Situated 27 miles up the unpaved Hartnet Road from Utah Highway 24, the Upper South Desert Overlook is a remote viewpoint in the northwest reaches of Capitol Reef National Park. For those completing the 60-mile Cathedral Valley loop drive, Upper South Desert is often the second or third stop (after quick jaunts to the Lower South Desert Overlook and perhaps the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlooks). The morning sun can sometimes obscure views, but the vista—one of the highest points along the drive—usually offers a fine vantage point over the pristine scenery of this rarely-visited part of the park.
To reach the trailhead, drive 27 miles up the Hartnet Road, fording the river, crossing the Bentonite Hills, and tracing Hartnet Draw to a point where the pinyon-juniper forest becomes considerably more dense. Turn left onto a short spur road marked “Upper South Desert.” (Note: The Hartnet Road is not suited for all vehicles; high-clearance required, at a minimum. Check with the Visitor Center for latest road conditions.) Elevation at this point is roughly 6,800’, and the submontane environment feels considerably cooler than the low desert to the east.
From the parking area at the end of the spur, an obvious trail takes off to southeast. Follow this track for 1/10 mile, at which point it is possible to peer down off the cliffs to the east and west. At least one deep fissure on the left drops 200 feet to rolling badlands below. The seemingly endless line of cliffs to the east is composed principally of orange Entrada sandstone, here nicely fluted and streaked with horizontal lines.
The second 1/10 mile involves a steep climb, with no switchbacks, to the summit of a minor hill. The ascent, however, is brief, and only 3-5 minutes are needed to reach the overlook.
From the viewpoint, enjoy splendid vistas of the Upper South Desert, which—in contrast with the Lower South Desert—exudes a greenish color, suggesting a slight advantage in precipitation. The line of Entrada sticks out several miles southwest at Acklin Peak, a deeply-colorful protrusion. On clear days, the Henry Mountains and Factory Butte can be seen on the horizon.
Also take a look to the southwest, where the striped Summerville formation is briefly interrupted by a pair of protruding volcanic dikes, a reminder that the geologic story of Capitol Reef is not entirely that of sedimentary rock. Rotating to the northwest, flat-capped Thousand Lake Mountain (11,299’)—as well as the fluted cliffs of Upper Cathedral Valley—completes the picture.
Return the way you came. Allot around 15-20 minutes for this short round-trip.