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How to Visit the Bentonite Hills in Utah

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If you’ve ever wanted to visit Mars, then the Bentonite Hills in Utah need to be on your bucket list! Also called the Rainbow Mountains of Utah, this strange and beautiful geological wonder near Hanksville lives up to its name!

Considered one of the best off-road destinations in the United States, the Bentonite Hills are one of the most beautiful and otherworldly sights we’ve seen.

In this guide to visiting the Bentonite Hills, we cover everything you need to know about how to find them, what to bring, and cool destinations nearby to extend your trip!

Follow the seven Leave No Trace principles: plan your hike in advance, stick to designated trails, carry out all your belongings, dispose of waste properly, leave natural areas untouched, minimize the impact of campfires, show consideration for fellow hikers, and avoid approaching or feeding wildlife.

What are the Bentonite Hills?

Bentonite hills aka Utah’s Rainbow Mountains are colorful geographical features characterized by the presence of bentonite clay-rich soil. Bentonite is a type of clay composed primarily of montmorillonite, an absorbent aluminum phyllosilicate mineral formed from volcanic ash deposits over thousands to millions of years. These hills typically exhibit undulating shapes and can vary in color depending on the mineral composition of the clay and other environmental factors.

How were the Bentonite Hills formed?

The formation of bentonite hills begins with volcanic eruptions that eject fine volcanic ash into the atmosphere. Over time, this ash settles on the Earth’s surface and undergoes a process called diagenesis, where it is altered by physical and chemical processes such as compaction, hydration, and mineral alteration. These processes result in the formation of bentonite clay deposits.

As the bentonite clay deposits accumulate, they can form layers or lenses within the soil. In areas where these deposits are prevalent and have been exposed to erosion over time, bentonite hills can emerge. The distinctive appearance of these hills is often due to the unique properties of bentonite clay, including its high absorbency and tendency to swell when in contact with water.

Are the Bentonite Hills Really that Colorful?

The Bentonite Hills really are that colorful IF you visit at the right time! Golden hour (the hour before sunset or after sunrise) and blue hour (after sunset and before sunrise) are the best times to see the Bentonite Hills in their colorful glory.

If you can’t time it right for sunrise or sunset, the next best option would be an overcast day with enough cloud cover to bring out the blues in the hills. Just be cautious about the weather forecast, since the dirt roads turn to sloppy clay in the rain.

If you go during midday, the Bentonite Hills will have more of a rusty brown and tan color.

Bentonite Hills in Cathedral Valley

Are the Bentonite Hills Worth Visiting?

If you visit during midday, you’ll probably be underwhelmed since you can’t really see the colors in that lighting. Additionally, the best views of the hills are from an above aerial perspective, and without a drone you won’t get the full impact.

So for us, YES the Bentonite Hills are worth visiting, if you can go during golden and blue hours and if you have a drone so you can see that aerial perspective looking down on all of the red, blue and purple rings on the hills.

Where can you see the Bentonite Hills?

Capitol Reef National Park

You can see Bentonite Hills on the scenic Cathedral Valley 4×4 drive in Capitol Reef National Park. The Cathedral Valley Drive is one of the most epic dirt roads you can drive in the southwest, and we highly recommend it for hiking and seeing unique rock formations like the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

Near Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS)

The most impressive Bentonite Hills are located near the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah.

And yes, the MDRS is exactly what it sounds like! Because the conditions of this region so closely mirror those of Mars, scientists use this as a base for research.

Visitors are not allowed on MDRS property, but just next to the boundary are the most beautiful and colorful hills we’ve ever seen!

Since the Bentonite Hills near the MDRS are the ones most people are thinking of when talking about Utah’s rainbow mountains, that is what I will focus on in the rest of the post.

You can read more about the other Bentonite Hills in the Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef National Park here.

How do you get to the Bentonite Hills?

