A very short but highly scenic route to an overview of Jailhouse Rock and Lower South Desert in the Cathedral Valley section of Utah's Capitol Reef National Park. Visitation is low and opportunities for solitude are high. Off-trail exploration is also available.
The Lower South Desert Overlook is located off the Hartnet Road, roughly halfway between the Fremont River crossing near Utah State Route 24 and the Cathedral Valley Campground. Signs, faded but present, point to a short spur road that turns west off the Hartnet Road.
Most visitors will approach from the south. This route leaves Utah SR 24 about 12 miles east of the Capitol Reef National Park visitor's center in Fruita. The turn-off is located on the north side of the highway (38.274654º N, -111.089708º W) heading north. Almost immediately after leaving the highway, drivers must contend with a ford of the Fremont River.
The ford (entering the river at 38.275483º N, -111.081220º W) is generally passable by high-clearance vehicles with 4x4 or AWD. However, conditions are highly variable and the crossing should not be attempted during times of high river flow. If in doubt of driver or vehicle, do not attempt the crossing.
The Hartnet Road moves generally north through the Bentonite Hills. About 14 miles beyond the river ford, the Lower South Desert Overlook spur road will intersect from the west (at 38.402177º N,-111.185535º W). Follow this road approximately 1.2 miles until it dead-ends at a turnaround. This is the trailhead, as will be obvious from the commanding view of Jailhouse Rock.
Additional approaches are possible from the Caineville Wash Road (if completing a loop of Cathedral Valley), Thousand Lake Mountain Road or Baker Ranch Road. However, these routes are beyond the scope of this guide and should be researched in depth before being attempted.
The subject of this trail is evident from the outset: Jailhouse Rock juts up from the floor of the Lower South Desert and is visible from the trailhead. For those simply making a drive through Cathedral Valley, a well-beaten foot path leads a quarter of a mile from the trailhead to the overlook.
From the car park, Jailhouse Rock appears deceptively near. The walk to the rim of the Hartnet is flat and hikers can reach the overview in a manner of minutes. Facilities there are non-existent. There are no guardrails or fences at the edge of the mesa.
The desert floor sits about 200 feet below and shows evidence of the ongoing erosional forces that sculpted Jailhouse Rock. Although the formation's base is well below the plane of the observer at the overlook, it still rises above eye level. Beyond Jailhouse Rock, the ragged edge of the Waterpocket Fold juts out of the earth like teeth. The fold sits at a lower angle here than it does farther south along Strike Valley. However, the fold is wider and appears impenetrable. Viewers can reflect in quiet solitude on what a barrier to travel this reef presented early European explorers and settlers.
Barren expanse of the Lower South Desert
Perspective changes from the lip of the cliffs, and Jailhouse Rock at once seems a much greater distance away. Hikers have a choice here of either returning to their vehicles or descending to the floor of the Lower South Desert. An informal trail heads right from the overlook (at 38.403021º N,-111.208411º W), dropping behind a prominent sandstone outcropping. The trail again turns west when it reaches the valley floor (at 38.404003º N,-111.208338º W).
Here the path becomes less distinct. Follow established paths generally west toward the foot of Jailhouse Rock, roughly half a mile away from the base of the cliffs. Alternately, hikers can explore the nooks and crannies of the cliff walls or other features of the region. The desert floor is somewhat barren, so hikers need to take care to avoid trampling the sparse vegetation or causing unnecessary erosion.
Odd rock forms in the Lower South Desert
Views to the north will reveal streams of igneous rocks cascading down into the valley from the mesa above. These dark rocks provide needed contrast to the sea of sun-bleached orange and white sandstone. Many of these rocks have traveled a great distance through natural processes and are still moving, albeit in fits and spurts, toward some unforeseen destination.
When finished, return to the trailhead by the same route.
Permits & Regulations
The Lower South Desert is located within the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park, so typical NPS rules apply. Entrance fees are not required. Keep it this way by respecting our public lands.
Backpackers must obtain a permit from the park visitor center in Fruita. Overnight camping is available at the Cathedral Valley campground. There are six sites open on a first-come, first-serve basis. Fees are not required for use of the campground. It has a pit toilet but no water.
Road and weather conditions can change dramatically in this section of the park. Check conditions with the park staff or the automated road conditions information line (435-425-3791). Be prepared to self-rescue or shelter with your vehicle for days at a time in case of emergency. Carry adequate food, water, fuel and other supplies.