Driving Utah's Capitol Reef Cathedral Valley Loop
Those searching for a rugged experience in Capitol Reef National Park look no further than a half day trek along the Cathedral Valley Loop, a roughly 70 mile driving loop through the park's northern Cathedral Valley District featuring some pretty awesome sights. Along the drive, views of several of Capitol Reef's most eye-catching geological features and stops at two historical sites offering glimpses of what life was like in the valley many, many years ago. To view all that the loop has to offer, visitor's vehicles will endure some pretty gnarly terrain. A river crossing, more than thirty wash crossings, sand, and some of the most slow moving, rock laden road you'll find anywhere in the region. There is zero potable water, cell service is non-existent outside of a few spots in higher elevations, and much of the loop is susceptible to flash floods. That being said, a high clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle is required to successfully navigate the loop. There are two starting points, Cainville Wash Rd and Hartnett Rd, both located along Rt 24. We highly recommend starting on Hartnet Rd which allows drivers to cross the Fremont River at the beginning of the drive versus driving the entire loop and crossing the river at the very end. The river can be impassible at times and it would be really crappy to start on Caineville Wash Rd, drive the entire loop, and get to the end to find that you can't make it across the river. The information below is based on crossing the river on the front end. Plan on 5-7 hours for what is detailed below and use 2130 East Hartnet Rd in your GPS as the starting point for the drive. There's also a decent sized backcountry campground near the start which would be a pretty solid place to stay if you're looking to get an early start to the loop the following day. Trailheads for several popular Capitol Reef National Park hikes, including Cassidy Arch and Hickman Bridge, are within thirty minutes of the start of the drive.
Hartnet Road River Ford
The best way to determine if the water level of the Fremont River is safe for crossing is to swing by or call the Capitol Reef National Park visitor center. If that's not an option, your next best option is to park just before the crossing, walk along the near side of the river, and cross to the other side at a 90-degree angle on foot. That's the path that your vehicle should take. If the water level is mid-knee or less and you don't struggle to stay upright while crossing, your vehicle should be able to make it without any issues. Water level and current are the issues to consider more than the surface of the riverbed which is typically full of cobblestones that aid in traction. The video below is what the crossing looked like the last time we were in Capitol Reef. It hadn't rained in a week so it was pretty easy going. Focus on the path we took and try to do the same.
Water Well Oasis
Once across the Fremont River, your first stop is the Water Well Oasis located about 5 miles into the drive. You'll find an old rusted out, bullet riddled truck and well-drilling rig.
The truck and construction equipment were abandoned by J Pinkerton, a local rancher who in 1946 tapped the well pictured below. Today, it's the only water source in Cathedral Valley and still used by cattle who graze the area every October.
Bentonite Hills Overlook
Roughly 6 miles into the drive you'll find a small, but noticeable pull-off on the right side of the road that offers views in every direction of the area's Bentonite Hills. Their sponge-like surface has a bizarre popcorn-like appearance up close and if you have time to explore them a bit we recommend doing so. From the overlook, the Waterpocket Fold and Boulder Mountain will be to the west and the Henry Mountains to the southeast.
The banded hills consist of varying hues of red, purple, brown, green, and grey and were formed during the Jurassic period when mud, silt, sand, and volcanic ash were deposited in swamps that once dominated the landscape. They're best viewed just before sunrise or just after sunset when their colors aren't bleached out by the sun, but that can be a challenge on this drive. If you're interested in viewing Bentonite Hills from a more accessible location for sunrise or sunset, or are just interested in how amazing they can be at that time of day, check out Day 7 of our Ten Days in Southern Utah: The Mighty Five & Beyond adventure guide.
Lower South Desert Overlook
Around 17 miles into the drive you'll come to a junction where hanging a left and driving a little over a mile leads to the Lower South Desert Overlook parking area. From the parking area it's an easy quarter mile walk to the overlook where you'll have a great view of Jailhouse Rock, a 500' Entrada sandstone monolith, hundreds of toadstool hoodoos, the South Desert, and the northern reaches of the Waterpocket Fold.
