Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park is usually divided into three districts: the Fremont River District, home to more than a dozen maintained trails and the bulk of visitor traffic; the wild, southern Waterpocket District, home to slot canyons and the park’s best overnight hikes; and the remote and pristine Cathedral Valley District. Less than 1% of visitors venture into Cathedral Valley, either on account of ignorance or the long, rugged ride required to reach the area. Those who do make the 60-mile driving loop are likely to make the Lower South Desert Overlook—an excellent viewpoint of a vast, multicolor expanse at the edge of the Waterpocket Fold—their first stop. Here an easy, ¼-mile jaunt leads out to a great vantage of iconic Jailhouse Rock.
To reach this hike, drive to mile marker 91 on Utah Highway 24, where the unpaved Hartnet Road begins. Cross the river ford, then continue 13 miles northwest, through the Bentonite Hills area, to a signed turnoff for Lower South Desert. Follow the spur road for 1.1 miles to the parking area at the trailhead.
Jailhouse Rock and the Lower South Desert are already visible from the end of the road, but it is worth making the additional, ¼-mile walk for its unobstructed vistas. There is no well-worn trail, but the direction—following an old, rutted two-track—is relatively straightforward. Though the viewpoint is not marked, you will know it when you’re there: the shelf suddenly drops off, affording a terrific view of the sandy South Desert below.
The trail traces a faded gray-green rock layer called the Curtis formation, the same stratum that forms the cap of Jailhouse Rock. Weathering has left the Curtis in a state resembling bubbling or mushrooming, well evidenced in the outcrop at the viewpoint and in a line off to the right (northwest).
Below the Curtis is the Entrada sandstone, a red-orange layer that, in this part of Utah, is very brittle and prone to erosion. Jailhouse Rock is primarily composed of Entrada, as is Temple Rock, a much smaller monolith spotted beyond Jailhouse to the right. Finally, behind and to the left of Jailhouse Rock, the Waterpocket Fold—dominated by Navajo sandstone—curves northwest, revealing a labyrinth of canyons and sweeping slickrock domes.
It is possible to continue on from the viewpoint to the base of Jailhouse Rock, to Temple Rock, and to Deep Creek. This involves a steep descent, however, following the old road as it snakes down to the Lower South Desert. Keep this in mind as a possible backpacking excursion.
For quick visitors, allot 20 minutes for the round-trip to/from the Lower South Desert Overlook.