In Search of Temples at Capitol Reef National Park

I had the time of my life!

Continuing the fun journeys I have been taking during this Christmas/New Years holiday week, I decided to go to Capitol Reef National Park in Torrey, UT on Friday and Saturday, the 30th and 31st.

I wasn’t just going to visit the park, I was going on an adventure into the back country via off road driving in my Toyota 4Runner. To be even more specific, I was going to Monument Valley in the park to photograph the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. I have wanted to go there for several years, but didn’t have the vehicle to make the rugged journey.

I solved that problem in October when I bought a Toyota 4Runner.

Below are some of the top pix and my favorite video from the trip. Following the favorites, you can go deeper and see more photos, videos and a more detailed accounting of the complete trip.

Favorite Video

This video is from Day 1 of the journey. It is a quick summary of the the off road journey I made across the park to the Lower South Desert Overlook. At the overlook, you can see Jailhouse Rock, Temple Rock and Thousand Lake Mountain. It is a sped up and highly truncated version of a longer video found in the deeper dive section of the post.

Top 7 Photos

These are 7 of my faves. I did not choose them just because they are photographically strong, I chose some because of what they mean to me in context of the overall experience of the two day journey. For example, the picture of me with my 4Runner in front of the Temple of the Sun is not anything photographically special, but it means a lot to me because I accomplished a goal that I had set years ago.

Sunrise Friday morning looking south toward the beginning of the journey.
The Temples of the Sun (right) and Moon. Perspective here give a false sense of size. The Sun is much bigger than the moon by an estimate factor of 5.
At the end of Day 2’s journey. This is about 2 miles from paved roads.
I love this scene. I have been on this road in summer and in winter. I love that it says it is impassable.
There was only one way to prove that wrong!
Sunset on Day 1. I arrived at the Park with about 75 minutes of sunlight left in the day.
After about 60 mins of off road driving, together we proudly pose at the destination prize – The Temple of the Sun
The South Desert Overlook and Jailhouse Rock

GO DEEPER

DAY 1

In this section I will include more text and a lot of photos of the journey.

When I left my house on Friday morning to head to the Capitol Reef, it was lightly snowing. I had checked the weather and the snow was not going to be serious, which turned out to be correct. I also checked the forecast for the park and it indicated almost no chance of snow for either day. In fact, the temps were going to be in the mid to high 40s. I felt perfectly safe hitting the road for the 2-day adventure.

On my way down to the park, I passed through the town of Salina. As I was stopped at a traffic light, I saw a building on the street corner that look old and historic. Turns out it was in fact a historic building that was built in 1876. It was called Mom’s Cafe. The restaurant opened in 1929 and has been operating since under several different owners.

I decided to have lunch there. Inside the walls were plastered with historical information about the restaurant’s history. I have include a few such elements below.

When I left Mom’s Cafe, I saw this building across the street. The building is dated as well as its business provided. I did not see any evidence that it was still in operation.

On my way out of town, I saw a colorful mural with a simple and powerful message. I stopped and made some pix and video.

My goal was to drive straight to the Cathedral Valley, which is located in the northern part of the park. The section of the park map below shows the areas into which I traveled in the park. If you look at the red line for Hwy 24 at the bottom of the image below, and follow it to the east, you will see two left turns, one for Hartnet Road and the other for Cathedral Road. I chose Hartnet on the the first day and Cathedral on the second day.

If you look in the upper left hand corner of the image above, you will see a dotted road titled Elkhorn Rd, which forks into Polk Creek Road. This was the route that I had hoped to take into the park. However, due to weather and road conditions, that much quicker route was closed as shown in the photos below.

After heading back down from the snow-closed road, I made my way to Hwy 24 and into the main park entrance. Before actually going in, I made a few pictures.

Since I had the limited resource of sunshine left for the day, I drove straight through the main area and found Hartnet Road. It is not marked, so I actually drove by it. Thank goodness it shows up on Google Maps and I was directed to turn around. I found the turn off and immediately found myself on a dirt road with a pretty steep downhill. The video I included in the favorites section above, shows this turn off and the drive. The long version below, shows a more detailed view of the entire drive on Hartnet Road.

