Serenity Found in Torrey and Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley District
Taking Southern Utah’s remote, less-traveled path to finding your center.
“What happened to the road?” I asked my husband. We’d been bumping along the dirt Harnet Road through Capitol Reef National Park in our truck when suddenly the road intersected — and, to me, appeared to end — at the Fremont River. “It’s the river crossing we read about in the guidebook,” he replied with a grin. After checking the water depth to make sure it was low enough to pass, my husband steered into the river and we continued on our way.
We were in search of a much-needed change of scenery after more than two months of isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic (read travel tips), and at this moment, we knew we had found it.
We started our trip in the lightly-visited town of Torrey. After a three-hour drive from Salt Lake City, I could feel the residual stress and anxiety of the previous weeks finally beginning to melt away as we passed through Torrey’s charming, Cottonwood tree-lined Main Street. We settled into town by taking a stroll along the canal — complete with a sway on a rope swing hanging from a tree near the middle of town and an ice cream cone from Slacker’s. We turned in early, excited for the next day’s agenda: exploring Capitol Reef’s rugged and remote Cathedral Valley District.
On the morning of our national park sojourn, the sky was clear-as-a-bell. We got up early and picked up provisions at the Chuck Wagon General Store & Deli. We ordered sandwiches at the deli counter, tucked into the rear of the store, and then wandered across the street to window shop the locally made art and crafts at The Old House at Center and Main. (I love the softly fragrant soaps handmade by Linda Aliotta they sell there.) We also peeked in the Torrey Gallery, filled with beautiful pieces by Utah painters, sculptors and Navajo weavers; and Gallery 24, a showcase of artists hailing from Torrey and the greater Colorado Plateau. We returned to the deli and, along with our sandwiches, bought chips, drinks and a loaf of the Chuck Wagon’s yummy banana bread.
Our next stop was the Capitol Reef Visitor Center, located 11 miles from downtown Torrey along Highway 24. Though the Fremont River is rarely more than about 12 inches deep at the Hartnet Road river crossing, much of the route into Cathedral Valley can be tricky to navigate, particularly when wet. Stop in at the visitor center to learn about conditions, and in general avoid these roads if it’s raining or rain is in the day’s forecast. (If you’re nervous about the river crossing, before you go, print out a copy of the park’s Harnet Road River Ford Map.)
After leaving the Visitor Center, we traveled east along Highway 24 for 11.7 miles to the Hartnet Road turnoff. We arrived at the Fremont River crossing about a mile down the road. Soon after fording the river, the road climbs gradually up to a wide, scrubby plateau framed by far-off views of the Waterpocket Fold (Capitol Reef’s distinguishing landform), Boulder Mountain and the Henry Mountains.
About eight miles from where we turned off from Highway 24 we came to an unexpected desert oasis. Decades ago, a rancher dug a well there to provide water for his cows. Several trees have grown up around the well’s bathtub-like trough, and an abandoned drilling rig and a funky, 1930s-era truck make for a nostalgic Western photo opportunity. Our kids explored the old truck while my husband snapped photos until a cow and calf, obviously confused by our presence, began bellowing for us to leave. Giggling, we hopped back into our truck and continued on our way.
The landscape changes dramatically as the road climbs from the well site through the Bentonite Hills. The large gray, ochre, mauve and rust-striped, pyramid-shaped piles are reminiscent of how I imagine the surface of Mars looks. Here’s where checking the weather forecast before venturing out is critical as the road going through these hills becomes an impassable, gooey mess when wet.
Since our objective was making the hike to Temple Rock, we pressed on to the Lower South Desert Overlook (about 14 miles from Highway 24). We spent a few minutes at the trailhead/parking area taking in the incredible views of Jailhouse Rock — a beautifully eroded, shades-of-orange fin that appears to be melting into the South Desert surrounding it. Then, after loading our day packs with lunch, water and our guidebook, Capitol Reef National Park: The Complete Hiking and Touring Guide by Rich Stitchfield, we hit the trail.
"The area’s lack of crowds (and cell phone service) made it easy to tap into the restorative power of both the awe-inspiring landscapes we encountered at every turn and Torrey’s appealing come-as-you-are, small-town vibe."
The route, marked by a directional sign pointing north to the actual overlook (about a quarter mile from the trailhead), begins fairly flat from the parking area, but then turns south to a barely discernible old road that switchbacks down to the desert floor. (You know you’re headed in the right direction when you come to an old barbwire fence crossing the road.) Once down off the road, our due-west destination was clear: the steeple-like Temple Rock. We followed faint jeep and hiking trails, keeping Jailhouse Rock and a smaller hoodoo (the common name for a rock spire) located across from it to the north of us.
I realized my favorite view of Temple Rock when I topped a small rise shortly after the aforementioned hoodoo. The spire of Temple Rock had seemed relatively small from the overlook at the start of the hike, particularly when compared to Jailhouse Rock, but now we were close enough to take in this surreal pinnacle — its rich orangey-red piercing the bright, blue sky — in all its glory.
Once we reached Temple Rock, we circled its base, taking in the mind-blowing views up its sheer side, before spreading a blanket and taking a load off to eat lunch. The silence there is so complete that when we weren’t chatting (or chewing) all I could hear was the wind and a few birds. With our sandwiches and banana bread consumed, we made our way back to the truck the same way we came. The whole hike, which is about 4.5 miles round trip, is relatively flat and easy (except for the road from the overlook down to the desert floor), and took only about three hours, including an hour stop for gawking at Temple Rock and lunch.
Wellness All Around
We saw only two other people during our time in Cathedral Valley. No joke. As we made our way back to Torrey, the kids fell asleep and I pondered how, on a return trip, I could take an investment into personal wellness there one step further.
In Torrey, the Red Sands Hotel & Spa hosts yoga classes that are open to the public and free to guests with a room upgrade. Be sure to call ahead for the hotel's yoga class schedule. Massages and other body treatments are offered in the hotel’s onsite spa. The Capitol Reef Resort offers private cabins or glamping in luxurious teepees and Conestoga chuck wagons, along with a unique way to commune with nature: with the aid of a pack llama. At the Cougar Ridge luxury ranch, guests can book a treatment in the main lodge or private casitas. Or visit the Two Arrows Zen’s beautiful Torrey Zendo, located just off Main Street, for Mindful Meditation, held Sunday mornings.
As we drove home and back to reality the day after our expedition into Cathedral Valley, I took note of how refilled my proverbial gas tank felt, both mentally and physically. The area’s lack of crowds (and cell phone service) made it easy to tap into the restorative power of both the awe-inspiring landscapes we encountered at every turn and Torrey’s appealing come-as-you-are, small-town vibe. Needless to say, I’m already counting the days until we can return.
Walking Off the Ledge Into Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef is breathtaking, but as you stare across the ledge you realize that some of the best scenery is only accessible by dropping in, 20, 50, sometimes 100 feet or more.