Temple Views and Backcountry Road Trips
About 5 miles east of Sleepy Hollow, watch for the turnoff on the left for Cathedral Valley Scenic Backway. This 56-mile dirt track heads back to the northwest through the northern tip of Capitol Reef and into Cathedral Valley, ending at Fremont Junction on I-70. The main attractions along this desert and canyon drive are views of such dramatic formations as Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. High-clearance vehicles are advised for this rather rough drive, which includes a ford of the (very shallow) Fremont River.
Just east of the park boundary, on the right, is the turnoff for the Notom Road Scenic Backway. This 29-mile scenic drive (about 25 miles of which is paved) parallels the Waterpocket Fold and gives one of the better perspectives on its magnitude. It connects with the Burr Trail at the southern end of the national park, making up the 129-mile “Waterpocket District” loop. Since much of this loop is unpaved, check in at the visitor center before you attempt it. Any recent rain will render it impassable, and it can be rutted and washboarded on even good days. The road is rough in places, and high-clearance vehicles are recommended, though passenger cars will have no trouble if the road is dry and has been recently graded. To the east of the backway, the Henry Mountains loom above the high desert badlands. Notom Road reaches the Burr Trail in the bottom of the Waterpocket Fold, giving you a chance to climb the dramatic switchbacks that lead to the top of the fold before you set off for Boulder. Ask at the visitor center for the “Loop-the Fold” auto-tour guide; this tour takes at least half a day, so plan accordingly.
Tiny hamlets line the Fremont River Valley, along with a whimsical cluster of tepees (available for rent) at the Luna Mesa Oasis Cafe at Caineville. Just down the road, the Mesa Farm Market is a real oasis, selling organic fare grown on-site by truly die-hard modern pioneers who’ve eked a living from this valley’s inhospitable soil.
Just past Caineville, look to the right where the large sandstone cliffs end and the Henry Mountains appear off to the south. East of Caineville, the landscape flattens, and the rough, empty land is reminiscent of the Dakota badlands. The good, fast road here is also a fine place to make up time after all the dawdling you probably did earlier.
Hanksville is a crossroads town in the desert wilderness of eastern Wayne County. It makes a good refueling spot and is one of the few places around here where you can find a soft bed. The town has two attractions of note: a gas station and convenience store burrowed into a sandstone wall, and a relic of an old mill. The gas station you cannot miss; it is just south of the intersection with Highway 95.
The Wolverton Mill was built in 1921 by Edwin Thatcher Wolverton, a New England mining engineer who was absolutely sure he would find gold on Mount Pennell in the Henry Mountains. The mill was unique in its dual function of ore mill and sawmill, designed to both crush ore and saw timber. Wolverton never found his gold, and he abandoned his search in 1929. Today his mill stands as a monument to perseverance and blind optimism. In 1974 the BLM moved the mill from the Henrys to the BLM office in Hanksville, and volunteers completed its restoration in 1988.
Hanksville is also the northern terminus of Highway 95 — the Bicentennial Scenic Byway route to Glen Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Blanding. From Hanksville, it is a dramatic, if desolate, 55-mile drive north on Highway 24 to Green River on I-70. Along the way you will pass Goblin Valley State Park, a side trip you must take if you have time. Walking among its sandstone hoodoos is an experience unlike any other. The state park is a short, paved drive from Highway 24 and features picnic areas, toilets, and a campground.
A handful of unpaved roads lead east into the San Rafael Swell from the entrance road to Goblin Valley. Similar to the Waterpocket Fold, the San Rafael uplift is one of Utah’s defining features. Its formations are easy to spot from the highways around here if you know what you’re looking for, but to really get a look at its diverse geology, you have to hit the back roads. The good news is, this is major off-road recreation territory, so many gravel roads are well maintained. The Heart of Sinbad Road leads north all the way to I-70, while the flat, short Little Wild Horse Road heads southeast to the trailhead for Little Wild Horse Canyon, one of the state’s most popular slot-canyon hikes. Don’t attempt this 8-mile hike without plenty of water. Ask about these roads at the state park or in Hanksville, and pick up the very helpful San Rafael Country map produced by state and local tourism offices. It outlines the region’s most popular unpaved routes.
Scenic driving information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press).