The weather forecast indicates the temperature will just get into the 60s in Steamboat Springs today, and that makes residents gaze west to the red rock canyons of southeastern Utah for a mud-season getaway.
Steamboat travelers to Utah think first of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and perhaps Zion and Bryce beyond. However, Capitol Reef National Park, about 175 miles west and southwest of Grand Junction, is a good destination for people looking for an oasis in the mild desert. The forecast high temperature near Capitol Reef today is 82 degrees.
Capitol Reef, situated between the towns of Hanksville to the east and Torrey to the west, sees fewer than 550,000 visitors annually. Many motorists on Utah Highway 24 blast through the park with a quick stop at an overlook or at the 19th-century one-room schoolhouse. They never see one of the sweetest campgrounds in the Colorado Plateau and never gain an appreciation for the "Waterpocket Fold," a geological feature that is the basis of the park.
The Fruita Campground may represent the only you-pick orchard in the National Parks system. Its apple, pear, peach, cherry and apricot trees are treated as a historical cultural resource and tended by parks employees. Visitors can help themselves to a handful of fruit in season, or purchase a permit to harvest containers of fruit.
The orchards are remnants of trees planted by Mormon settlers in the region shortly after 1872. They hauled their crops by horse-drawn wagons over rough roads to towns in the region.
The orchards are an easy stroll from the campground, which is shaded by cottonwood trees nourished by water from the Fremont River. Visitors who would rather sleep in a queen-sized bed after a day of hiking sandstone canyons would do best to drive to nearby Torrey. A growing number of independent motels, lodges and restaurants are available in the tiny town.
The Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe (435-425-3271) offers rooms which are comfortable in a nonchain style, and its vegetarian dishes have been written up in Gourmet magazine. They also offer chicken, beef and seafood dinners, including trout.
The Waterpocket Fold is a 100-mile long geological feature known as a monocline. From the air, it resembles the spiny backbone of a dinosaur.
Capitol Reef isn't an ideal canyon-country destination for mountain bikers -- they are required to stick to roads. And dog owners should be aware in advance that their pets are not allowed on trails -- even on a leash.
However, for people who want an introduction to exploring moderately difficult slot canyons, "the reef" is a good bet.
Cottonwood Wash, accessible by a good dirt road -- the Notom-Bullfrog Road -- is a wide-open slot canyon that require hikers to clamber up chockstones that block the trail in the narrow canyon. However, it doesn't demand technical canyoneering skills.
More ambitious hikers seeking an overnight trip through a twisty canyon can head for the Halls Creek Narrows Trail for a 22-mile round trip. The "narrows" section of the trail goes on for three miles of twisting slot canyon where the sun rarely penetrates. The Narrows will be running with water in spring and often fall, and hikers can expect to get wet feet. If you wear a backpack through the Narrows, it may be necessary to carry it over your head in some of the deeper pools.
Admission to the scenic driving loop in Capitol Reef is $5. Camping fees are $10 a night at Fruita Campground.
Driving to Capitol Reef via Interstate 70, continue about 110 miles beyond Grand Junction to Green River, Utah. West of Green River, turn left on Utah Highway 24. It's 44 miles to Hanksville, but a good intermediate stop along the way for weary travelers is Goblin Valley State Park. The campground isn't as nice as Fruita, but the rock formations in Goblin Valley are otherworldly.
From Hanksville, Utah Highway 95 heads south to Lake Powell, but Utah 24 veers west to Capitol Reef.
Detailed information about Capitol Reef can be found online at www.nps.gov/care.