Little Sand Flat |

Cathedral Valley

Hiking Little Sand Flat - Cathedral Valley Hiking Little Sand Flat

Cathedral Valley

Overview

RATING: Strenuous Hike
MAPS: CATHEDRAL MOUNTAIN, UT; FRUITA NW, UT

Fri

A 40 percent chance of snow.  Partly sunny, with a high near 42. Light and variable wind becoming southwest 5 to 8 mph in the morning.  Little or no snow accumulation expected.

42 | 27

Sat

Mostly sunny, with a high near 41. West wind 7 to 10 mph.

41 | 24

Sun

Mostly sunny, with a high near 45.

45 | 24

Mon

Mostly sunny, with a high near 47.

47 | 29

Tue

Sunny, with a high near 48.

48 | 28

View Full Weather Details
SEASON: Spring, Fall (Winter if no snow on the ground)
GEAR: Standard Hiking Gear
WATER: None, bring all you need.
NOTES: High clearance is required to reach the trailhead. 

Fri

A 40 percent chance of snow.  Partly sunny, with a high near 42. Light and variable wind becoming southwest 5 to 8 mph in the morning.  Little or no snow accumulation expected.

42 | 27

Sat

Mostly sunny, with a high near 41. West wind 7 to 10 mph.

41 | 24

Sun

Mostly sunny, with a high near 45.

45 | 24

Mon

Mostly sunny, with a high near 47.

47 | 29

Tue

Sunny, with a high near 48.

48 | 28

View Full Weather Details
Little Sand Flat

Little Sand Flat

When looking for a long, off-the-beaten-path loop in Capitol Reef National Park, Little Sand Flat caught my eye. The attraction, for me, was an old and overgrown track that had been used at one time to drill an exploratory well. The track provides an easy-to-follow path from the Cathedral Valley road deep into an obscure and seldom visited northern area of the park. The hike did not disappoint! Diverse geology, stunning views, the historic road, and seemingly endless solitude made for an excellent day out.

Though I had hoped this might turn out to be a good route for a family backpack in the future, after an extended dry period, I found NO WATER on the hike. I encountered numerous deep potholes and places I would expect water, but nothing more than slightly damp sand on my visit. If you can time it to visit after known precipitation, or don't mind carrying all the water needed for a backpack, this would be an exceptional place to spend a night and explore more.

Loop vs. Out-and-back: The loop shown here is a very long day. My tracker showed about 18 miles and over 2500' of elevation gain over the course of the loop. If you are looking for something shorter, doing the first part as an out and back is an excellent option. Reaching Little Sand Flat proper was one of the best parts, and could be visited as an out-and-back in about 12-14 miles, depending on where you turn around. Still a long day, but more reasonable for most. Keep in mind, the return canyon used for the full loop is a bit physical and requires more energy than just the out and back on the old track.
Skill Note: This is a route for experienced desert hikers only! This complex route is seldom trodden. Good navigational skills are needed. If doing the full loop, you must be excellent at avoiding crypto biotic soil and have good physical fitness.
History Note: I was unable to find definitive information on the old track. The Administrative History of Capitol Reef mentions the drill hole on Little Sand Flats, and leads me to believe the road was put in during the late 1940s as part of oil and gas exploration. It seems an incredible amount of work for something that apparently didn't pan out.
Textured walls of Deep Creek from the Old Track after it leaves the wash bottom.

Textured walls of Deep Creek from the Old Track after it leaves the wash bottom.

Getting There

Reaching the trailhead is impossible if the roads are wet. Reaching the trailhead also requires crossing the Fremont River. The river is normally easy to ford except in spring runoff, or after recent rains. For information on the river depth and current road conditions, you can use the automated system by calling Capitol Reef National Park at (435) 425-3791. Press 1 for visitor information; 4 for road conditions. High clearance is required for the river crossing.

The trailhead is reached via the Cathedral Valley road. From the visitor center, head east on UT-24 for about 12 miles to mile post 91 where a dirt road leaves on the left (north) side signed River Ford. Reset your odometer as you turn off the highway.

  • Mile Marker 91 on UT-24 ( 12S 492149mE 4236282mN / N38° 16' 28" W111° 05' 23" )
  • 0.5 miles - River Ford. I would recommend walking first to check the depth. Normally you want to stay on the right side, then cut across to the left at where the road leaves on the other side for the easiest crossing. ( 12S 492959mE 4236326mN / N38° 16' 30" W111° 04' 50" )
  • 7.2 miles - Old drilling well on the right. ( 12S 489539mE 4243410mN / N38° 20' 20" W111° 07' 11" )
  • 8.7 miles - Entering the Bentonite Hills ( 12S 488693mE 4245563mN / N38° 21' 29" W111° 07' 46" )
  • 10.3 miles - Junction Left ( 12S 488163mE 4247566mN / N38° 22' 34" W111° 08' 08" )
  • 14 miles - Lower South Desert Overlook Side Road. Go left here and follow the road to its end in about a mile. ( 12S 483790mE 4250457mN / N38° 24' 08" W111° 11' 08" )
  • Lower South Desert Trailhead ( 12S 482197mE 4250686mN / N38° 24' 15" W111° 12' 14" )
South Desert views from the old track. Very dramatic.

South Desert views from the old track. Very dramatic.

