Utah

Driving Utah’s Awe-Inspiring Cathedral Valley Loop

Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s famous Mighty 5 National Parks.  On a recent trip to Capitol Reef, I made it a point to explore the Park’s Cathedral Valley. Cathedral Valley is located in the remote north part of the Park, and is only accessible via a 58 mile loop of dirt road – the Cathedral Valley Loop. It is estimated that only 1% of Capitol Reef visitors ever see Cathedral Valley. 

After visiting Cathedral Valley myself, I believe it is one of the most beautiful spots in Utah. Hills of multi-colored volcanic bentonite clay, unspoiled vistas, giant sandstone monoliths, valleys circled by tall red variegated cliffs, all await those who do go.

If the road through Cathedral Valley was paved, I think it would be one of Utah’s most visited natural attractions.  As it is, a high-clearance 4X4 vehicle is absolutely required to make the trek. Consequently, few take the drive.

Here is my account of our day-long, bone-rattling, sometimes frustrating, yet awe-inspiring day, driving the 58-mile Cathedral Valley Loop.

A Jeep For The Day

After researching Cathedral Valley, I did not consider taking my own crossover SUV for even one moment..  When you first leave the highway to access the Cathedral Valley Loop road, you almost immediately have to ford a river.  This alone was reason enough for me to leave my own car behind.  I also read that the road could be rough.  My own car would never find out.

Instead, I rented a Jeep for the day in Torrey, the small town near the entrance to Capitol Reef.  Capitol Reef Jeep Rentals at the Thousand Lakes RV Park has two Jeeps available for daily rental.  This is the only company in the area that rents high-clearance 4x4s.  You can take guided Jeep tours of the Valley through other local tour companies, but I wanted to drive the Loop myself.  Clearly, with only two Jeeps available to rent in the whole area, you must plan ahead. The cost for the day, including the wise extra insurance I purchased, was $200. The staff was extremely nice.

Our rented Jeep along the Cathedral Valley Loop in the Bentonite Hills
Our Jeep Patriot along the Loop

A Rough Cathedral Valley Loop Road – Be Wise

Many many many times out on the Loop, I commented on how glad I was that I left my own SUV behind.  The river crossing was easy, but the road was much rougher and difficult than I expected.  Over half of the route is a truly bone-rattling washboard surface that usually kept us at speeds no faster than 15 mph.  At other times, the road was covered in jutting rocks.  And at other times, there were stretches of deep soft sand that made traction extremely difficult.  It would be very easy for the wrong kind of car to get stuck out there. 

As we stopped at the Highway 24 turnoff to take a picture, a smaller KIA crossover SUV passed us by and headed down the road.  I commented that they were crazy to cross the river in that car and expressed concern about how their day would go.  Turns out my concerns were well-founded.  More to come on that…..

The River – The Beginning of the Cathedral Valley Loop

The Cathedral Valley Loop is accessed off Highway 24, the main highway running the length of Capitol Reef National Park.  The turnoff is at mile marker 91 – about 22 miles east of Torrey. A sign for River Ford Cathedral Valley marks the start of the Loop.

The sign marking the beginning or the Cathedral Valley Loop along Highway 24

Shortly after taking this road, we approached the Fremont River.  The river is generally no deeper than a foot in late summer, but it’s not simply a matter of driving directly across from one side to the other.  We drove down the right shallower edge of the river for 100 feet or so, and then sharply turn across to the other side.  During times of rain, the river can be more difficult to cross and flash floods in the area are always a risk. Be aware of weather conditions before deciding to make the trek out to Cathedral Valley.

Contemplating the Fremont River Crossing at the start of the Cathedral Valley Loop
Getting Ready to Cross
Looking back across the Fremont river after crossing in our Jeep
Looking back across the Fremont after crossing

The Bentonite Stretch

It’s 27 miles from Highway 24 to Cathedral Valley.  But there is plenty to see along the way.  One of the major attractions in this section is the Bentonite Hills.  Bentonite clay is a multi-colored volcanic clay that is a major geological feature of this area.  Not long after fording the river, we drove past the first hills of Bentonite.  Mounds of purple, blue, orange, red, gray, white, all made for a surreal landscape.  But, this was just a taste of what was to come.

The first Bentonite Hills along the Cathedral Valley Loop
Bentonite Cliffs along the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park

Another landmark along this part of the Loop is an abandoned well along the side of the road.  Here, an old truck and mining rig sit in the white sand.  It’s makes for a great picture.

A colorful old truck along the Cathedral Valley Loop

Driving north now, we ultimately reached more extensive mounds of Bentonite.  The area is called the Bentonite Hills, and it truly looks like another planet!  

