Editor's Note: Columnist Lee Benson is bicycling through Utah's five national parks, beginning at Arches and ending at Zion. His columns will chronicle what he sees, hears and avoids along the way.

FRUITA, WAYNE COUNTY — At nearly a quarter of a million acres, Capitol Reef National Park is no small area. Three Capitol Reefs would make Rhode Island. Five would make Delaware.

But it is here to the relatively small town limits of Fruita, a ghost town much busier than when it used to exist, where nearly everyone congregates.

The junction of the park's only two paved roads is in what was once Fruita. The park's visitor center is in Fruita. The park's campground is in Fruita. The celebrated ancient Indian petroglyphs are on an even more ancient rock wall in Fruita. And the park's signature structure — a massive cone-shaped white rock mountain named Capitol Dome because it looks like the U.S. Capitol (although to be fair, this Capitol Dome is the original) — is in Fruita.

The only thing that isn't in Fruita is Fruita.

The town began in 1880 when Mormon pioneers settled next to the Fremont River and planted 2,700 fruit trees. Soon enough, cherries, apples, apricots, peaches, pears and plums appeared.

Plagued by harsh winters, isolation, really rugged (but beautiful!) terrain and the fact that the town lay along the Outlaw Trail frequented by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch (charred timbers in Capitol Reef's Grand Gulch are believed to be from one of Butch's hideouts), Fruita didn't exactly flourish but due to all the good fruit it produced, it managed to stay alive for almost a century.

Fruita didn't officially die and become a ghost town until 1971, when the federal government — inspired by all that rugged but beautiful terrain — did what the winters, isolation and the Wild Bunch couldn't do.

It made the neighborhood, already a national monument, a national park. And killed the town.

With the final act of his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation designating Fruita and the 241,904 acres surrounding it Capitol Reef National Park — and before the ink had dried the last of the residents were gone.

The 2,700 fruit trees, though, didn't leave. They're still here and still bearing fruit. The park hires two full-time people to maintain the orchards and encourages visitors to pick any fruit when it's ripe and in season. You can eat all the fruit you care to pick on the premises. If you'd like to take some home there is a nominal fee.

Right now, apricots are in season and the takeaway cost is $1 a pound or $16 a bushel. Pay the rangers on your way out.

After an uphill ride from Hanksville, I found the apricots to be quite tasty. A big personal thank you to whoever planted those trees.

I also found Capitol Reef easy to get into, and out of, bike-wise. Unlike my previous visits to Arches and Canyonlands, which required leaving the main state road, Capitol Reef is on the road. You can't miss it — at least you can't miss the small part of the park that state Route 24 runs through. It's how you get from Hanksville to Torrey, and vice versa.

To properly see the geologic phenomenon that created the park, however, you'd have to leave the road and board an airplane. As a ranger explained it to me, the only way to really appreciate Capitol Reef in its fullness is from the air.

At nearly a hundred miles in length, and at some points barely four miles wide, the park encompasses the bulk of a geologic anomaly called the Waterpocket Fold — a giant wrinkle that occurred after a major buckling of the Earth's crust some 65 million years ago.

The result of this buckling are the numerous massive domes that look more or less like the U.S. Capitol and the even more numerous rugged cliffs that look like reefs on the ocean — but without the water.

These features are what gives this place its name — but it's the old ghost town named after fruit trees in the middle that continues to give it life.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.