One of my favorite parts of the day was coming to the Fremont River almost immediately. The road ended at the river and continued on the other side about 50 yards downstream. The only time during the trip that day when I saw another car was right at this location. They had come to the river and were deciding whether or not to cross in their 4Runner.

One of them told me he was considering just walking into the water to see how did and safe it was. I told him I had some waders and I would save him the headache of getting his clothes wet.

I had no idea what to expect.

It turned out that the deepest part was about 12 inches deep. Most of the path we would have to cross over was between 6-8 inches.

My new 4Runner friends decided to cross first and I followed right after them. Cross was no trouble at all. In fact, I had to cross that same night in the dark with a raging snow storm and again, had no trouble.

All of this is shown on the long video below. Also shown are snippets from the drive to the Lower South Desert Overlook.

An array of lovely benches

When I arrived at the Lower South Desert Overlook, I was so excited. I actually thought for a moment that I had found the Temple of the Sun. But alas, it was not. It was Jailhouse Rock, Temple Rock and the Waterpocket Fold, predominated by Navajo sandstone.

In my excitement, I hopped out of the car, grabbed a couple of lenses and made the 1/4 mile trek to the edge of the overlook. On the way down, I tripped and sprained my ankle. It was nothing bad and I quickly caught my balance and continued to the view.

After spending about 15 minutes shooting from the overlook, I started the climb back up to my car. I was so happy that I made it to this location.

That happiness was squelched a bit when I tripped again and severely sprained the same ankle. THIS ONE HURT. It felt like my right foot was twisted off. I felt the stretch and pain all the way up to me knee.

No good.

I was able to make it back to the car. When I sat in the seat, I pulled up my pant leg and could see my ankle was well swollen on both sides.

Since it was my right foot, I was a bit concerned that I may not be able to press the gas pedal and brake. I started the car and gave it a go. Fortunately, I was able to gingerly drive the car with minor pain.

I decided to continue the search for the Temples of the Sun and the Moon. The sun was almost down, so I did not have much time.

Without cell service, it was hard using the maps to help me navigate. Even so, I continued on Hartnet Road in the northwest direction. I could tell I was actually getting farther away from the temples. I knew there was a Cathedral Valley campground in the direction I was going. I figured I could stop there and spend the night and start my search again in the morning.

The problem was that the elevation was increasing, the road was becoming a bit rougher, it was getting darker and darker, and it was starting to snow. When I noticed the snow starting to increase, I made the decision to turn around and get to lower ground. While I feel it was a form of giving up, I also feel it was the smart thing to do. There were too many unknowns. It was my first time on this road and it was unfamiliar. I also did not know how bad the snow storm was going to be. Finally, if something was to happen that required me to some type of physical intervention or action, my throbbing and large swollen ankle was going to be an impediment.

I found a section of the mountain road wide enough to turn around and I began the drive back down.

It was both fun and a bit scary to drive down in the dark. I made it down with no problem. One of my favorite parts was the crossing of the Fremont River in the dark. The crossing is shown in the video below.

DAY 2

I got up early the next morning with a new plan to get to the Temples. This time I found another dirt road, called Cathedral Road. Yes, the name is so obvious, I know.

After about an hour or so of driving I arrived at the Temples. The video below is a quick look at the trip there.

The photos below highlight the morning drive and the destination of the temples. Since it was early morning, there was a lot of low-hanging photo fruit.

The view before I turned off on Cathedral Road. I love early mornings.

After about an hour, I could see Cathedral Valley off in the distance. I knew it was the home of the Temples because I could see the Temple of the Sun poking over the horizon.

The Temple of the Sun reaching over the hill
Temple of the Moon

I totally enjoyed my time at the Temples. I want to come back in Spring or Summer. I would like to spend an overnight there and set up some astrophotography. It is a great location for that.

I spent about 30 minutes at the site and then headed back to begin my journey home. On my way out I made a few last images.

This trip was a great adventure on top of my other holiday break adventures. I had more fun than I could have imagined.

Best news is that I am even more exciting about coming back to Capitol Reef and to exploring other off road adventures in the state and beyond!

Stay tuned!

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