The Bentonite Hills near Capitol Reef National Park driving towards Cathedral Valley
The Bentonite Hills near Capitol Reef National Park driving towards Cathedral Valley
The Bentonite Hills near Capitol Reef National Park driving towards Cathedral Valley
The Cathedral Valley Loop road as it passes through the Bentonite Hills

No GPS, No Google Maps, No Jailhouse Rock

The next attractions along the loop are the sandstone monoliths called Jailhouse Rock and Temple Rock, located in an area called the South Desert.  This is a good time to mention that there is no cell service along the Cathedral Valley Loop.  No cell service meant no Google Maps.  I have become so dependent on Google Maps for navigation that I failed to study the paper maps of Cathedral Valley adequately ahead of time.  I didn’t realize that in order to reach these monoliths, I needed to turn down a side road marked Lower South Desert Overlook. When we arrived at that turnoff, we were hungry and decided to skip the Overlook and eat our packed lunch at Jailhouse Rock just ahead – as I passed what was the turnoff to Jailhouse Rock 🙁

After we had driven for awhile, and as our hungry stomachs rumbled louder (even louder than the tires over the washboard road), I stopped and reached for my paper map.  Dumb!  Closer inspection showed me that Jailhouse Rock was down the passed turnoff, not on the main road to Cathedral Valley like I thought.  Moral of the story – brush up on your paper map skills before driving the Loop! 

Since it was so slow-going on the road, turning back didn’t sound attractive. So, we slowly forged ahead to the next major landmark – the Upper South Desert Overlook.  

Upper South Desert Overlook

Shortly after leaving the Bentonite Hills, we had been working our way northwest, up to the top of a broad plateau.  To our left and below was the South Desert.  To our right and below was Cathedral Valley.  At this point though, we couldn’t see either valley. Just the bumpy road ahead….

The Cathedral Valley Loop road near the Upper South Desert Overlook

Our next stop, the Upper South Desert Overlook, sits near the far western edge of the plateau. Here, we parked and ate the sandwiches we had purchased and packed earlier in Torrey.  Rumbling stomaches satiated, we then hiked the short distance to the overlook itself.  We stood on the southern edge of this plateau, looking out across the unspoiled vista of the South Desert in Capitol Reef.  It’s a truly breathtaking sight.  Mrs. Thorough Tripper commented that the only thing that could make it more perfect would be herds of buffalo roaming in the valley below.  

The Upper South Desert Overlook in Capitol Reef National Park.  This is only accessed by driving the Cathedral Valley Loop road

We reached the Upper South Desert Overlook at 1 pm – a distance of 27 miles from Highway 24.  We had turned off Highway 24, crossing the river at 10:30am. Several stops to take pictures were made along the way, but obviously, travel along the Cathedral Valley Loop is slow.  I could usually drive no faster than 15 mph due to the bumpy conditions on the washboard road.  Certain rocky areas of road knocked me down to 5 mph.  Every once in a while, I could get up to 25 mph, but not often.  

Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

Just a short distance further along the road is the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook.  Here, after another short hike, we stood on the north edge of the plateau for our first glimpse of Cathedral Valley.  Looking down, we could see the giant sandstone monoliths that stand in the center of the valley, while also taking in the variegated red rock cliffs that surround these spectacular sandstone monuments. 

Looking across Cathedral Valley from the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

The trail ends on a long narrow outcropping for a pulse-pounding view of the valley below.  Regular readers know about my fear of heights, but regular readers also know that I can’t pass up a great view.  So with very shaky knees, I made my way out to the edge.  Didn’t look straight down – just out and across 🙂

Standing an a narrow plateau outcropping looking out over Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park

We left this overlook at 2pm.  We had 30 miles of the loop left to go, and we had to have our Jeep back to the rental company no later than 7:30.  Even at 15 mph, we had plenty of time, right?  What could go wrong?  Stay tuned…..

Down in Cathedral Valley

We followed the road as it zig-zagged from top of the plateau down into the north valley.  This is an especially difficult driving stretch.  Lots of rocks and surface irregularities made for very slow-going.  But the views out Cathedral Valley were spectacular! 

Looking out across Cathedral Valley while descending down in to the valley along the Cathedral Loop Road

Once down into Cathedral valley, we were awestruck with the surrounding beauty.  The valley is encircled with the red corrugated cliffs found throughout the Capitol Reef area. In the center are several tall sandstone monoliths and sandstone fins (thin free-standing walls) of various sizes.  I couldn’t help but stop repeatedly to take pictures. 

Sandstone monoliths in Cathedral Valley.  A Remote section of Capitol Reef National Park
The beautiful valley walls in Capitol Reef National Park's Cathedral Valley
Sandstone monoliths and fins in Utah's Cathedral Valley
Sandstone monoliths in Utah's Cathedral Valley. Part of Capitol Reef National Park

There are several trails in the area for exploring the valley, including one that takes you right past three of the larger central monoliths.  Unfortunately, we found that since the driving time was taking much longer than expected, we did not dare take the time to hike.  There is a campground in the area, and spending the night would be the best way to ensure plenty of time to explore. Either that or a much earlier start. 

At this point, I told Mrs. Thorough Tripper that our final stop would be The Pyramid of the Sun and Moon – two more monoliths several miles down the road – and I promised her that they would be spectacular. They are the most photographed monoliths in the area.  I was excited to photograph them myself, as I expected the Pyramids picture to be my Featured Image for this post.  Plus, I have visited and written about Mexico City’s Pyramid of the Sun and Moon on this blog, so visiting Utah’s natural versions seemed very necessary.  

