Cathy Free
Rachel Brown shows off a couple of the Gifford House's personal-size pies, made fresh daily for tourists visiting Capitol Reef National Park.

CAPITOL REEF — When you work in the only place to offer noontime grub inside a national park and the only things on the menu are soda pop, scones and pie, you’re bound to have more than a few ecstatic kids drop by.

Pie for lunch? Life doesn’t get any better for an 8-year-old (or anyone else with a hankering for a thick slice of strawberry-rhubarb).

“It’s a fun surprise — who doesn’t love pie?” says Rachel Brown, who works three days a week selling pie at the Gifford House, a historic pioneer farmhouse tucked inside the entrance of Capitol Reef National Park.

“It’s definitely not something people expect to find when they come here to go hiking,” she says, “but we’ve been selling pie now for more than eight years. There’s really nothing in any other national park like it.”

Many people don’t realize that homemade pie is actually a nice fit with Capitol Reef’s red-rock wonders and ancient petroglyphs. The Gifford House is located in the heart of the Fruita valley, a 200-acre orchard district that was farmed by early Mormon pioneers.

“Cherries and peaches were grown here for years, and we have still have apple orchards open to the public,” says Shirley Torgerson, executive director of the Capitol Reef Natural History Association. “I love it that today when people come to the park they can taste a piece of history with their pie.”

Torgerson, who grew up eating apple pie — her personal favorite — in the small town of Annabella in Sevier County and has lived in Torrey for 30 years, came up with the idea to sell pies and earn extra money for the park’s historical association several years after the historic Gifford family farm was renovated.

During a recent family vacation, I stopped by the pie store and ended up chatting with the employees over a Free Lunch of strawberry-rhubarb and apple pie and bottles of cold cream soda.

“A lot of people think it’s the perfect lunch,” says Brown, an Illinois native who moved to Capitol Reef with her husband, Scott, the park’s head ranger, five years ago. “It’s not something that people do every day, of course. But why not when you’re on vacation?”

That’s what Torgerson was counting on when she first stocked the Gifford House pantry with pies.

“I’d been to a convention in historic Williamsburg, Va., and was so impressed by what they were doing there for the tourists,” she says. “I thought, ‘You know, there’s a lot of history in Capitol Reef, and the Gifford farmhouse would be the perfect place to interpret that history and sell things that represent the pioneer lifestyle.’ With the orchards, we’ve always had a long tradition of good pies.”

Almost a decade later, there’s no denying that selling pies was not a half-baked idea. Last year, more than 18,000 personal-size pies went out the front door in flavors ranging from peach and pumpkin to blackberry, cherry and mulberry.

Bakers at Cafe Diablo in Torrey make the pies from scratch every morning and deliver them warm to the Gifford House, where they’re quickly snatched up by hungry hikers and sightseers.

“We put three to nine dozen a day in the pie cupboard, then it seems like we turn around and take them out,” says Brown. “They can sell out pretty early. People come in and see homemade pie and their eyes light up. They’re amazed to find fresh pie inside a national park.”

Tourists can also load up on fresh scones baked from an old family recipe by a Scottish man from Bicknell with a hankering for a taste of his homeland.

“It’s a community effort to keep this going,” says Torgerson, “but everybody is proud to be a part of it.” Even during busy summer months when bakers’ ovens are working overtime, sharing a slice of Fruita’s past, she says, is as “easy as pie.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.