Capitol Reef National Park

You know what the best thing about traveling alone is?

You don’t have to share the prosciutto.

Listen closely: one day, you’ll be leaving Bryce Canyon National Park and you’ll be heading to Capitol Reef National Park. Your GPS will tell you to take Highway 24; but, you’ll take “the long way,” along Highway 12. The drive will blow your mind. You’ll stop in Escalante. You’ll find the Escalante Mercantile. You’ll realize that God does exist; that a man can find prosciutto in the desert; that there is a meaning to this wild, crazy life. You’ll find coffee: real, good, coffee. You’ll buy a fresh, organic avocado. And then, you’ll continue driving to Capitol Reef National Park. 

The early years of my finance career were humbling (read: I was terrible at my job). I often joke that it took me about a year before I felt like I could tie my shoes without someone else’s help. It took me so long to get work done that I regularly worked 70-80 hour weeks just to get the same amount of work done that took my peers 50. I spent more nights than I can remember sleeping at (or under) my desk so I wouldn’t have to “waste” the time it took to go home and get into bed. I was too terrified to take vacation during those first eighteen months. I was worried I’d fall (even further) behind my peers and never catch up.

So, when I finally did reach the point where I felt comfortable taking time off, I took an informal poll of my colleagues to find out where I should go. I was asking, “Where’s the best place you’ve ever gone?” Most people responded with variations of Hawaii, Mexico, and anywhere else where a person could escape the cold, damp winters of the Pacific Northwest. But, one of my colleagues said something interesting, and it stuck with me.

He told me, Dresden, Germany. I flew out there when I was about your age, by myself. It was just before Christmas, and I landed after dark. I walked to my hostel in the middle of the night. It was freezing. But, when I woke up in the morning, I saw that it had snowed overnight. It was Dresden’s first snow for the winter. It was beautiful. It felt like there were no other tourists, there. I spent the week just wandering through the streets of the old town, talking with locals, totally lost in where I was. It was this deeply spiritual experience – it was just what I needed at the time… In retrospect, it’s probably not as magical for everyone else as it was for me, but it’ll always be this incredible place in my memory... Easily the best trip I’ve ever gone on.

Capitol Reef is my Dresden.

Before I set out on my National Park’s Project, I had this sort of naïve, grandiose idea, that I’d snap a picture of me in front of a National Park Service sign at each park I visited. Somewhat appropriately, that dream ended on my first trip of the summer, to Saguaro National Park. There were no signs even hinting that I was approaching Saguaro; only a couple signs in a parking lot, at the end of a dirt road, letting me know that my car would probably be broken into if I left it parked there long enough. That vignette was comically representative of two themes I repeatedly encountered this summer: 1) that I had very little clue what the hell I was getting myself into; and 2) that despite our national parks being revered as these sacred, special places, some of them seemed to feel somehow forgotten – as if their signs had gone missing.

Capitol Reef reminded me of Saguaro. There was no grandiose signage welcoming you to Capitol Reef; no queue of lost-looking tourists, with their cameras in one hand and their phones in the other; no park admission fees. The park felt altogether forgotten. You could have easily driven right past the main entrance on highway 12 and never known you’d driven past a national monument. Nothing to see, here, it seemed. But, there was.

Capitol Reef National Park was first established in 1937 as a national monument, and it became a national park in 1971 – though the area was originally settled back in the 1880s. Back then, Mormon settlers used gravity irrigation to route the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek water supplies through the Fruita Valley – creating a fertile and reliable area to raise crops in the middle of the desert. Today, the Fruita Valley still holds over 3,000 apple, peach, pear, and apricot trees in its orchards. The trees are still watered using the original gravitational irrigation systems that were created over one hundred years ago.

Aside from the robust orchards (whose fruit is free to park visitors year-round!), the defining characteristic of the park is called the Waterpocket Fold: a 100-mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust that extends from Thousand Lake Mountain down to Lake Powell. The park’s rugged, remote landscape was among the last places in America to be accurately charted by cartographers. Perhaps even more interesting, is the park’s status as a member of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

As a member of the International Dark-Sky Association, Capitol Reef National Park is considered to have some of the highest (cleanest) air quality and darkest night-skies in the world… which lends itself to incredible astrophotography.

Capitol Reef was my Dresden. It was easily one of my favorite parks: not because of any of the hikes I went on (I actually went on zero hikes in Capitol Reef), but, rather, because it was a place where I was able to truly escape some of the chaos of the other parks and take some time to just be where I was. I spent entire days writing in my journal under the shade of apple and peach trees. I spent afternoons napping in my hammock, hanging in the shade of a grove of cottonwood trees. I stayed up all night taking pictures of the Milky Way, watching the moon set, watching the sun rise. It was this wonderfully magical place for me - and I barely just scratched the surface of what was there. 

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington