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Drive the Cathedral Valley Loop Scenic in Capitol Reef National Park – Ultimate Guide

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Last Updated on May 27, 2024 by Sarah Puckett

If a road trip on the Cathedral Valley Loop scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah is on your bucket list, we’ve got the stop-by-stop guide you need to plan your trip!

This 67-mile route showcases stunning rock formations, including the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon and the colorful Bentonite Hills.

This otherworldly landscape has been on our bucket list for years. We actually attempted to do the Cathedral Valley Drive TWICE previously but it wasn’t until our fourth trip to Capitol Reef National Park that we made it. The first time we attempted to drive the Cathedral Valley Loop, we didn’t have the right vehicle to cross the Fremont River, the first obstacle on the drive. The second time, the water was too high for us to feel comfortable crossing in our bulky 4×4 high-clearance van. This time, however, we, and our van (and our cat, Mara!), made it through the river crossing!

This ultimate guide to the Cathedral Valley Loop has detailed information and mile markers for each noteworthy stop on the route, descriptions for each hiking trail in Cathedral Valley, and practical information (like where are the nearest gas stations?) that will prepare for you a bucket list adventure in Capitol Reef National Park! Keep reading for everything you need to know about driving the Cathedral Valley Loop!

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.

Temple of the Sun and Moon Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef National Park
Temple of the Sun and Moon in Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park

Table of Contents

Highlights of Cathedral Valley Loop

There are over a dozen worthwhile stops on the Cathedral Valley Loop, but these are the top highlights of this scenic drive.

The Temples of the Sun and Moon

The Temples of the Sun and Moon consist of two towering sandstone monoliths that stand side-by-side, reaching up towards the sky, towering over 400 and 200 feet above the valley floor, respectively.

But how did these incredible formations come to be? The answer lies in millions of years of geologic activity.

The Temples of the Sun and Moon were formed through a process known as differential erosion. Over time, wind and water worked together to wear away at softer layers of rock while leaving harder layers intact. This created steep cliffs, deep canyons, and mesas with unique shapes.

In addition to this ongoing process, seismic activity also played a role in shaping Cathedral Valley. Earthquakes caused fractures in some areas while pushing up others, resulting in dramatic changes over time.

Sarah and Tim at Temples of the Sun and Moon Cathedral Valley
Temples of the Sun and Moon Cathedral Valley

The Bentonite Hills

The Bentonite Hills in Cathedral Valley are a stunning geological feature made up of colorful layers of bentonite clay that have been eroded by wind and water over millions of years, creating a surreal landscape that is unlike any other.

The formation of the Bentonite Hills began around 35 million years ago when volcanic eruptions covered large areas with ash. Over time, this ash was compacted into layers that were then covered by sedimentary rocks like sandstone and shale.

As the earth’s crust shifted and eroded over millions of years, these sedimentary rocks were exposed to wind and water erosion which gradually removed the softer materials leaving behind the harder bentonite layers. This created the unique formations we see today – towering hills with vibrant colors ranging from white to pink to reddish-brown.

Tim at Bentonite Hills Cathedral Valley
Bentonite Hills in Cathedral Valley

Glass Mountain

One of the most breathtaking features of Cathedral Valley is the Glass Mountain, which rises up from the desert floor like a shimmering jewel.

The Glass Mountain is composed primarily of gypsum crystals that have been deposited over millions of years. Gypsum is a soft mineral that dissolves easily in water, and it was formed through the evaporation of ancient inland seas and shallow lakes.

As water evaporated from these bodies of water over time, it left behind layers of sediment that eventually hardened into rock formations. The gypsum crystals were then formed when underground springs brought hot mineral-rich waters to the surface and mixed with cool groundwater. As the water cooled and evaporated, it left behind layers upon layers of pure white gypsum.

Over time, erosion carved away at the surrounding rock layers until only the towering Glass Mountain remained. The mountain’s unique composition makes it appear almost translucent in certain light conditions – hence its name.

