our experiences. I think that’s one of the reasons I work as hard as I do to find the “perfect” site, and I’m pretty sure our campground host gave us one of the best sites he had.
|The view from our "backyard" at Singletree Campground|
Those of you who are regular readers are probably tired of hearing me say that each National Park has its own personality and attributes. This is certainly true of Capitol Reef. This National Park is located on the Waterpocket Fold – basically, a huge “wrinkle” in the earth’s crust that was formed when the sedimentary layers on one side of a fault moved upward as the fault shifted and the corresponding layers on the other side of the fault didn’t. At least, that’s the way I understand it. If you’re interested in the actual geology of the area, be sure to visit the National Park Service website for more details (link HERE). I’m more of an “Oh, look at the gorgeous rocks!” kind of girl myself; hence, the very rudimentary explanation.
|The Fruita Schoolhouse was built in 1896.|
The Fold makes for an incredibly varied and beautiful landscape. But there’s much more to Capitol Reef than that. Incidentally, the name “Capitol Reef” is attributed to the presence of white Navajo sandstone domes that resemble the domes of Capitol buildings in cities across the country and the rocky cliffs (or reefs) in the area. In addition to the rugged and remote Waterpocket District in the southern section of the Park, there is another remote district in the northern section called Cathedral Valley. Beauty abounds in both of these sections, but do check with Park Rangers regarding conditions in either area before setting out to explore. These rugged lands can be unforgiving, and help is not always close at hand for those who are unprepared for a backcountry experience.
The Fruita Historic District of Capitol Reef National Park provides visitors with exposure to nature’s beauty and the fertile valley’s historic significance. It’s an extraordinary location that delivers the “education in action” that we have always loved to see our kids experience. People have lived in this valley for thousands of years, including the hunters-gatherers of the Fremont Culture who inhabited this area for about a thousand years from approximately 300 to 1300 CE (Common Era).
Although the people of the Fremont Culture (named for the Fremont River that flows through the area) did begin to incorporate farming into their lifestyle, it wasn’t until pioneers and settlers arrived in the later 1800’s that Fruita’s historic fruit and nut orchards were planted. To this day, visitors can pick fruits and nuts from the trees in 19 orchards planted by individual pioneer families. Signs are posted to indicate which fruits are ripe for picking, and a self-pay station is available to visitors, as are ladders and hand pickers.
Ryan and Alan and the apricot tree
I can’t even begin to tell you how important Alan and I believe that “education in action” is to our kids. It’s one thing to read about history in school books, but standing on the very ground where pioneers who traveled across the west chose to stop and settle and plant the very tree from which you just picked a fresh, tasty apricot creates an entirely different impression. I hope any of you who choose to visit Capitol Reef are able to do so when the cherries, plums, peaches, apples, walnuts, almonds and other fruits are in season. It is an experience not to be missed.
The Gifford Farm was located in the heart of the Fruita Historic District and the Gifford family was the last to occupy the area. The remaining family members sold their property to the National Park Service in 1969, and their home is now a sales outlet run by the Natural History Association. In this small shop, you can find reproduction utensils and household tools used by Mormon pioneers in their daily tasks, as well as handmade items from local artisans, and jams, jellies and pies from the local area.
Alan and I must have really gotten into the spirit that day at Capitol Reef because we decided that all four of us should buy an individual pie and eat “lunch” at the charming picnic area a short walk from the shop.
The kids, of course, were amazed that I threw all of my good nutrition admonitions out the window, and they reveled in the opportunity to have such a unique and scrumptious picnic lunch. But I do have one regret - we should have gotten more pies.
There is one major disappointment associated with our visit to Capitol Reef National Park – a big enough disappointment that Capitol Reef remains on my bucket list even though we visited the Park. Summer in the Waterpocket area can bring monsoons along with the high temperatures. We had planned to hike the Capitol Gorge trail, following the path of pioneers so that we could view prehistoric petroglyphs and the inscriptions on the Pioneer Register, but the road to the trailhead was closed due to flash flooding, and it would not have been a safe day for that particular hike. So, we reluctantly crossed the highly anticipated adventure off of our list.
Before returning to our room-with-a-view at Singletree Campground high in the Fishlake National Forest, we closed out our day at Capitol Reef National Park by visiting the site of a number of Fremont Culture petroglyphs, easily accessible via two boardwalks along Utah State Route 24. (Bring binoculars for the best views!) The petroglyphs are yet another example of education in action – these were no photos of ancient drawings in a school book; they were right there in front of us, carved in the rocks around us, telling a story that we were challenged to decipher. Our kids were not observers in an academic setting; they were participants in a real-life learning experience. The blessings of travel are never lost on me.
Capitol Reef may not be the first National Park that comes to mind when the magnificent public lands of Utah are mentioned, but the Park’s diverse and fascinating attributes elevate a visitor’s experience from the expected and enjoyable to the surprising and sublime. Don’t pass this superstar by.
To learn more about Capitol Reef National Park, check out the National Park Service website (link HERE) and, if you decide to visit, remember that more is better when it comes to the fresh fruit pies!