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Cathedral Valley – The Definitive Guide

Cathedral Valley – The Definitive Guide

Posted in: Outdoor adventures on June 25, 2019.

The Definitive Guide

Cathedral Valley is the forgotten section of Capitol Reef. It’s hard to get to, requires a high-clearance vehicle, and offers no services. And, for the most part, it doesn’t even look like the rest of Capitol Reef. So, it’s no wonder that most people pass right on by. But if you want to experience this remarkable section of the park for yourself, then we’ve got the definitive guide to help you do it. Follow us!

A group of monoliths in Cathedral Valley

Photo by Red River Ranch. Some of what you’ll get to see on your trip through Cathedral Valley.

Find the Turn Off

Stop by the Visitor Center on the way to Cathedral Valley. They have a map to help you find the turn off, and a hiking guide, so that you can see which trails to explore, and which to skip. About 11.7 miles from the Visitor Center, you’ll see a sign for the River Ford. Turn off the main road (Utah State Road 24) here. Drive for about half-a-mile, until you see the ford in the water. (We told you this would require a high-clearance vehicle.) If you have the option, pop it into 4-wheel drive and cross the river. It’s not as tricky as it looks.

The sign and turn off at the River Ford

Photo by Red River Ranch. This is the sign where you’ll want to turn.

Drive and Drive

For the first leg of the journey, you’ll actually be traveling outside of the national park. Along the way you’ll catch a few good views of the Waterpocket Fold in the distance, see a couple of small canyons, and pass lots and lots of sand hill formations. Eventually, you’ll cross back into Capitol Reef.

A gray sand canyon

Photo by Red River Ranch. One of the first interesting things you’ll see on the loop.

A wide view of the distant Waterpocket Fold

Photo by Red River Ranch. The Waterpocket Fold in the far distance.

The sign that marks the entrance to the park

Photo by Red River Ranch. Re-entering the park.

What to Hike?

There are really only three proper hikes in Cathedral Valley (we aren’t counting the two short overlooks, which for us are mandatory stops.) So if you’re only doing a day-trip through the valley, then you may only get to do one. This is where the trail guide that you got from the Visitor Center will come in handy. Most people will probably just want to do the two overlooks – Upper South Desert Overlook and Cathedral Valley Overlook. They’re located pretty close together, near the campground, and will provide you with some pretty great views.

Note: If you want to stop for the night, or are just looking for a place to grab lunch, the Cathedral Valley Campground is located near the overlooks. Just be aware, it’s primitive and not well serviced. But there are fire pits and picnic tables.

A sweeping view of the South Desert

Photo by Red River Ranch. The view from the Upper South Desert Overlook.

Another view of the rock formations as seen from the Upper South Desert Overlook

Photo by Red River Ranch. Looking toward the Waterpocket Fold from the overlook.

Looking at another overlook into Cathedral Valley

Photo by Red River Ranch. The view from the Cathedral Valley Overlook.

More Driving

It’s time to drive past those crazy, cool rock formations you saw at the Cathedral Valley Overlook! You’ll actually get to see a bunch of those great monolithic sandstone formations as you continue through this section of the valley. So feel free to stop the car, snap some pictures, and stretch your legs.

Nearby Thousand Lakes Mountain as seen from Cathedral Valley

Photo by Red River Ranch. A view of the nearby Thousand Lakes Mountain.

Some of the many monoliths in Cathedral Valley

Photo by Red River Ranch. These monoliths were seen from the last overlook.

Gypsum Sinkhole

This slight detour is optional. The Gypsum Sinkhole, as the name suggests, is a very large hole. That’s pretty much it. So if you feel like stopping by, take the two-mile detour at the point where the road splits (it’s marked on the map, but not at the split, so consult the map that you picked up) and drive toward the cliffs to see the hole. You might as well, right, when will you be coming back this way?

The trail sign to the Gypsum Sinkhole

Photo by Red River Ranch. This sign marks the trail to the sinkhole. Just don’t fall in.

Temple Worship

The last real stop for anyone driving the Cathedral Valley Loop is at the Temples of the Sun and Moon. There is a short road that leads right up to these very famous formations. You’ll also get a chance to see the Glass Mountain, which is a curious geological lump located right next to the temples. Explore a bit, and take plenty of pictures. If you’re a professional photographer, or are just super dedicated, try to get to the are during Golden Hour. It’s pretty cool.

Looking up at the Temple of the Sun

Photo by Red River Ranch. The famed Temple of the Sun in Cathedral Valley.

The Glass Mountain in the foreground with the Temple of the Sun in the background

Photo by Red River Ranch. The strange-looking Glass Mountain, with the Temple of the Sun looming in the background.

Drive Back Round

The loop is almost done. During this last section, you’ll see more sparse desert, Bentonite Hills, and Factory Butte out in the distance. After about 15 miles, you’ll connect back to the main road (U–24) somewhere outside of Caineville. Take a left and drive back to the main section of Capitol Reef. You’ve done it! Congratulations!

Fun-looking sandy hills

Photo by Red River Ranch. Mulitcolored sand hills are a common sight on this section of the drive.

The road back to Capitol Reef near Caineville

Photo by Red River Ranch. The exit from Cathedral Valley is just over this rise.

Safety First

A quick thought about safety. There are NO services in Cathedral Valley. So plan smart, bring everything that you’ll need, and plan on self-rescue if you get stuck or stranded. Also, please don’t attempt the drive without the right kind of vehicle. Towing fees are incredibly expensive.

Note: Dirt roads can make any long-distance travel uncomfortable, especially if they’re washboarded. Washboards are actually caused by everybody traveling at the same approximate speed along the road. The trick is to drive at a different speed than the travelers who came before you. Try speeding up or slowing down, and see if that makes for a smoother ride. But be careful, there are still plenty of turns and dips on the road that you REALLY don’t want to take at 40 mph.

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