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When You Really Want A Park To Yourself, Consider Capitol Reef National Park


My what big horns you have! Wildlife viewing is a prime wintertime draw in Capitol Reef National Park. NPS photo.

Think of Capitol Reef National Park and, if you're familiar with this isolated outpost in Utah's canyon country, you'll likely envision soaring reefs of colorful rock. But few would even imagine battles between mountain lions and lynx.

But that's exactly what transpired last week in the park that, despites its nearly 250,000 acres, is often overlooked in a state with better-known national-park destinations such as Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands. While no one saw the battle -- won by the mountain lion, of course -- the winter months are an ideal time to go looking for wildlife in Capitol Reef.

It's during these cold months that it's easier to spot the animals heading for a sip out of the Fremont River that drifts across the park near the visitor center, or from one of the park's other streams. The overall lack of people -- just 6,342 folks visited the park last December, and only 5,904 came last January -- creates a quieter atmosphere that the animals seem to be more comfortable with.

"In the winter time people see fox, desert bighorn sheep, and bobcat," says Riley Mitchell, the park's chief of interpretation. "We didn’t see it, but we just had a lynx that was killed by a mountain lion. We didn’t even know we had lynx in the park.”

This lynx was quite the traveler, as biologists had tracked its wanderings all the way to Idaho before it headed back south and met its demise by making the ill-fated decision to wander into mountain lion territory.

"We do see a lot more visible wildlife (in winter), says Ranger Mitchell. "You still have to look for them. But the possibilities, the potential of being able to see wildlife, is quite elevated because it is quiet. And we have a great little environment for them down here. It’s warmer than the surrounding area. We’re a little enclave of warmer temperatures and not such gusty winds.”

It was 37 years ago today that Capitol Reef was transformed by President Lyndon B. Johnson from the national monument that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created in August 1937 into a national park. The most prominent topographical and geological landmark of this park is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long uplift of rock formed about 65 million years ago by buckling of the Colorado Plateau.

This maze of rock canyons, draws, and cliffs is great to explore if you're properly equipped. Indeed, in summer the high heat and dry climate can be challenging for those who don't set out with enough water, and flash floods can be devastating and deadly to those who park in the wrong spot or don't pay enough attention to the weather. But the solitude available year-round in this immense landscape can be downright luscious.

Most visitors understandably arrive in May and June, when the orchards of Fruita are in bloom, and in September and October, when those orchards are ripe for harvest. And you can enjoy this harvest, as park visitors can pick to their heart's content from the apple, peach, apricot and cherry trees. There's no charge for fruit you eat in the park, while a small fee is levied if you want to take fruit away with you.

As noted above, the winter months draw few to Capitol Reef. The sun goes down too soon to allow long wanderings during the day, the nights can be cold, and the park is decidedly off the beaten path during a time when few folks are traveling for fun. But if you find the time, and make the effort, you'll be rewarded not only by more visible wildlife, but by some of the best landscape photography conditions, as the season's low angle of the sun "really brings out the color in the cliffs, the textures, the patterns, those kinds of things,” points out Ranger Mitchell.

Though most folks approach Capitol Reef as a "drive through" park on their way to or from one of Utah's other national parks, Capitol Reef has incredible assets for those who stop, hoist a pack on their back, and head off into that landscape. There are trails that lead you through slot canyons and into sprawling gorges, -- places called Muley Twist, Burro Wash and Hamburger Rocks -- and, for those comfortable with self-reconnoitering, well, any direction will reward.

Now, there's a little Western history here as well. Head up Grand Wash a bit and you'll find Cassidy Arch, which, you guessed it, is named after the outlaw Butch Cassidy. Local lore has it that Butch would use the Grand Wash area to hide from pursuing posses. Fruita, of course, dates back to pioneering members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who arrived late in the 19th century. They're the ones who planted the orchards so they could sell the fruit to surrounding communities.

Long before the Mormons arrived, though, bands of Native Americans now called the Fremont lived here, and left their mark in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs on sandstone palettes you can find next to the Old Fruita Schoolhouse.

Today Capitol Reef is somewhat of an anomaly among the 58 "national parks." It's big, wide and handsome, but enjoys relatively scant visitation, making it the perfect escape.

Traveler trivia: One of Utah's best restaurants, Cafe Diablo, is a short drive away in Torrey. Unfortunately, it's open only seasonally. In 2009 that will be from April 2 through October 17,

Traveler trivia, take two: A great place to stay, if you're not into pitching a tent in the park's campground, is the Sky Ridge Inn, a charming B&B in Torrey that's set on a hillside with views down into the park.


My wife and I discovered this beautiful park last year in October. We had been in Moab visiting Arches and Canyonlands and we wanted to go next to Bryce Canyon. When I researched ways between the two areas, I found Utah 12, A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway. It is designated an All-american Byway (see & and goes between Torrey & Panguitch. Driving from Moab by way of US 191, I-70, and UT 24 took us right past Capital Reef NP. Of course, we stopped. The orchards are beautiful and the drive down the water-pocket fold is stunning. Don't miss Cassidy Arch. A good part of the park road is good and easy to navigate. If you are a little more adventurous and have the proper vehicle, there are a lot of primitive roads including the spectacular Burr trail through the water-pocket fold. There are also petrogylphs as well as the remains of the little town of Fruita. We especially enjoyed the school house, since we are both retired school teachers.

Now UT 24 is a very scenic drive, but UT 12 is spectacular (see It skirts the northern border of the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM and provides grand views of that area. You will also pass over the Hogsback. This is a section of the road south of Boulder that is built on the crest of the slickrock. Either side of you, the canyons drop a thousand feet down. For someone from Florida, it is enough to make you go weak at the knees. Make sure that you stop at the joint agency visitor's center in Escalante. It is new and quite nice. They have all kinds of stamps for your Passport. Moving on, there are all kinds of things to explore. Just before Bryce, you can take a side trip to Kodachrome SP and, if you have time, drive on to the Grosvenor Arch, an unusual double arch.

A note of caution: if you use a GPS navigator and if you go off of the interstates or US and state highways into the Grand Staircase, be careful. Many of the primitive roads in the area carry numbers, either county numbers or BLM numbers. The mapping programs used by these navigators as well as Microsoft's Streets and Trips recognize these roads are viable roads. Many are not; they are very primitive roads that can be very, very rough as well as impassable in bad weather. Make sure that you check out any of these roads with another source such as the visitor's centers. The BLM has several in the area.

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