Capitol Reef National Park and the surrounding area are a collection of contrasts. From the peak of Boulder Mountain – rising over 11,000 feet high with groves of birch and aspen – to the depths of Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash with folded rock formations and dry bed trails. From the desolation and solitude of Cathedral Valley to the history and comfort of Fruita. And from the barren, seemingly lifeless isolation of the Bentonite Hills to the conveniences and civilization of Torrey, Utah. The area has a little of everything and, at the same time, a whole lot of nothing.
The popular, accessible areas like the Capitol Gorge and the Grand Wash are an absolute must and very easy hikes that lead you deep into the two most prominent canyons of the park. They allow you to feel all alone even when only hiking these few miles. The low visitation of this park allows one to escape the “crowds” quite easily.
The Fruita orchards, originally planted by the Mormon settlers and now maintained by the National Park Service, are a perfect oasis from the hot, sweltering desert sun. The orchards are all along the Fremont river. Apple, cherry, peach, pear and others are fenced off to protect the fruit from the deer herd. During the harvest season the fence gates are open and for a fee visitors can pick their own fruit.
Adjacent to the Fruita campground is a small Mormon museum and gift shop where fresh pies are baked and sold everyday. They are amazing. A treat after a long day on the trail. We personally recommend heating the pie up over the fire.
To really get away from the crowds of Capitol Reef (and I use the word “crowds” very lightly) you can make the the drive out to Cathedral Valley. The Cathedral Valley Loop road is only accessible by a dirt road of varying conditions. Starting from the west, one must have a high clearance vehicle with four wheel drive to ford the Fremont River. The river is usually passable, but in a rental car with only All Wheel Drive we were not brave enough to take the risk. It didn’t look bad, but one wrong move and not only our day and trip would be ruined, but potentially the next several years of our lives. The other option, and one that we chose, was to travel down highway 12 another 10 miles or so and get on the Cainesville Rd. This is the eastern access point of the loop. We would not be able to do the entire loop due to the river, but we did get in plenty of gorgeous stopping points and expansive views. We toured the Bentonite Hills, Valley of the Moon and Sun, and up to the Cathedral Valley campground. This is when the road became just too rocky and rutted and steep for our little rental SUV. The whole trip takes about 8 hours with stops and lunch and is highly recommended if you have the appropriate vehicle. CAUTION: Use extreme caution when thinking about this when it has rained, is raining, or is forecasted to rain. In any vehicle it can become impossible. The surface mud turns to “ice” in its slickness and roads can become impassable.
After a long day of hiking and exploring, and after several days of camping, we were ready for a bed and something not cooked in our camp pot. The small town of Torrey is just outside of the park and is an oasis for the weary hiker. Torrey has a nice little selection of clean hotels and its small selection of restaurants is impressive. The Rim Rock restaurant with its view of the park overlooking the canyons at sunset will quickly become a highlight of your Capitol Reef Trip.