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Park History: Capitol Reef National Park

One of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef perhaps is the least known to the greater collection of national park travelers, practically a step-sibling to the other four. Yet that lack of notoriety actually contributes to its wonders, for it's easier to find some solitude and imagine the West of 150 years ago.

Within its 378 square miles the park protects part of the “Waterpocket Fold” – a 100-mile-long, slender reef of uplifted rock in the desert that owes its angular nature to the same continental collision that formed the Rockies. The ridge has eroded over time, revealing white Navajo sandstone offset by contrasting hues of the Chinle Formation and Mancos shales.

While the Waterpocket Fold dominates the heart of the park, it has a tremendous supporting cast in the sandstone towers and blocks of rock that rise above the landscape. It was this “reef” of rock and the appearance of shimmering white rock domes that reminded early settlers of the U.S. Capitol’s dome that were the seeds that led to the park’s name.

But the park is more, much more, than simply a geology lesson. The region's cultural heritage goes back millenia, as long before white settlers arrived the landscape was home to Fremont and ancestral Puebloan people. According to Park Service historians, these cultures began to incorporate farming into their hunter and gatherer lifestyles approximately 2,000 years ago.

Petroglyph panels throughout Capitol Reef depict ancient art and stories of these people who lived in the area from approximately 600-1300 common era. Named for the Fremont River that flows through the park, evidence now shows that these people lived throughout Utah and adjacent areas of Idaho, Colorado and Nevada.

The Fremont lived in pit houses (dug into the ground and covered with a brush roof) and natural rock shelters. Their social structure was likely composed of small, loosely organized bands consisting of several families. They were closely tied to nature and flexible, making frequent modifications in their life ways as social or environmental changes occurred.

Several artifacts are distinctive to the Fremont. A unique singular style of basketry, called one-rod-and-bundle, incorporated willow, yucca, milkweed and other native fibers. Pottery, mostly graywares, had smooth, polished surfaces or corrugated designs pinched into the clay. The Fremont made moccasins from the lower-leg hide of large animals, such as deer, bighorn sheep or bison. Dew claws were left on the soles, possibly to act as hobnails, providing extra traction on slippery surfaces.

Pictographs (painted on rock surfaces) and petroglyphs (carved or pecked into the rock surface) depict people, animals and other shapes and forms on rock surfaces. Anthropomorphic (human-like) figures usually have trapezoidal shaped bodies with arms, legs and fingers. The figures are often elaborately decorated with headdresses, ear bobs, necklaces, clothing items and facial expressions. A wide variety of zoomorphic (animal-like) figures include bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, birds, snakes and lizards. Abstract designs, geometric shapes and handprints are also common. Designs may have recorded religious or mythological events, migrations, hunting trips, resource locations, travel routes, celestial information and other important knowledge.

The Fremont moved in small groups, as clans, medicinal societies, or co-residence groups encountering other people and residing with them for periods of time. Gradually these groups merged and dispersed, repeating this process continually in a practice known as residential cycling. This reshuffling continued for thousands of years and coalesced into todays' tribal groups of Utes, Paiutes, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni, continuing as European and American explorers came through Capitol Reef.

The Mormon pioneers who settled this area in the 1880s saw that the Fremont River and its canyon would provide a welcome place for them to live with a perfect climate for orchards. They named the hamlet “Junction” and soon built a small but happy community, gaining renown as “The Eden of the Wayne County” for its fruit and produce.

Soon after the first orchards were planted the town changed its name to Fruita. Trees laden with cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, apples, pecans, mulberries, and even plums all thrived in the canyon. Over time the orchards blossomed to include some 2,600 fruit and nut trees on the acres surrounding the pioneer community. 

Fruita long thrived in relative isolation – paved roads didn’t reach the area until the early 1960s, almost three decades after the landscape had gained national monument status -- as its residents sold their fruit and nuts in neighboring communities. Though designated a national monument in 1937, it took much political wrangling before the area was designated a national park in 1971.

The designation certainly was deserving. Not only does the park protect the Waterpocket Fold, but within its borders you can find prehistoric rock art, stone arches, canyons that reportedly lured Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, and the remnants of a late-19th Century-early 20th Century community. 

Those who take the time and make the effort to find Capitol Reef come for a variety of reasons, from backpacking and climbing to sampling the fruits of the orchards when they’re ready for harvest. Yep, that’s right, you can pick the fruit.

Where else can you go canyoneering in the morning and pick your own peaches later that afternoon? 

The park offers a nice, 71-site campground next to the orchards and the Fruita Historic District, as well as two much smaller primitive campgrounds that offer vault toilets but no water. 

Of course, there also are endless backcountry miles to roam with a pack on your back.

But whether you're backpacking or touring the park by auto, you need to take care to pay attention to the weather. Thunderstorms that wash the landscape between July and September can spawn deadly flash floods that course through the park's normally dry washes.

(Chance Finegan wrote the foundation of this story.--Editor.)

Capitol Reef National Park

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