Small Historic Towns near Utah National Parks
Utah is full of little towns with old west history (and ghosts!) Visit these tiny burbs in the Southern half of the state.
Utah is full of little towns with old west history (and ghosts!) Visit these tiny historic towns in the Southern half of the state next to Utah’s national parks and scenic drives..
Ghost Town Grafton, Utah
Grafton, almost within Zion National Park‘s borders on the south side of the park, offers a poignant cemetery that inscribes in barest bones the history of former residents. There are a few dozen graves from the period 1860 – 1910 with inscriptions about the inhabitant’s lives and deaths. By 1890 only four families remained in Grafton. The last residents left Grafton in 1944.
Grafton is said to be the most photographed ghost town in the West. Robert Redford visited Grafton twice, to film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as The Electric Horseman with Jane Fonda. It was also the location of the first “talkie” movie filmed outdoors, 1929’s In Old Arizona. More info is available at graftonheritage.org.
If you are at Capitol Reef National Park during the summer or fall, make sure to stop by and pick your own fruit from the historic orchards of Fruita. With frontier hospitality, all the fruit you can eat is free, although any you take out of the orchard must be paid for. Surrounded by dramatic arches, canyons and formations, the orchard seems very human-scaled and friendly in juxtaposition.
Animals agree, as they often visit in the evenings to partake of the free fallen fruit. The area is one of the most remote in the nation, with paved roads only arriving in the 1960s and a long history of renegades and rivers hiding among the hidden canyons (most notoriously, Butch Cassidy). With 15 managed trails, the lush area is a welcome respite to the stark beauty of the nearby desert.
Fruita is home of the visitors center for Capitol Reef to explore its interesting history. Many of us have a fascination with one-room schoolhouses and the one in Fruita on Hwy 24 is one of the best. Opened in 1900, closed in 1941, the restored schoolhouse was refurbished with two-seater pinewood desks and a potbellied stove, as if a flock of farm kids might suddenly burst through the door. Listen to tapes from a former teacher to hear stories of a bygone era.
Hanksville is the gateway to The San Rafael Swell, on its eastern border, that ranges all the way the Green River and Canyonlands National Park. This undeveloped area is 2,000-square miles of soaring buttes, winding canyons, intimidating cliffs and wild rivers. The 50-million year old topography has lifted and eroded through time, while pressure has raised the Navajo sandstone turned the Eastern edge of the San Rafael Reef on its side. The town was best known was a supply post for Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who would hide out at Robbers Roost in the desert southeast of town.
Nearby Goblin Valley State Park has various hoodoos and gnome-like structures as well as the relatively little known Little Wild Horse Canyon, an intricately carved and colorful slot canyon.
Hanksville is also the home of the Wolverton Mill. Moved and reconstructed behind the BLM office, The abandoned mill was built to process the fortune in gold Edwin Thather Wolverton imagined he would find in the Henry Mountains. Although he spent 12 years filing a multitude of claims, he only ended up with a small amount of gold. The mill, however, is fascinating to engineers and machine enthusiasts. It can either cut wood or crush ore.
Helper, Utah, a Renaissance Town
Railroad buffs should schedule a stop just south of the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 191, between Provo and Moab, to spend an afternoon in Helper, home of the Western Mining Railroad Museum. Settled in 1880 by Teancum Pratt and his wives, Anna and Sarah, the town was sleepy until the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway arrived in late 1881 with the intention of using the small town as a division point for the Eastern and Western railroad lines going to Ogden and Grand Junction, Colorado. As railroad gauge changed from narrow to standard gauge, the junction would have “helper” locomotives ready to aid the trains up the steep grade to Soldier Summit.
Because the town supported both coal mining and the railroad, there was a great demand for cheap, unskilled workers. Immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia flocked in, bringing their cultures with them. By 1900, sixteen different nationalities — out of a population of 385 — called Helper home. During the next few years Helper became a hub for the various mining communities.
Many immigrants had established businesses to support the area, and when workers began to strike for better working conditions, they found the citizens of Helper sympathetic. Soon Helper was a hotbed of striking workers, union organizers, national guardsmen brought in to keep the peace and local businessmen were various factions could meet and talk even during rough times, living up to its name.
After the coal industry declined, Helper transformed itself into an artist enclave. Watch the below video to learn about the town’s renaissance.