Monday, October 17, 2016

Hidden Splendor and Cathedral Valley - September 2016: Part 2

Southern Utah - September 2016
Spectacular Switchbacks, a Secret (Camp) Site, and Hidden Splendor

Part 2 of 4:
Hidden Splendor, San Rafael Swell, and Cathedral Valley

Friday, September 16 (continued from Part 1)

Click on any photo to see larger versions - highly recommended!

I was looking forward to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance "Roundup" at an evocatively named area called Hidden Splendor, the location of an old uranium mine. SUWA is made up of people from Utah and around the nation who share the common goal of preserving Utah’s remaining desert wild lands, the redrock wilderness. This non-profit works to defend the wilderness from rampant oil & gas development, unnecessary road construction and destructive off-road vehicle use, and other influences that are threatening the fragile ecosystem and prehistoric native artifacts. The roundup would include guided day hikes. A chance for me to see a wild part of Utah that would be new to me.

I was informed there are two ways to enter the San Rafael Swell to the Hidden Splendor mine area where the SUWA roundup was to be held: from the north off I-70, which was a bit longer, but smoother; from the east off UT-24, cutting through the reef. I decided I'd go in from the north and leave to the east, thus see both.

San Rafael Swell and Hidden Splendor

I took exit 131 from the freeway and drove south. The road across the prairie was in good condition and I was able to cruise atop the washboard quite comfortably. The last section leading off the swell down into the canyons was a little rough, but many folks did it in their passenger cars. Fortunately, SUWA placed small directional signs at the many crossroads to keep us on track.

"Main Street" for the SUWA roundup was an airstrip with the main tent erected beside the airstrip and the entrance road. We could camp along, but not on the airstrip, or along the road that crosses it. We were provided a map showing suggested camping areas with a request not to camp in any previously undisturbed areas. There were already lots of folks set up. I found a spot to the side of the strip near the east end not far from a few other attendees.

Camping area for the SUWA roundup. You can just make out the tent ramada of headquarters.

I set up camp including my new solar panel and tarp-based awning, said hello to my neighbors, and walked down to the SUWA tent for an informal social hour. The wind had come up in the interval and although the awning was still up, it was flapping and making noise by the time I returned to camp. I took it down rather than listen to the flapping. (That night while waiting for sleep I came up with an idea to try in the morning to address the flapping.)

My neighbors, Tracy from Park City, UT and Barry from all over, and I sat out talking and watched the moon rise.


I had signed up for a hike down Muddy Creek this morning, but as it didn't start until 10am I had time to erect my awning using my new plan. The edge of the tarp along the roofline had been lifting and catching the wind the evening before. I already had one tensioning line running forward. My idea was to attach a second tensioning line and run it aft - this would keep the edge along the roof taut and prevent it, theoretically, from catching the wind. (A more complete description of my awning can be found on the Wander The West forums.)

Muddy Creek

We gathered at the main tent, then walked down the road to the dugway down to the creek. This was my first look into the canyon and it was much deeper than I'd realized. Half the group was going to hike up the creek. I was with the group going downstream.

Walking down to Muddy Creek

Muddy Creek - looking upstream.

The creek was very wide in this section, but not deep.

As we started out the canyon walls were far apart and didn't appear that high. We walked across the stream a couple of times. It was shallow enough it didn't top my boots as long as I found the right section or well placed rocks. We found a deserted mining camp and a couple blocked mine entrances.

Old mining buildings on the terrace above Muddy Creek.

Old mine entrance.

The canyon walls moved closer together to the serpentine path of the creek. Usually there was a terrace on one side or the other. We frequently crossed one of these from one side of a loop to another. Often following the creek was the only way.

Beautiful reflection in a still portion of the creek.

Fellow hikers pause to examine animal tracks in the mud.

About three miles in we stopped to eat our lunches. Some folks turned around there to head back to camp. I continued about another mile, even though I knew my feet would regret it. The temptation to see what's around the next bend in the canyon is strong. One the way back I had to doctor a blister on my foot despite having used moleskin before starting out.

Red and white cliffs delight!

A couple of us walked up to another of our party who was sketching something. He pointed out a pictograph high on the canyon wall oposite. I didn't have my telephoto lens, so didn't try to photograph it. We could only see it by using the artist's monocular. It was a humanoid figure in red ocher of the typical "broad shoulders with a body tapering down to a point" style.

I made it back to camp in the mid-afternoon. I had time to sit in the shade of my camper, admire the rugged scenery, and rehydrate before the scheduled gathering for the potluck supper.