We didn’t make it to Utah’s Pyramid of the Sun and Moon…..

The view while driving east in Cathedral Valley along the Cathedral Valley Loop
Driving East in Cathedral Valley toward the Pyramids

Stuck!!!

Remember the KIA?   We had caught glimpses of it through the day.  I continued to comment to Mrs. TT throughout our drive about my concern for possible damage to it.  As we drove east in the Cathedral Valley toward the Pyramids, we spotted a car stopped in the distance. As we got closer, we could see people outside the car trying to push it.  And as we got even closer, we could see it was the KIA!  It was stuck in a long patch of deep soft red sand!!

The five 20-something girls couldn’t have been nicer, but they also couldn’t have been in more trouble.  The KIA was high-centered on a long bar of sandstone with front and back wheels spinning in rutted soft sand.  Like I have mentioned a few times – a high-clearance 4×4 is required for this road! We all tried to push it forward and backward to no avail.  Tires spun without catching.  

And it was indeed a rental 🙁

Soon, another vehicle came along from behind. A truck.  We hoped they had towing lines and they did, but closer inspection showed no place to hook up to the KIA without causing significant damage the vehicle.  A second truck came along.  More people to help push.  Attempts were made to add traction at the base of the tires with large rocks and such, but still no luck. 

None of us had a cell signal, so a towing company could not be called.  Our only recourse was to drive off the road, around the stuck car, and take the girls to get help. No one felt good about leaving them there to wait for a tow, since there were no guarantees it would happen before dark.   Between the three vehicles, we were able to find seating for all 5 of them (gratefully they had masks and didn’t mind my open window – COVID times).  And we drove them out, leaving the stuck KIA behind.  

Stripped cliffs in Utah's Cathedral Valley
I didn’t take a picture of the stuck car out of respect for the girl’s difficult situation, but this was our view the whole time

A Warning from the National Park Service

So…. this a good time to show you this warning from the National Park Service website about driving in Cathedral Valley:  Foot and vehicle travel in the Cathedral Valley area is light, so be prepared for the unexpected.  If you have problems, help may not arrive for hours or even days, depending on the time of year.  Carry plenty of water, food, gas, adequate clothing, a shovel, and emergency supplies

And remember – a High Clearance 4×4 Vehicle!

The Pyramid of the Sun and Moon

Sadly, with rescued travelers in the back seat and the afternoon drawing to a close, we had no choice but drive past the turnoff for the Pyramids.  We’d spent well over an hour trying to dislodge the KIA and figuring out how to get our vehicles around it.  It was nearly 5pm at this point.  The best I could do was this picture from a distance.  

The Pyramid of the Sun and Moon from a distance in Cathedral Valley
Pyramid of the Sun on the right. Pyramid of the Moon the left.

The Final Stretch

It took another hour driving across extremely  rough washboard road, through more Bentonite formations,  before we reached the end of the unpaved Cathedral Valley Loop –  the very small town of Caineville on Highway 24.  We still had no cell service, but there was a motel with a landline. Fortunately the girls were able to arrange for a tow truck, and we bid the group goodbye at 6:15.

Bentonite Cliffs near Caineville Utah
Cliffs towards the end of the Loop. Notice the washboard ruts in the road

A 40-minute drive from Caineville to Torrey along Highway 24 remained.  Paved road never felt so smooth!  Our Jeep was due back at 7:30.  The rental company wisely required us to wash and vacuum it before bringing it back. And it was covered in red dirt – inside and out!  It took us 30 minutes at a Torrey carwash to make the Jeep presentable again.  We rolled into Capitol Reef Jeep Rental just a few minutes shy of 7:30.  What a day!

Final Thoughts and Tips

1.  Plan on a Rough Road – the road was much rougher than I expected.  Consequently, our speeds were much slower than expected. 

2.  Plan on a Long Day – so get an early start. There is so much to see along this route, and since the pace is slow, an early start is a must. We didn’t leave Torrey until 10.  I wish we would have left by 8. 

3. Camping is a Way to Really Soak it in – if you like to camp (I don’t!)

4.  Take a High-Clearance 4×4 vehicle –  this should be very obvious by now.  

5. Remember the National Park Service Warning – We witnessed a breakdown scenario first hand. Fortunately for those girls, it happened on a September Saturday when the road was a little busier. But Be Prepared. Even though we did’t get stuck ourselves, a stuck car did effect us. Fortunately we were in a spot where it was possible to get around them. Otherwise, who knows how the day would have finished.

6. But the Scenery is Absolutely Worth it!!!   It’s some of the best that I have ever seen in Utah!

7. Be Sure to See the Rest of Capitol Reef National Park – Cathedral Valley is awe-inspiring, but there is so much beauty in all of Capitol Reef. Click here to learn about all that Capitol Reef National Park has to offer.

If you would like to read about another epic Southern Utah adventure, then check out my post about Canyoneering a Slot Canyon near Zion NP.

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