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  • Writer's pictureChasingBuffaloesandBeyond

How to Explore Capitol Reef's Cathedral Valley

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

Located in South Central Utah along a wrinkle in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah's true gems. Filled with colorful rocks, sandstone cliffs, canyons, domes, monoliths, natural arch bridges and some of the most stunning scenery you will find anywhere in Utah. Capitol Reef National Park is named for the white 'capitol' dome formations that resemble the domes you often see on state 'capitol' buildings and 'reef' comes from the term that refers to rocky harsh landscapes that are hard to cross just as a 'reef' on the ocean is a barrier to crossing. For those looking to get away from it all, spend a day exploring the lesser known, less visited northern district of the park known as Cathedral Valley. The unpaved road thru the Cathedral Valley requires a high clearance vehicle and you will also have to fjord a river - yep that's right - you have to drive your vehicle thru a river to reach this stunning part of Capitol Reef National Park. Exploring the Cathedral Valley will provide you with an adventure you won't soon forget!

Family of three takes a selfie with the giant sandstone monoliths found in Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park.
Exploring the remote Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park

Conditions along the road change based on recent or current weather conditions and it's advised that you check in with the Visitor Center regarding the conditions of the road and the depth of the river you will need to cross. The 58 mile loop through the Cathedral Valley includes numerous overlooks and a few short hikes and will take a full day - so plan accordingly. As the least visited area of Capitol Reef National Park, you will see very few people during your exploration through the Cathedral Valley district - so make sure you well prepared with plenty of food, water and even supplies to dig out your vehicle if you get stuck in the sand - a shovel or even cardboard is highly recommended in the event you do get stuck! For us, we did come across a stuck vehicle and almost got stuck ourselves in the drifting sand that was over a foot deep in some areas! Yep - it was an adventure we won't forget!

TIP - Make sure and drive the Cathedral Valley loop in a clockwise direction. This will make the river crossing be at the beginning of your trip - that will you don't drive the entire way only to find out that you can't make it across the river!

A section of the sand covered roads found in the Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park.
A section of the sand covered roads found in the Cathedral Valley


Crossing the River

Bentonite Hills

Lower South Desert Overlook

Upper South Desert Overlook

Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

Gypsum Sinkhole

Temples of the Sun & Moon



To start your adventure - from Hwy 24 turn left onto Hartnet Road. Drive for about half a mile and take the second left that will take down to the Fremont River crossing. Upon reaching the river - get out and scope out the river. The water here usually fluctuates between 8-16 inches of water and water seems to be shallowest along the right hand bank of the river. To cross, drive down about 100 yards along the right hand side of the river before crossing to your left to exit the river. Phew - what an experience! It's not everyday you get to drive your vehicle across a river!

Father and son stand along the Fremont River.
Getting ready to drive our car across the Fremont River to begin the Cathedral Valley Loop drive



Once you have crossed the river, follow the road for about 8 miles and you will come across the area known as the Bentonite Hills. If you want to know what it's like to visit Mars - this is it - the Bentonite Hills are like nowhere we've ever visited. In fact, there is actually a Mars Research Station located within the Bentonite Hills as the landscape is so similar to what you'd find on Mars! To add to the unique landscape was the fact that we were completely smoked in from nearby wildfires during our day exploring the Cathedral Valley - making the landscape seem even more space-like!

Mars like landscape of the Bentonite Hills in Utah.
Mars like landscape of the Bentonite Hills



Continuing on, look for a side spur road that takes you to the Lower South Desert Overlook. At the end of the side spur road you will come to the parking lot where a short trail (0.5 miles roundtrip) leads you to your first views of the stunning South Desert in Capitol Reef National Park. The main large rock structure right in front of you is named Jailhouse Rock and the views out over the South Desert are simply amazing! Even on a smoke filled day - the views did not disappoint!



For more amazing views - our next stop was at the Upper South Desert Overlook. Another quick 0.5 mile roundtrip walk will take you to the edge of the cliff providing unending views over the South Desert.

Looking out over the South Desert of Utah from the Upper South Desert Overlook.
Even on a smoke-filled day - the views from the Upper South Desert Overlook were amazing!



As you drive along the Cathedral Valley Loop - look for the next spur road on the right hand side - this will take you to the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook. Here you will come across the iconic sandstone monoliths that the Cathedral Valley was named for - early explorers of the region thought that the formations resembled cathedrals and the name stuck - Cathedral Valley!

Looking out from the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook.
From the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook you are rewarded to a stunning view.



Back on the main road, the Cathedral Valley drive will follow some switchbacks and drop down into the valley that will take you right along side the giant cathedral like formations that you were viewing from the previous stop at the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook - continue on and your next stop will be a the Gypsum Sinkhole. At the next side spur road on your right hand, drive to the end and you will come to the quick walk to the Gypsum Sinkhole. This giant hole was formed by groundwater dissolving a gypsum plug leaving behind this hole 200 feet deep and 50 feet wide.

Mother and son stand along the edge of the deep Gypsum Sinkhole found in Capitol Reef National Park.
Looking down into the abyss!



The last area to visit within the Cathedral Valley district is the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Another spur road to your right will take you down a one mile road to view the Temples of the Sun and Moon. This was one of our favorite areas to visit! These giant sandstone formations are absolutely amazing! Even on our smoke filled day - we had a blast viewing these unique sandstone formations - maybe someday we'll go back and visit again so we can see the area on a sunny, blue sky day! From here, continue along the Cathedral Valley Loop until you reach the pavement and return back to Hwy 24.


Interested in planning your own trip to Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park? Below is our summarized itinerary for you to follow or adjust to your own preferences. ENJOY!

One Day in Cathedral Valley: Drive out to Cathedral Valley District: 58 mile scenic drive: Lower South Desert Overlook (0.5 miles roundtrip), Upper South Desert Overlook (0.4 miles roundtrip), Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook (0.2 miles roundtrip), Gypsum Sinkhole, Temple of the Moon, Temple of the Sun - (need to double check road conditions before going, will need to cross a river with vehicle, drive the loop clockwise/river first). Plan on 6-8 hours for drive.

Looking for more ideas on where to go and what to do within Capitol Reef National Park? With so much to explore in this park, we spent three amazing days adventuring thru this amazing National Park. To read my full blog on exploring Capitol Reef National Park, Click Here.

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