A closer look at my new awning and solar panel. My chair and a cool drink was on the other side in the shade. The ground was both hard and crumbled around the tarp stakes - I had to use big rocks to help hold the guy lines.

SUWA Dinner and Meeting

I had asked one of the organizers, prior to the trip, if there was something I could bring to the potluck that didn't involve cooking, as that isn't my strong suit. He said cookies were always very popular. So I stopped at the bakery before leaving Albuquerque and bought two big boxes of cookies - they were indeed popular.

SUWA Executive Director, Scott Groene, speaks about the organizations challenges and progress.

We had a delicious dinner thanks to all the other participants. Several officiers of SUWA spoke afterwards on their mission to protect these wild lands in the face of increased pressure of oil & gas development, and the difficulty in dealing with the Utah legislature that seemed to only support development and motorized recreation rather than preservation of this fragile and unique resource.


I had taken down the tarp awning and stowed the solar panel the evening before, so had only the usual steps to break camp. I wanted to be all buttoned up ready to travel before driving to the event tent for the furnished continental breakfast, that way I could take off from there. They provided lots of good, hot coffee; fresh fruit; yoghurt; various muffins; juices; etc. They also had a grill fired up and you could have them grill one of the varieties of fresh bagel in butter - that was a treat.

Folks stood around talking about the event, Utah, hiking, camping, etc. while enjoying the food. I initially thought I'd grab a bite and get on the road, but stuck around for a while enjoying the conversation with my new friends and associates.

Looking back toward Hidden Spelendor on the way out.

Temple Mountain

As I left the area I stopped a couple of times to take photos back toward where the roundup had been held. At breakfast one of the organizers told us of a nice pictograph panel to view on the way out. He said it had, unfortunately, been shot up in the past, but was still worth seeing. It was in the area where the road cut through the reef, just past a small campground. I almost missed it as there was road construction equipment parked at the spot where they were replacing a small bridge.

Temple Mountain Petroglyph panel

A closer look at the wonderful figures in the right side of the panel. Most of the damage appears to be due to the facade of the rock panel flaking away over time, but then a few moron humans had to make their marks.

One of the figures had indeed suffered gunshots, but the bigger loss to the panel seems to be due to the facade of the cliff simply flaking away over time. Still it is an amazing scene despite the vandalism.

East entrance through San Rafael Reef. Goblin Valley is to the left. The main highway is behind the photographer.

Once out of the reef, the road is paved. One way leads to Goblin Valley State Park, the other east to UT-24, where I turned south.


I turned right at the junction, still following 24, and gassed up in Hanksville. I stopped for lunch at the same place as my first trip through in 2013, Duke's Slickrock Grill. I asked if they still had wifi, and the receptionist provided their login info. Lunch was good, not great, but I could tell they are making an effort. The wifi was slow, but I was able to check my email.

Cathedral Valley

I was going to enter the Cathedral Valley Loop Drive via the north, Caineville, entrance just west of "town." Town in this case consists of one motel, a Rodeway Inn. I drove right past the turnoff as I was expecting some sort of sign from the BLM or park service, but there was only a county road sign that didn't even say Cathedral Valley Road or Caineville Wash Road. Once I turned around and entered the dirt road there was an brief informational sign to indicate I was on the right path.

There was a fork in the road fairly soon with the better, more heavily traveled side to the left - keep right here. Fortunately, my Garmin navigation app when in general map mode will display the name of the road or highway on which its traveling and as I proceded up the right fork, it displayed "N. Hartnett Rd. Cathedral Valley Rd." (looking at Google maps later, the other fork appears to lead to an airstrip!?) Lots of washboard on this section, or corrugations as our Aussie friends say. Stay left at the next fork lest you end up at Factory Butte.

The rugged landscape along Cathedral Valley Road

Interesting Bentonite hill. Click to enlarge and note the small rock sitting at the apex.

More dips and twists along the road.

The road twists and turns through some wild and interesting lands - sandstone, horizontally stripped Bentonite hills, and lots of rocks, sand, and washes.

Entering Cathedral Valley.

When I got into Cathedral Valley proper, and formally Capitol Reef National Park, I was somewhat surprised to see the cathedral monoliths are a unique light brown sandstone. They were formed by erosion. I stopped to view and photograph the Temples of the Moon and Sun.

Temple of the Moon in the foreground; Temple of the Sun behind to the left.

I stopped to view the Gypsum Sinkhole, which is difficult to photograph. It's kind of interesting, but if you're running low on time for some reason, you could skip it. Though I did photograph some cool volcanic dikes on my way back to the main road.