The Bentonite Hills are located near Hanksville, Utah. You can access them off of Highway 24. From Highway 24, head north on Cow Dung Road (yes, really). This is where you leave the pavement behind. Cow Dung Road is a dirt road.

After 3.2 miles on Cow Dung Road, you’ll see the Mars Desert Research Station entrance to your left. There are signs and gates, so you can’t miss it.

Continue on Cow Dung Road for just 1 more mile and you’ll arrive !

Bentonite Hills Map

Getting to Hanksville

From Salt Lake City

  • Distance: 230 miles
  • Time: 4 hours

The most direct route from Salt Lake City to Hanksville is via Interstate 15 South and then connecting to Interstate 70 West.

After about 8 miles on I-70 West, take exit 149 for UT 24.

From Moab

  • Distance: 110 miles
  • Time: 2 hours

Take 191-N to I-70 West. Then take exit 149 for UT 24.

From Las Vegas

  • Distance: 370 miles
  • Time: 6 Hours

Follow I-15 N to UT-20 E for 205 miles. Take exit 95 from I-15 N.

Continue on UT-20 East for 20.4 miles. Then, make a left onto US-89 North and proceed for 21.3 miles. Next, turn right onto UT-62 and drive for 12.4 miles.

Afterward, make a left onto UT-62 East and continue for 26.3 miles. Turn right onto Browns Lane and drive for 2.7 miles. Finally, make a right onto UT-24 East.

Do you need a 4WD to get to Bentonite Hills?

You need a high-clearance vehicle, preferably 4×4 / 4WD to get to the Bentonite Hills in Cathedral Valley.

Bentonite Hills in Cathedral Valley
Bentonite Hills in Cathedral Valley

But these aren’t as beautiful as the ones near the Mars Desert Research Station, which is on a dirt road that should be navigable by any vehicle in dry conditions.

I don’t recommend attempting to visit either location if there is rain in the forecast. The area can be prone to flash floods, and the roads are often impassable when wet.

Check the weather forecast before setting out for Bentonite Hills. You can also call the Bureau of Land Management at 435-425-3791, press 1 and then 4 for road conditions.

Bentonite Hills Tour

If you don’t want to worry about driving or finding the Bentonite Hills, you can hire a guide! Here are some recommended tours:

Best Time to Visit

Because the colors of the ashy bentonite clay look most vibrant during blue hour, right before sunrise or shortly after sunset are the best times to see the Bentonite Hills.

Can you Hike the Bentonite Hills?

There are no hiking trails at the Bentonite Hills, but you will see paths in the soil where others have walked. In the spirit of Leave No Trace, we advise not walking on the hills to preserve the fragile soil that makes it so beautiful. But, if you are going to walk on the hills, stick to already established paths to minimize your impact.

Tips for Taking Epic Photos of Bentonite Hills

  • Go during blue hour! I know I keep saying this but it really is the biggest factor in determining what colors you’ll see!
  • Bring a drone. The concentric circles of the bentonite hills look incredible from above, where you can really grasp the expanse of this landscape. Drones are allowed, but be mindful not to fly over the Mars Desert Research Station since drones are not permitted there.
  • Edit your photos in Lightroom. This can help you bring out the vibrancy of the colors.

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What to Bring

You can shop all our photography gear here!

Where to Stay


Hanksville is the closest town and has limited accommodations.

Check out this unique dome VRBO, located just 10 minutes away.


Caineville is another town nearby and like Hanksville, it is quite small and has few options. But, it’s only 12 minutes away.

The Cathedral Valley Inn is a great value and features views of the North Caineville Mesa.


Torrey has the most options for accommodations and is a great base if your Utah trip includes Capitol Reef National Park. On the downside, it is about an hour away. Still, it will have the most amenities and is a great base for exploring Capitol Reef and other destinations along Utah Route 24 like Lower Calf Creek Falls and Escalante.

Use the map below to search for hotels in Torrey, Utah!

What else is near Bentonite Hills?

There are so many amazing and unique sights in Hanksville. Here are our top recommendations!

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