I have been to Capitol Reef National Park numerous times, and each time, I wished longingly that I could travel into Cathedral Valley and see the eroded sandstone monuments there. On each previous occasion, I was always in a basic passenger car or regular van that seemed inadequate to travel on the unpaved roads and the river crossing seemed daunting to me. But on our trip this time, I was determined to see Cathedral Valley. We rented a small Toyota Rav4 and I scoured the rental agreement looking for restrictions on going on unpaved roads. Finding none, I knew that we had to finally do Cathedral Valley.
I dug into online documents and could fine little information on what to expect on the river crossing. How deep was it? What kind of vehicle is required? Details were scarce. I determined to give it a go, one way or another. We stopped by the visitor center at Capitol Reef and I spoke to the Rangers there, but they were deliberatively evasive. Despite my frustration, I understood how they couldn’t make assurances to people without facing backlash if someone had trouble. We were on our own.
We approached the river crossing and I stopped the RAV4 and made my son walk walk across the river to check the depth wearing water shoes that I prepared ahead of time. The water depth never went higher than about half-way up his shins – good enough. The water is usually only about 1 foot deep, which is about what we encountered.
The path to follow is indicated in the picture here. We turned into the river and made a hard right turn to follow the right bank until we were directly across from the road on the opposite side. Making a hard left turn, we plunged across the river with no trouble. Yeah! The biggest obstacle was already overcome. There was now just the dirt road and occassional dry creek bed crossings that contained light amounts of sand.
The road, called Hartnet road, was dirt with occasional sand. Scrub board ripples were not too common, so the drive was pretty pleasant. The distances are deceptive, as I could not drive very fast on this road – it takes a lot longer to drive a mile here than I am used to. The stream bottoms encountered were dry with light amounts of sand – the RAV4 had no trouble and I think that most cars would be able to navigate the ones I encountered.
The initial land we travelled through reminded me of the Painted Desert in Arizona, with eroded hills striped with improbably colorful stripes of red and mauve. The road meandered up through these hills and topped out on the North Blue Flats – a long, dry plain with hills in the distance. About the only thing we saw that broke the monotony of the next 10 miles or so was a wreck of a truck that looked to be from the 40’s whose door had been used for target practice at one time. Behind it was a rig of some kind that was of unknown purpose to me.
Lower South Desert Overlook
A turn off appeared on the left and we took it. Parking at the end of the road, we were the only ones there and we took the short hike to look out over the desert. The landscape was more interesting here, with small broken hills and painted hills further on, with the first cathedrals we have seen on this trip. The cathedrals are eroded monuments similar to others in the southwest, but also distinct. These are more shapely – appearing to be of softer stone than those in Monument Valley or around Arches National Park and having more erosion along their sides. The term cathedral seems apt as they reminded me of gothic cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe. My teenagers enjoyed scrambling about on the rocks here.
Upper South Desert Overlook
We went back to Hartnet Road and travelled another 14 miles or so. The next turn off was for the Upper South Desert Overlook. It offered a short hike to an overlook of the land there, with a cliff that dropped down to the desert below. We encountered our first other travelers here – a nice couple.
Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
Not far past this turn off was another to the right. This gave a nice view of the Upper Cathedral Valley from above. The road we were to travel could be seen winding down amongst the cathedrals scattered about below. Just past this overlook is the only campground in Cathedral Valley. We stopped here and had a picnic lunch on one of the provided tables and availed ourselves of the waterless toilets. It gets hot here in the summer, but we moved our table into the shade and it was pleasant enough.
Into the Valley
After lunch, we continued onward, and descended down a switchback road into the valley proper. The cathedral monoliths are scattered about, we we played leap-frog with another vehicle as we pulled out to take in each view offered. The monuments here are memorable, and a few puffy clouds made for nice pictures. The road followed along the bluff we had just descended down as we journeyed along from here, offering many nice views of eroded cliffs and monoliths.
The next turnoff is for the Gypsum Sinkhole. It is located up next to the cliff walls and is little more than an interesting geologic pit. Groundwater dissolved soft gypsum underground and the cavity left behind collapsed. The hole is 50 feet in diameter and 200 feet deep. Don’t stand too close as the rock is soft (the picture here is staged, of course!)
Back on the main road, we drove about 15 miles through Cathedral Valley proper. The bluffs to the right continue to be scenic. The next turn off leads to the most famous monoliths here and we could see them from a distance as we approached. The road leads right up to them and hiking needed to see them is minimal, although you can explore about freely as the landscape is dramatic.
Temple of the Sun
The most famous monolith appears first – the nicely named Temple of the Sun. It rises sharply from the plain it sits on and makes for a dramatic view.
Nearby is another spot, the appropriately named Glass Mountain. Not quite a mountain, it is a large mound of exposed selenite crystals, which is a glassy form of gypsum. Sadly, evidence of people collecting some of this neat stone abounds – please leave it alone. It is prohibited to take and makes for a worsening experience for all who follow after.
Temple of the Moon
A bit farther along is the Temple of the Moon – a similar monolith to the Temple of the Sun, but less large and generally less dramatic. You can drive up to it or take a short hike.
After this stop, we continued along Cathedral Road. It is 15 miles from this turnoff back to highway 24 near Caineville. The landscape is mostly flat for this route, up until the last third as it works its way down along Caineville Wash and passes through more of a painted desert landscape similar to the one the loop started with. The dirt road ends at highway 24 – the small town of Caineville is to the left and Capitol Reef is to the right.
Cathedral Valley Loop Drive
We completed the entire 57.6 mile loop and it took us about 6 hours, including our stop for a picnic lunch. With the time we had left in our day, we went back to Capitol Reef and enjoyed some more of the national park. I was so pleased to finally get to see the monoliths of Cathedral Valley.
What if I Can’t Cross the River?
Having driven the entire loop, which I’m glad I did, I would not hesitate to visit the valley without doing the river crossing. Enter Cathedral Road just south of Caineville and go as far as the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook or thereabouts. See all of this and then double back. The landscape is not that much different on the south part of the loop and you will see all the best parts of the trip for about the same mileage.
Don’t confuse Cathedral Valley with Cathedral Gorge. The latter is a state park in Nevada that features some nice eroded hills that is also worth a visit. Check out my article about Cathedral Gorge here.
Be a Careful Adventurer
Traffic to Cathedral Valley is light – we only encountered 3 other cars in 6 hours and this was in early June when visitation is approaching the busy season. Take plenty of water and food and make sure to gas up before making the journey. Having a shovel would likely be a good idea (we didn’t have one) and some emergency supplies to doctor anyone who gets hurt. The river crossing conditions can change dramatically with rain and the river crossing can be worse than we encountered, needing a true 4WD or even becoming impassible. Try speaking to the rangers – hopefully when conditions are really bad they will steer you away from it.
I have put hi-resolution pictures from our visit in order as we encountered them doing a clockwise trip through Cathedral Valley here.
Capitol Reef National Park
Cathedral Valley is part of the underappreciated Capitol Reef National Park. This park has varied experiences and landscapes for you to enjoy. Read all about it here.
Utah is a great state for sight-seeing and adventure. Read about other things to do in Utah here.
See my national park write-ups with excellent advice here.