Volcanic dikes.

At the end of the valley the road climbs steeply and is extremely bumpy and rocky. There are views of the valley along there. Shortly after achieving the top, there is the turn off to the campground.

View of Cathedral Valley from along side the road.

Cathedral Valley Campground

I pulled into the official, first-come, no-fee campground. One is only allowed to camp in official campgrounds in the national park. It has six sites and five of them were occupied. I left my orange "occupied" bucket at the site as I wanted to check out the Upper Cathedral Valley Lookout before settling. My friend, Achim, said it was too rough to drive, but I had no problem. It was a nice view north over the valley.

[If you want view Cathedral Valley by a shorter route, I'm told you can enter from UT-72, north of Loa. I cannot vouch for the road, as I didn't go that way, but I can tell you it took me about 5 hours to drive in from Caineville, and 4 hours to drive out via the river ford.]

My campsite with solar panel deployed.

I returned to the campground and began sitting up. I heard a greeting from behind me and turned around to find one of my new friends from the SUWA roundup remarking about it being a small world. I'd met Kathy on the Muddy Creek hike and later ran into her at the rest stop on the way out of San Rafael Swell earlier in the day. She'd driven in from Hartnett Road across the ford, while I was winding my way in from the Caineville entrance.

Unfortunately, even though there is a view of Cathedral Valley from the campground, I was so wrapped up in setting up camp or having dinner or something that I lost track of time. By the time I realized I should have been taking photos of the monoliths in the valley, the sun had sunk too far down. If I had a photographers guild card, I'd have to give it up after this fiasco.

View toward Moab and the La Sal Mountains.

Later in the evening Kathy rescued me from the blunder of not having a corkscrew and was rewarded by sharing my wine as we told stories of journeys past and recounted favorite books & authors.

Sunset over Thousand Lakes Mountain. You should be able to just make out the groves of golden aspen on the mountain's flanks.


Cathedral Valley (continued)

After leaving the campground I turned right, then at the junction, left on Hartnett Road. I stopped at each and every overlook to take photos and admire the view. The road wound though some amazing and strange formations and geology.

Cathedral Valley from the upper valley overlook.

Turning around I was greeted with this sight of the moon setting over Thousand Lakes Mountain.

Just off Hartnett Road, not far from the campground, is the Upper South Desert Overlook

Much farther down the road, and after a short walk, you are treated to this view of the Lower South Desert

Yes, I was fascinated by the colorful Bentonite Hills.

Hartnett Road continues down from the hills and across a basin.

A reminder of the rough life in the desert.

I crossed the river ford (if that's the word for driving up river for about 100' before attaining the bank on the other side.) to once again acquire UT-24 and headed west toward the park entrance.

Capitol Reef National Park

Having never driven the official scenic drive though the park, I thought that would be in order. Of course it seemed like every tourist in the world was out on the road, too. I saw folks trying to capture the reef using action cams. One fellow had his attached to the driver's side window - imagine the video from that twisty road; another was actually holding his out the driver's window using a short stick - I defy him to watch more than one minute of the result.

Along the Scenic Drive.

The main scenic drive was scenic enough, though not much more than you'd see along many highways in redrock/canyon country. The dirt Capitol Gorge road at the end of the pavement was pretty amazing and was worth putting up with the tourists on the main drive. Not that there were any less on the dirt road, but everyone was staring up at the canyon walls in amazement, so it was less obtrusive. The canyon walls were so close together and so large, there was no way to achieve any sort of meaningful photo even with my widest lens.

I drove back to the main park entrance and headed toward Torrey, the closest town to the park and the only place to gas up before I headed back into the wilds. At the junction between UT-24 and UT-12 is a tourist information bureau in a converted gas station. I stopped in and gathered a bunch of maps, pamphlets, and brochures - that would pay off later.

After getting gas I drove back east on UT-24 past the park entrance.

Continued in Part 3: Waterpocket Fold, Halls Creek Overlook, and Burr Trail


  1. Myfavorite photos are the reflection in Muddy Creek, the lookback into Cathedral Valley (it looked like a city!) and ALL of the bentonite hills!!

    Sorry about your blister. I read somewhere that it helps to put on a pair of thin wool dress socks underneath your thicker hiking socks, and it works great to keep blisters at bay. I have no idea if that works or not, however. ;-)

  2. Thanks, Claudie, I liked those photos, too. I took more Bentonite hill photos, but made myself not subject my readers to all of them. Blister advice seems to change through the years; I'll figure my feet out at some point.


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