Those with more time can explore the almost five mile round trip hike leading from the overlook, down into the valley, beside Jailhouse Rock, and out to Temple Rock, another standout formation in the valley.
Upper South Desert Overlook
At roughly 35 miles into the drive you'll reach the Upper South Desert Overlook parking area. A short third of a mile hike up a steep hill eventually leads to the overlook providing views of the South Desert and Henry Mountains. Those with a fear of heights might have an issue walking all the way out to the overlook, and in that case a similar view can be had from just prior to.
By this point in the drive the road will have worsened quite a bit and you'll likely be driving at a snail's pace. This will continue until you get to a lower elevation near Morrell Cabin.
Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
A quarter mile after the Upper South Desert Overlook you'll encounter a signed spur road leading to the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook. A dirt path surrounded by twisted junipers leads down to a narrow peninsula with big drops off each side that those with a fear of heights will certainly have issues with. Those who can make it down to the spot in the photo below you'll have an incredible view of the Walls of Jericho in the valley below.
A quarter mile or so after leaving the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook you'll reach a junction where Hartnet Road ends. Continue straight and you'll be on Thousand Lake Mountain Rd and off route. Instead make a right where you'll begin your descent into the valley on Caineville Wash Rd. Shortly after making the right you'll pass by Cathedral Valley Campground, the only campground on the loop.
After a very rocky descent into the valley you'll arrive at a small signed pull off on the left for Morrell Cabin around 37 miles into the drive. A half mile round trip walk takes you to a cabin built in the 1920s and used as a logging camp up on Thousand Lake Mountain several miles west of where it is now.
In the early 1930s a cattleman purchased the cabin, numbered each log, disassembled it, hauled the pieces down the mountain in a horse-drawn wagon, and reassembled it on site. For the next four decades it was used by cowboys when they moved livestock each summer to mountain pasture and each winter to valley rangeland. Today, it stands as a reminder of the area's Old West heritage.
Around 40 miles into the drive just passed the junction with Baker Ranch Rd you'll arrive at a signed spur road for Gypsum Sinkhole. The mile-long road leads to a small alcove within the surrounding cliffs and a massive sinkhole.
Once back on the main loop road keep your eyes peeled for the ridge on the right. The horizontal black stripes in the cliffs are the result of molten lava that seeped into the cracks millions of years ago.
Temples of the Sun & Moon
At 52 miles into the drive you'll arrive at the spur road for the Temples of the Sun & Moon, two massive Entrada sandstone monoliths and the most famous formations along the loop. The taller of the two is the Temple of the Sun and rises more than 400' from the valley floor. These and others throughout the park reminded early explorers of ornate, Gothic cathedrals, prompting Capitol Reef National Monument's first superintendent, Charles Kelly, to name the area Cathedral Valley, in 1945.
The temples are best viewed late in the evening around sunset and provide excellent photo opportunities at night when the Milky Way is visible. Camping is prohibited anywhere other than at the Cathedral Valley Campground and a sign near Temple of the Sun advises that the area is surveilled by remote cameras.
Glass Mountain, a 15' hill made of large gypsum crystals that seem to sparkle in the sun, can also be found along the same spur road just north of the temples. It's a worthwhile stop and easy to spot.
Once you're back on the main loop road you'll have about 18-20 miles to go through Bureau of Land Management land before reaching Rt-24 in Caineville. This stretch of the road is considerably easier to navigate, but there isn't much to see.
If you're looking for an off the beaten path stop after, check out Factory Butte located twenty minutes to the east. There's some great free Bureau of Land Management backcountry camping along Factory Butte Rd and downtown Hanksville isn't far away. For more amazing spots to check out in southern Utah make sure to check out our Ten Days in Southern Utah: The Mighty Five & Beyond.