Exploring Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park is one of my most memorable experiences in any national park! It had everything that I could hope for including adventure, remoteness, iconic scenery and even a hike and become one with nature. This trip does, however, require some advance preparation. Make sure to read through this guide so you to can have an epic adventure exploring all 57.6 miles of Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park.
The first thing that you should do is make sure you have a vehicle that is up to this challenge. It is HIGHLY recommended that you have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. I understand that you love your car and it handles great but there are things that cars just don’t do well in. A great example is the Harnett Road River Fjord. Vehicle clearance is extremely important during river crossings because if you get water into your intake, you can almost guarantee your engine to “Hydro-Lock” leaving you with a car that no longer runs, a massive tow bill and a major vehicle repair. Other dangers include deep ruts and soft sand, all of which helps to have a high clearance 4×4. Visitors each year get the great idea to take this road in their cars and end up with a massive tow bill and an overall bad experience. Having said this, I think this road is very manageable in the right vehicle. Make sure that you leave with a full tank of gas, safety/first aid kits, tools for minor vehicle repairs and extra food and water. It is also a great idea to practice the buddy system. This means that you go out with a friend who also has a high clearance 4×4. If someone was to break down, you have someone there who can help. Remember that you are not driving on a busy interstate with thousands of cars passing and cell service here. We spent an entire day in Cathedral Valley and only saw 1 other vehicle the entire day.
Your trip should start at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center. This is a great place to get information about road and river crossing conditions and the weather report. Weather can make a dramatic difference in road conditions! Make sure to pick up a copy of the booklet “Self-Guided Auto Tour of Cathedral Valley” at the visitor center and make sure you reference it while driving the Cathedral Valley Loop. Thre are several side roads along the way and not having directions can easily have you lost in a very remote area. Now we are ready to hit the road and explore Cathedral Valley.
The Cathedral Valley Loop Road starts/ends at either the Harnet Road Crossing and the Cathedral Road crossing near Caineville. I recommend starting at the Harnett Road crossing as you can never predict the weather and I would prefer to cross the river before weather conditions change. Another personal reason for me is I like to start my day off early when its still cool and you haven’t driven too far. Also, give your vehicle a little time to cool down before entering the water. Just imagine yourself on a 90-degree day and just ran 10 miles to getting thrown into ice cold water. You or your vehicle won’t like it very much and today you will be depending on your vehicle to take care of you too. This also gives you a little time to scout out the crossing before starting this epic journey! Once you have crossed the river you will continue on a sandy road for a while before coming up to the Bentonite Hills approximately 9 miles into your trip. This area is awe-inspiring and feels like you are on another planet!
While driving this road we also ran across this old abandoned truck beside the road. It captured everyone’s attention and I immediately had to hop out of the vehicle and photograph it! We continued to the Lower and Upper South Desert Overlooks. Both offered incredible views! I can still vividly remember taking a short walk to the Upper South Desert Overlook and just starring out into the expanse. I sat on the edge of the cliff and felt like I was having my very own “Lion King Moment” starring out over my kingdom of the Upper South Desert! I am adding the photo but sometimes photos can’s capture the feeling of vastness. It’s a moment that I will always remember. After leaving the Upper South Desert you will come up to the Harnet Junction. Make sure to go to Cathedral Road.
The Cathedral Valley Campground will be on your left. This primitive 6 site campground will definitely provide you with solitude! Don’t expect the creature comforts of home here. You will have a place for a tent, a vault toilet, a picnic table, fire grate and incredible views of monoliths just NorthEast of the campground! The campground is open year-round but it is at 7000′ in elevation and can be impossible to get to during the winter and bad weather. The best part is that this campground is free to those who are up for the adventure.
Shortly after passing the campground you will descend down a steep portion and down into some of the most beautiful monoliths imaginable.
Park Ranger John Pro Tip: Very few visitors actually camp at the Cathedral Vally Campground. Those who do will be treated to something truly special. The monoliths will start to glow red as sunset approaches! Match this with some of the bluest skies you will ever see and you are in for a magical experience!
The next stop is the Gypsum Sinkhole. This 200′ deep and almost 50′ wide sinkhole is worth a visit but hard to photograph. Now its time to head into Lower Cathedral Valley towards two of the best-known Monoliths; Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. These monoliths have become one some the iconic views of the American Southwest and are the highlight to many visitors to the area. This is for good reason as these 400-foot rocks demand your attention! After getting your last views of these incredible monoliths it is time to head back. You will have another 15 miles of driving through the Caineville Wash before getting back to Highway 24 near the town of Caineville.
I could have added more but realistically it was already getting sunset when we reached the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. We still had a nice drive to get back to camp and everyone was exhausted from a long day. A big part of the fatigue was from sensory overload. I’m sure the hot temperatures and intense sun wore us down too. The great news is that this is only one part of Capitol Reef National Park to explore.
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