Glass Mountain and Temples of the Sun and Moon
Glass Mountain and Temples of the Sun and Moon

Hikes on the Cathedral Valley Loop

There are several short hikes you can do in Cathedral Valley. Be sure to bring plenty of water and salty snacks with you when hiking in Cathedral Valley, as there is minimal shade and temperatures can be hot even in fall and spring.

1. Lower South Desert Overlook

  • Distance: 0.5 miles
  • Elevation: n/a
  • AllTrails Link: n/a

This short hike leads to views of Jailhouse Rock and the Lower South Desert.

Lower South Desert Overlook
Lower South Desert Overlook

2. Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook

The Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook hike in Capitol Reef National Park provides a unique perspective, allowing hikers to witness these magnificent monoliths from an elevated vantage point. This trail begins with a wooden sign indicating the start of the route. Following a faint path to the north, hikers traverse a brushy flat before ascending a short but steep section that leads to the rim of a saddle. From there, panoramic views of Lower Cathedral Valley to the north unfold, offering a captivating experience of the surrounding natural beauty.

3. Upper South Desert Overlook Trail

This short path provides panoramic views of the South Desert flanked by cliffs and the Henry Mountains. This is a great, easy walk for excellent views.

4. Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

This short trail leads to excellent views of Upper Cathedral Valley. The monoliths that lay before you lined out across the valley below are called the Cathedrals, hence the name of the Cathedral Valley Loop drive.

Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook
Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

5. Morrell Cabin Trail

The Lesley Morrell’s Cabin Hike is a short and historically significant trail. The hike begins at the base of a series of steep and rocky switchbacks. Following an old road for 0.2 miles (0.3 km), hikers will reach Lesley Morrell’s historic cabin, which served as a seasonal camp for local cowboys from the 1930s until 1970. This cabin holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

6. Cathedrals Trail

The Cathedrals Hike in Capitol Reef National Park offers a scenic 2.5-mile (3.9 km) out-and-back trail that runs parallel to a striking line of monoliths known as the Cathedrals. The trail begins with a short but steep ascent. It then transitions into a relatively level walk along a gentle ridge to the west. The hike culminates with a small hill at the trail’s end, offering hikers a panoramic view of the magnificent Cathedrals and Upper Cathedral Valley.

Cathedrals Trail in Capitol Reef National Park
Cathedrals Trail in Capitol Reef National Park

7. Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock Route

The Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock Route begins at the Lower South Desert Overlook trailhead and allows you to get up close with to the monoliths. To reach Temple Rock, continue on the switchbacking track until it vanishes along the valley floor. From there, follow a faint single track around the north side of Jailhouse Rock, traversing the South Desert until it rejoins the road near a low passage between volcanic dikes. Ascending the dike on the left rewards hikers with a vantage point to view the eroded monolith of Temple Rock, made of Entrada sandstone.

Cathedral Valley Loop Scenic Drive Stop-by-Stop

We’ve broken down all the notable stops along the Cathedral Valley Loop drive and included mile markers to make it easy to follow. Set your odometer to 0 when you get to the Fremont River Crossing and follow the mile markers as described below from there!

Cathedral Valley Loop Scenic Drive

Want these locations in an easy-to-use Google Map? Check out our interactive map that has all of these locations pinned so you can easily access each location and all of the information about it at your fingertips! >>> Get the Cathedral Valley Map!

1. Fremont River Ford (Mile 0)

Your Cathedral Valley Loop driving adventure starts at mile marker 91 on Highway 24 when you leave the pavement behind and cross the Fremont River. 

You will definitely need 4×4 and high clearance to drive the Cathedral Valley Loop, and the Fremont River crossing is one of the reasons why. 

The river is usually passable but may be impassable during spring runoff or after a big rain storm. Water levels are usually 8-16 inches deep. 