Route

To Little Sand Flat
From the trailhead, follow the trail west. It follows the old track and is heavily used at the start. The track descends steeply down to the floor of the South Desert near Jailhouse Rock. On my visit, the old track had seen a lot of foot traffic for the first 2.5-ish miles as it heads to a scenic spot with views of a tower named Temple Rock, and a spot where the volcanic black dike passes through the area. Keep a close eye on the map and terrain to stay on the old track. It can be hard to spot in areas, especially if it hasn't seen recent traffic.

About 3 miles from the trailhead, Deep Creek comes in from the west, and Polk Creek from the north. The track, to me, was hard to stay on here, but the goal is to start heading west up the bottom of Deep Creek. Less than 1 mile up Deep Creek the old track leaves on the left and is easily visible as an old road cut if you are looking for it.

Take the old road up and out of Deep Creek. It gains elevation as it heads southwest, soon showing a large switchback going up the steeper section of hillside. The effort to put this road in is impressive to me.

After the switchback, the road finally flattens a bit before turning south and descending into Little Sand Flat. The scenery here changes to towering domes and big views to the west of Thousand Lake Mountain and Water Canyon below.

The track heads southwest across the flat. It can be a little hard to spot in places, but aim for the widest wash coming in on the southwest corner of Little Sand Flat. Start up the wash. I did not see the track again until a few minutes up the wash where the old track leaves on the left through a notch.

Note: If needing water, stay in the watercourse of this drainage. A few minutes up it is blocked by a dry fall that in wet times will likely have a pool of water at the bottom of it.

The old track passes up through a canyon and meanders around a point, continuing up to the high point of the track. Amazing views! The track descends left from this high point, but instead, go right. A short slot is visible a minute or so from the track, and worth a few minutes to explore. Then head south and west to re-join the track that is visible along the way. This cuts off a loop of the track, making the distance a little shorter and more scenic.

The geology of this area is very different from before. Follow the track a few more minutes to where it begins descending to a canyon bottom. Looking southwest from here, you may notice two arches in the distance. The canyon it crosses is the return canyon for those hiking the full loop.

Return Canyon
If you still feel up for the full loop, head down the canyon. It is mostly fairly wide, and dotted with small obstacles and dryfalls. All dryfalls I passed on the right. All seemed fairly straightforward except two. The first comes about a 1/2 mile down canyon. It appears to be easily passable on the far right, but instead, go right just a minute or so until you can lose a little elevation, then work back left to right under the dryfall and down. An animal trail made this easier to find on my visit.

The canyon is mostly easy walking with great views of domes and towers dotting the skyline. The volcanic dike that is prominent through much of this region and in the western San Rafael Swell makes a dramatic intrusion across the canyon at one point.

The second major dryfall is reached about 3.5 miles down the canyon, just when I thought the canyon was about done! The dryfall, from the top, has a natural bridge visible part way down it. Go right (south), staying on the upstream side of the ridge for a couple of minutes until it is easy to reach the ridge. You should see a few easy descent options down the dirt and rock slope. The dryfall has a huge pool area at the bottom that was dry on my visit, but in most wet times would hold a lot of water.

After the second major dryfall, the Navajo Sandstone walls begin to subside and change to dirt slopes.

In about a mile, a fairly major wash enters from the left. Head up the wash a couple of minutes, looking for an animal trail up to the right (east) side. Work up to the rim, being careful to avoid the crypto biotic soil that is everywhere. Once on the rim, you can see Jailhouse Rock off in the distance. On my visit, there was a pretty well-worn animal path along the rim. I followed it north briefly, until washes and animal tracks began heading down toward Jailhouse Rock. This will require some patience and persistence to avoid the crypto biotic crust. I assume most washes would work, but the path I took shown on the map worked well. It descends though a lovely, colorful deep wash before reaching the main drainage (Deep Creek). Follow it downstream until you can easily get to Jailhouse Rock and re-trace the approach route.


Maps

Full Loop / 17.44 miles / Elevation Range 5,571 - 7,061 ft.
Lower South Desert Trailhead

12S 482196mE 4250686mN

N38° 24' 15" W111° 12' 14"

Overlook

12S 481791mE 4250547mN

N38° 24' 11" W111° 12' 31"

Old gate

12S 481795mE 4250573mN

N38° 24' 12" W111° 12' 31"

Leave Wash

12S 476934mE 4250958mN

N38° 24' 24" W111° 15' 51"

Little Sand Flat

12S 474899mE 4249382mN

N38° 23' 32" W111° 17' 15"

Possible Water

12S 473976mE 4248804mN

N38° 23' 13" W111° 17' 53"

Slot

12S 473397mE 4248050mN

N38° 22' 49" W111° 18' 16"

Loop Wash

12S 472980mE 4247722mN

N38° 22' 38" W111° 18' 34"

Possible Water

12S 473053mE 4247703mN

N38° 22' 38" W111° 18' 31"

First Big Dryfall

12S 473628mE 4247751mN

N38° 22' 39" W111° 18' 07"

Dike

12S 474849mE 4247967mN

N38° 22' 46" W111° 17' 17"

Big Dryfall

12S 476747mE 4248793mN

N38° 23' 13" W111° 15' 58"

Exit Canyon Jct

12S 477900mE 4248890mN

N38° 23' 17" W111° 15' 11"

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