CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #4

 

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

 

Dec. 14, 2011

In all probability, most of our readers have never even heard of Capitol Reef National Park.  Where’s that? you may wonder; if it’s anywhere most likely it’s some island park somewhere in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Instead, it’s situated in one of the driest sections of our nation.

 

It came by its name because early pioneers in westward-bound wagon trains felt its topography (featuring many dome-like sandstone rock formations) reminded them of the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C.  Secondly, because it had been, since time immemorial, a 100-mile-long reef-like obstruction to east/west traffic.  Indeed, it ended up being the last-explored territory in the lower 48 states.

Not until 1853 did an explorer even get close.  But Captain John W. Gunnison, seeking a transcontinental east/west train route, never made it into the interior.  Later that year, John C. Fremont, following upon Gunnison’s exploration, actually made it into the heart of the range.  He was, in turn, followed by John Wesley Powell, who named the river running through it, the Fremont.

 

Outlaw bands, such as Butch Cassidy and his gang are reputed to have hidden out in the towering wrinkle of rock, honeycombed with cliffs, canyons, knobs, monoliths, spires, slots, alcoves, arches, and natural bridges.

 

Brigham Young sent Mormon pioneers to settle here in 1880.  In a little two-hundred-acre river valley they named Fruita, they settled in, complete with a blacksmith shop, one-room schoolhouse, barns, and 2700 apple, peach, cherry, pear, and apricot trees.  The little settlement lasted for sixty years—finally, the desolation, isolation, and loneliness got to them, and they moved out in 1940.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt first made it a national monument in 1937; it did not achieve national park status until 1971.  But relatively few visitors come here to explore its 241,900 acres; and of those who do, fewer yet venture off the two paved roads into the dirt roads of the interior, which is a pity, for they thereby miss some of the most magnificent scenery in the Southwest.  Especially legendary are sections such as Upper Cathedral Valley, so monolithic early explorers likened many formations to Gothic cathedrals.

 

Of the five national parks in Utah’s fabled Colorado Plateau, Zion gets the most visitors, by far; followed by Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands.

 

OUR OWN JOURNEY

After a good breakfast at the Moab Best Western, we looped north on 191 to Interstate 70, headed west, then turned south on Hwy 24.  Two mountain ranges so dominate southeastern Utah that rarely are both the La Sal and the Henry Mountains out of view.  As for the Henrys, they rise like a great windjammer at full sail.  Some years ago, in my faithful red Toyota I’d dubbed “Eloquent,” I’d driven here on a sabbatical.  Foolishly, I’d taken Eloquent up into the Henrys; after crossing over the crest of the highest of the three Henrys, I all but lost Eloquent in the loose shale on the western side.  Many the time I had to back up with spinning wheels, then race down in hopes I could get enough momentum to make it to the top of the next hill—again, again, and yet again.  No cars at all on the road!  I finally got back to Hanksville riding on fumes in an all but empty gas-tank.

 

Now, as the Henrys came into view, I took a long lingering look at its now snow-capped peaks, stopped for photos, and we reboarded and headed west along the Fremont River to Capitol Reef, the Henrys our constant companions to our south.  To say we didn’t do justice to Capitol Reef would be a gross understatement.  We didn’t even have time in our tight schedule to take the nine-mile scenic spur (the only other paved road in the park).  We only had time to shutterbug along the Fremont, in the Fruita orchards, at the schoolhouse, and spend ample time in the park visitor center.

Anyone who fails to take advantage of the generally informative and sometimes splendid visitor centers in our national parks and monuments will later suffer for the omission, for those videos and films enrich your actual experiences and compensate for all you fail to see.  We saw enough of the latter here in Capitol Reef to make us sigh and vow to return when we have the time—and four-wheel-drive—to enable us to venture into the hundred-mile north-south Waterpocket Fold that contains the park’s real treasures.

 

In one respect, Capitol Reef National Park towers over all other park visitor centers: the video footage comes to its memorable conclusion, the curtains slowly part and are pulled wide; behind: a magnificent panorama anchored by a castle-like fortress of rainbow-colored rock.  It took our breath away!

 

After delaying as long as we could, we reboarded the Lincoln and continued west.  In no time at all, we’d exited the park.

 

Next is Bryce National Park!

 

CORRECTION FOR BLOG #40, SERIES #2

 

Gus Scott, one of our sharp-eyed readers, has corrected me: “Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachoma arches are in Natural Bridges National Monument, and not in Canyonlands National Park.”

Many thanks, Gus.

 

SOURCES

 

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred Knopf/Random House, 2009).

 

Leeth, Dan, “Utah’s Forgotten Park,” featured in May/June 2011 AAA Encompass.

 

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

 

Olson, Virgil J. and Helen, Capitol Reef: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenburg, AZ: K. C. Publications, 1990).

 

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, DC., National Geographic Society, 2009).

Advertisements