When you enter the ford, turn immediately right. Stay on the right half of the river, which is usually shallower. In about 100 feet, make a sharp left onto the bank. 

2. Blue Flats (Mile 3.5)

After about 3 miles, the landscape opens up to a valley known as Blue Flats. If you look at the rocks around the valley, you’ll notice the layers are tilted. Geologists call this a syncline, and it’s the same phenomenon that created the Waterpocket Fold for which Capitol Reef National Park is famous.

Blue Flats Cathedral Valley Loop
Blue Flats

3. BLM Road 0826 Junction Oasis (Mile 6)

You’ll know you’ve arrived at the junction of Hartnet Road and BLM Road 0826 when you see the rusted-out drilling truck. Ranchers created this artificial oasis as a water supply for their cattle. Don’t drink this water, though – it’s untreated. 

4. Bentonite Hills (Mile 8.5)

The Bentonite Hills are one of our favorite geologic wonders of Capitol Reef National Park because of their colorful stripes. You can think of these as Utah’s very own rainbow hills. 

Geologically, what you’re looking at here is the Brushy Basin Layer of the Morrison Formation. What this means is that this clay soil originated from volcanic ash mud about 150 million years ago. 

The Bentonite clay becomes very sticky and goopy when wet, making travel on foot or by car basically impossible. So, you should avoid the Bentonite Hills when wet or stormy weather is forecasted. 

5. Lower South Desert Overlook (Mile 15)

The Lower South Desert Overlook is reached by a very short walk from the parking area, which is located on a 1.2-mile-long spur road. The hike is about a half-mile round trip to a scenic view over the South Desert. 

To the west, you’ll see Jailhouse Rock, a large Entrada Sandstone monolith, which, for perspective, is standing about 520 feet above the valley floor. 

6. Ackland Spring (Mile 22)

You may notice a trickle of water around this area. This is Ackland Spring, a rare source of water in the area. This was also an area where cattle access drinking water, but again, you shouldn’t drink it without purification. 

7. Upper South Desert Overlook (Mile 29)

Another short spur road leads to a parking area and trailhead for a half-mile round-trip walk to the Upper South Desert Overlook. At this overlook, you will see the same valley you saw at the Lower South Desert Overlook (Mile 15), but from a different direction and vantage point.

8. Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook Parking (Mile 30)

A rough 0.4-mile spur road leads to the parking area for another of our favorite Cathedral Valley viewpoints: Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook. We love the view of the Entrada Sandstone monolith wall towering above the valley floor. 

9. Cathedral Junction and Volcanic Geology Stop (Mile 36)

Cathedral Junction, where Hartnet Road meets Baker Ranch Road, is a great spot to see evidence of ancient volcanic activity. Three to six million years ago, bubbling lava (molten magma) pushed up from beneath the lower rock layers. Eventually, they hardened into the vertical spires you see today, known as dikes, as well as horizontal sills and black lava plugs. 

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef National Park
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef National Park

10. Gypsum Sinkhole (Mile 37.1)

The Gypsum Sinkhole is one of the most unique geological sites on the Cathedral Valley Loop Road. This area was once an ancient sea, and when it evaporated, it left behind deposits of gypsum. Over time the gypsum was buried beneath overlying rock layers. In a push-pull of pressure between the layers, a large void was formed to create a gypsum dome. When the layers of rock collapsed, the sinkhole was exposed. 

11. Glass Mountain (Mile 48.9)

Don’t miss Glass Mountain, an impressive mound of selenite crystals near the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Selenite, also known as moonstone, is a crystalline form of gypsum. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg, with even more selenite underground. Note that it is against the law to collect or damage the crystals. 

12. Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon (Mile 49.6)

The Temples of the Sun and Moon are the highlight of the Cathedral Valley Loop drive. The Temple of the Moon is 265 feet tall, and the Temple of the Sun is 422 feet tall. This is a great place for photography, especially during golden hour!

Temples of the Sun and Moon Cathedral Valley
Temples of the Sun and Moon Cathedral Valley

13. Bentonite Hills Part 2 (Mile 60)

The last stretch of the dirt 4×4 Cathedral Valley Loop road is a rough traverse through a second area of Bentonite Hills. This is one of the roughest parts of the drive in our experience. This area is also very photogenic, so be sure to stop for photos!

14. End of Cathedral Valley Loop (Mile 67)

Welcome back to the pavement! From here, you can turn right to head back towards the park and officially complete the loop, or turn left to head towards Hanksville and, eventually, Moab. 

Frequently Asked Questions About the Cathedral Valley Loop Scenic Drive

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef National Park
Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park

How do I get to Cathedral Valley?

The Cathedral Valley Loop scenic drive is located in the northern part of Capitol Reef National Park. The closest town is Torrey, Utah, which is about 15 miles south of the valley. There is no paved road that goes directly to Cathedral Valley. To get there, you will need to take Highway 24 north to Cathedral Valley Road through Capitol Reef National Park

Another way you can get to Cathedral Valley is through Fishlake National Forest via Polk Creek Road, but note that this road may be impassable in winter due to snow.

Capitol Reef National Park Entrance Fees

There is no entrance gate at Capitol Reef National Park, so to pay for your entrance fee, you should stop at the visitor center when you arrive. Alternatively, you can buy your pass online and skip lines to pay fees when you arrive!

The entrance fees for Capitol Reef National Park are as follows:

  • Private Vehicles: $20 for a 7-day pass, which covers all occupants of a private vehicle.
  • Motorcycles: $15 for a 7-day pass, which includes the rider and passengers.
  • Per Person: For visitors entering the park on foot, bicycle, or non-commercial organized groups, the fee is $10 per person for a 7-day pass.
  • Annual Pass: The Capitol Reef National Park Annual Pass costs $35 and provides unlimited entry to the park for one year from the month of purchase.

National Parks Pass

You can also use annual national park passes like America the Beautiful National Park Pass for entry to the park at no additional cost. 

The America the Beautiful National Park Pass is a must-have for avid outdoor enthusiasts and travelers alike. With this pass, you gain access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and more, across the United States.

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America The Beautiful National Parks Pass at REI

What are the vehicle requirements for driving the Cathedral Valley Loop?

The Cathedral Valley Loop consists of rugged and unpaved roads, and we strongly recommend you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the loop. The road conditions can be rough, especially after inclement weather, and a high-clearance vehicle provides better clearance over rocks and other obstacles. While a 4×4 isn’t “required” we don’t think it’s a good idea to try it without it. At a minimum, you need high clearance.

Sprinter Van in Cathedral Valley
Sophie Sprinter did great on the 4×4 Cathedral Valley drive!

How long does it take to drive the Cathedral Valley Loop?

Allow 6-8 hours to complete the driving route, and add more time if you plan on doing several of the hikes on the route.

How do I find current road/weather conditions?

For information about current road conditions on the Cathedral Valley loop, check in at the Visitor Center, or call 435-425-3791. Press #1 for information, and then #3 for weather conditions or #4 for current road conditions.

Where are the nearest gas stations to Cathedral Valley?

The closest gas stations are in Torrey, to the west of the park, and Hanksville to the east. Capitol Reef National Park is very remote, and Cathedral Valley is even more so. It’s imperative to make sure you have a full tank of fuel so you don’t get stranded!

Sprinter Van in Cathedral Valley
Our Sprinter Van in Cathedral Valley

What is the best time of year to visit Cathedral Valley?

The best time to visit Cathedral Valley is during the spring or fall when the weather is mild. The summer months can be hot and dry, and the winter months can be cold and snowy.

What are the camping options in Cathedral Valley?

There is a small campground in Cathedral Valley that can accommodate up to 20 people. The campground has flush toilets and drinking water, but no showers. There are also a few dispersed camping areas in the valley. You can camp on BLM land in Cathedral Valley, or in the Cathedral Valley Campground within Capitol Reef National Park Boundaries.

What are the wildlife viewing opportunities in Cathedral Valley?

Cathedral Valley is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and lizards. There is also a good chance of seeing raptors, such as hawks and eagles.

How was Cathedral Valley Formed?

Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park was formed through millions of years of geological processes. The area was once underwater, and over time, sediment layers accumulated. Tectonic forces created the Waterpocket Fold, a massive uplifted rock formation. Wind and water erosion sculpted the rock layers, shaping the majestic cliffs, canyons, and arches that grace Cathedral Valley. Today, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of nature and offers a glimpse into Earth’s ancient history.

Temples of the Sun and Moon Cathedral Valley
Temple of the Sun

Safety Precautions to Take in Cathedral Valley

  • Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks, as there are no facilities in the valley.
  • Do not approach any wildlife.
  • We recommend traveling with a satellite emergency communication device like Garmin InReach. The iPhone 14 also has an emergency communication feature. Since there is no cell phone service in Cathedral Valley, you’ll be glad you have this if you need to call for help!
  • The Cathedral Valley Loop is a rough 4×4 road. Make sure your vehicle is high-clearance and that you are comfortable and capable of driving off-road. It’s also important to have a spare tire on board and know how to change it if needed.

How Can I Practice Leave No Trace at Cathedral Valley?

  • Plan ahead and prepare: This means knowing the park’s regulations and restrictions, as well as the weather conditions and the terrain you will be hiking in. It also means packing the proper gear and supplies and being aware of your own limitations.
  • Stay on the trail: This helps to protect the park’s fragile plants and soils. If you must leave the trail, be sure to tread lightly and leave no trace of your passage.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash, including toilet paper. Do not bury your waste, as this can contaminate groundwater.
  • Leave what you find: This includes rocks, plants, and artifacts. Taking anything from the park is illegal and harmful to the environment.
  • Minimize campfire impacts: If you build a campfire, be sure to do so in a designated fire ring and to completely extinguish the fire before leaving.
  • Respect wildlife: Do not approach or feed any wildlife. This can be dangerous for both you and the animal.
  • Be considerate of other visitors: Be respectful of other visitors’ space and privacy. Keep noise levels down, and do not litter.
  • Have a bathroom plan: The only place with toilets in Cathedral Valley is the Cathedral Valley Campground. Bring a plastic trash bag and toilet paper so you’re prepared if nature calls!
  • Don’t bust the crust: Biological soil may just look like blobby black rocks, but this dark crust is actually biological soil and plays an important role in the desert ecosystem. Biological soil helps control erosion by holding soil into place and providing nutrients. It is also incredibly fragile and takes 50 years to recover after a mere footprint. For this reason, please stay on existing trails.
Landscapes on Cathedral Valley Loop Road

What Should I Pack for Cathedral Valley?

Check out our detailed blog post with the ultimate national park packing list, and sign up for our mailing list to get a free printable national park packing list PDF!

Sarah and Tim at Ooh Aah Point In grand canyon national park

Stuck in a packing quandary?

Check out our ultimate national park packing list!

Final Thoughts on the Cathedral Valley Loop Scenic Drive

If you have a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle, you absolutely must not miss the Cathedral Valley Loop scenic drive on your Utah road trip! This is such a remote and otherworldly area of Capitol Reef National Park that you are sure to have a memorable experience in the heart of Utah’s desert.

Be sure to spend some time exploring the other areas of Capitol Reef National Park. To help you plan, here are the best things to do.

And, don’t forget to snag the interactive Cathedral Valley map so you have everything you need to know right at your fingertips! >>>Get the Cathedral Valley Map here.

PS: Did you know we also have a 7-day itinerary map that covers ALL FIVE Utah National Parks? That’s Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. >>>Check out the Utah National Explorer Map here.

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